In more than three decades of public service, Inslee has ascended to the highest ranks of Washington politics. Now, as he launches a campaign for the highest office in national politics, here's a look at how he got here.
Jay Inslee has been a part-time municipal prosecutor. He’s been a member of the state House. He was elected to the U.S. House. He’s lost a race for U.S. House. He’s lost a race for governor. He’s served seven more terms in the U.S. House, but from a different district, on the other side of the state. And he’s been elected governor, twice.
In more than three decades of public service, Inslee has slowly, at times haltingly, ascended to the highest ranks of Washington politics. Now, as he launches a campaign for the highest office in national politics, here’s a look at how he got here.
Born in Seattle, the oldest of three brothers, Inslee is a fifth-generation Washingtonian. His mother was a sales clerk at Sears, and his father was a high-school teacher, coach and counselor, ultimately becoming the Seattle Public Schools athletic director.
Inslee went to Ingraham High School, in North Seattle, where he was the starting quarterback on the football team, and a forward on the school’s state championship basketball team.
After graduating in 1969, Inslee went to Stanford University, but he withdrew after one year, saying he couldn’t afford it.
He moved back home, lived in his parents’ basement and worked waiting tables and driving a bulldozer, and enrolled at the University of Washington.
Inslee and his wife, Trudi, married in 1972, and he graduated from the UW the next year, with a degree in economics. He applied to law school at the UW, but he didn’t get in. He moved to Salem, Oregon, to attend the Willamette University College of Law, graduating in three years.
After law school, the Inslees moved to Selah, Yakima County, which at the time had about 3,500 residents. Inslee joined a small law firm — Peters, Schmalz, Leadon & Fowler — that had a contract with the city.
“The new guy always wound up prosecuting cases in Selah Municipal Court,” former partner Vern Fowler recalled in 2012.
Inslee prosecuted DUIs and domestic-violence cases, but he also developed a reputation as an aggressive trial lawyer. He sued a car dealer who fired a worker for refusing to take a polygraph. He sued Yakima County after a farmer complained government workers had damaged his irrigation system. He sued the state after a man tumbled over a bridge guardrail, which he argued should have been taller.
Inslee’s first move into politics was campaigning for a 1985 school bond to get a new public high school built in Selah. Three years later, he ran for office.
Inslee ran for the state House in 1988, taking on a conservative former mayor of Yakima in a Republican-leaning district. On several issues, Inslee ran to his opponent’s right: He pushed to use a forecasted budget surplus on a middle-class tax cut and accused his opponent of wanting to expand sales taxes. He spent many mornings holding a campaign sign on a street corner and pitched his message door-to-door.
He won by just over 3 percentage points.
“We recruited him to run, not thinking he had any chance,” former House Speaker Joe King said in 2012. “But he kept surprising us.”
He pushed bills to regulate steroid use in high-school sports and to require drivers to carry auto insurance.
He was re-elected in 1990 in a landslide.
U.S. House, electoral defeats
In 1992, the congressional seat in Inslee’s Eastern Washington district opened up when the Republican incumbent ran for governor. Inslee pounced, entering the race three months after saying he wouldn’t run for Congress. In the primary, he eked out a 1 percentage point victory over a favored state senator. In the general election he again won by just over 1 point, becoming the second Democrat to represent the 4th Congressional District since World War II.
He served only one term, swept out of office, along with 33 other incumbent Democrats — including four others from Washington — in the 1994 Republican wave. No Democrat has represented the district since.
Inslee has long pointed to his 1994 vote for a national assault-weapons ban as the reason for his defeat. Now an advocate for tighter gun regulations, he was less certain then. He was publicly undecided on the ban the day before the vote.
“I burned up the phone lines talking to a lot of people,” Inslee said at the time. “In the end, I just thought Congress has to show the gumption to stand up for our law-enforcement officers. It didn’t make sense to let them be outgunned on the streets.”
Inslee moved with his family to Bainbridge Island after the loss, and, a year later, announced a campaign for governor. He came in third in the 1996 Democratic primary, behind eventual winner Gary Locke and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. He returned to private law practice, and in 1997 President Bill Clinton appointed him regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing programs in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Washington.
U.S. House, redux
Inslee ran for Congress again in 1998, but this time in the much more liberal 1st District, covering suburbs north of Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula. He defeated Republican incumbent Rick White by 5 points, running in part on the same assault-weapons ban vote that had doomed his last congressional campaign on the other side of the state.
He was a reliable Democratic vote. He voted against authorizing war in Iraq and pushed, more than 15 years ago, for a major shift to cleaner energy sources.
He advocated, without success, for a “New Apollo Energy Project” that he said would “spur technological innovation that will reduce dependency on foreign oil and help meet the climate change challenge.”
He was re-elected six times. None of the races was close.
In 2011, Gov. Christine Gregoire announced she would not seek a third term, and she urged Inslee to run to succeed her. He did. After trailing in some early polls Inslee took a step that he almost certainly will not take as he runs for president — he quit his day job to focus on campaigning for a new job.
Inslee resigned from Congress in March 2012 to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. He won in November by 3 points, in a campaign in which he and his Republican opponent accused each other of wanting to raise taxes. In the campaign, Inslee pledged not to seek new taxes, but he quickly changed course in the face of a budget shortfall, proposing new taxes on capital gains, carbon emissions, cigarettes, bottled water and oil refineries.
As governor, Inslee has presided over a booming state economy, and he oversaw a new paid-family-leave law, a boost in the minimum wage and a years-in-the-making legislative solution to a lawsuit over public-school funding. But he’s also overseen a multitude of crises in the state’s mental-health system, including the federal decertification of the state’s largest psychiatric facility. And his efforts to pass a carbon tax have been stymied by the state Legislature, with voters twice saying no as well.
He was re-elected in 2016, by 9 points.