OLYMPIA — In a 111-year-old redbrick mansion tucked behind a temporarily deserted Capitol building, the man known for an obsession with battling climate change through public policy has become a hunter-gatherer of basic medical supplies.
Working largely from the official residence nowadays, Gov. Jay Inslee spends his time on the phone with a call list that’s a mash-up of capitalist titans, public health experts and health care manufacturers.
His preoccupation: to help Washington blunt the coronavirus for the duration by securing protective medical gear like masks and hand sanitizer, and testing equipment like swabs, vials and analytic capacity.
The governor in recent weeks has dialed executives of medical-manufacturing and lab companies like Roche and Quest Diagnostics seeking help to protect health care workers and conduct tens of thousands of daily tests likely needed to allow the state to reopen.
Inslee contrasted his new role with a remark by President Donald Trump on a call with governors. In late March, the president declared that the federal government was not a “shipping clerk” for the response to COVID-19 outbreaks.
“I have a different view than the president,” Inslee said in an in-person interview in his office at the Capitol earlier this month, where he sat more than 10 feet away from the reporter to maintain social distance.
The governor had just walked over from the official residence in a suit, and while outside sported a mask sent to him by a constituent.
“He said early that ‘we’re not a supply clerk,’ as if that’s a diminished role,” Inslee added. “Actually being quartermaster is the highest public role you can play right now.”
As he navigates a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Inslee’s role has shifted dramatically as he has tried to calm a state nervous over the outbreak as well as the economic fallout of social distancing that has led to a nearly unprecedented surge in unemployment. At the same time, he has been at the forefront in the political struggle with the White House over the role of the federal government and states in defining policy and procuring equipment to staunch the virus’ spread, making him a regular on Sunday morning talk shows and an increasing target of ire for those who think shutdown measures have gone too far.
Trump, who ignored Inslee’s presidential candidacy, has lately singled out the governor as “a snake” and “a nasty person.” The governor last week made national news, slamming Trump for “fomenting domestic rebellion” with tweets encouraging protests against stay-home orders.
Inslee had to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic before most governors, as the disease’s first major U.S. outbreak ripped through a Kirkland nursing home, killing 43. While Washington’s efforts appear to be slowing the spread, at least 13,319 people had been infected and 738 killed as of Saturday, according to state data.
Throughout the crisis, the second-term Democratic governor has faced an array of daunting problems. Shortages of testing kits are hampering the widespread testing needed to accurately measure the disease’s spread. Protesters are calling the governor’s shutdown order unconstitutional. Some business sectors are fuming at having to close. By later this week officials estimate nearly 1 million Washingtonians could be on unemployment.
And yet, Inslee’s toughest challenges may lie ahead.
Reopening a state amid a pandemic
Reopening Washington with the virus still active will be far more complicated than shutting the state down, said Judith Wasserheit, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health.
“Urban, rural, small restaurants, schools, health care facilities, these will all be slightly different,” said Wasserheit. “I think that’s a very complicated dance, it’s going to be more difficult than just saying, ‘OK, here across the state is a stay-home-stay-healthy order.'”
For weeks after the nation’s first-known case of COVID-19 was identified in Washington state on Jan. 21, Inslee, taking his cue from public-health officials, downplayed the dangers of the virus. Meanwhile, the state’s underfunded public-health infrastructure failed to detect and contain the unprecedented outbreak as it spread through communities.
Inslee also was slower than some other governors in issuing a stay-at-home order. California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the first such statewide shutdown March 19, a few days after San Francisco ordered a “shelter in place” for its residents, and several other states followed suit. While he canceled school and banned large gatherings, Inslee initially tried to avoid a stay-home mandate, pleading with the public to voluntarily adopt safe practices. But as infections continued to rise and crowds gathered despite public-health advice, Inslee issued his “stay home, stay healthy” order on March 23.
Inslee discussed the timing of his stay-at-home order with public-health experts who advised that such restrictions can’t be made too early, the governor said, before residents feel the need to take them seriously.
“If you do it too early, either people won’t take it seriously or they’ll get tired of it too soon and you won’t be able to maintain it,” he said. “So I know this sounds counterintuitive, but the experts I was taking advice from – and I believe in data, science and experts – and what they were telling me is, there’s kind of a magic moment.”
“I think the success of what we’ve done has suggested we might have hit it,” he added. “And I hope that that’s the case.”
Wasserheit praised Inslee’s leadership as having “saved countless lives” and described the governor as “really engaged” on a conference call she had with Inslee and others earlier this month to discuss testing.
But in shutting down the state for so long, Inslee has drawn increasing criticism from businesses and the Republican Party.
Top GOP lawmakers early on set aside their disagreements, supporting the governor’s efforts to prevent the virus from spreading. Lately, they’ve grown frustrated by the lack of a detailed plan to reopen the thousands of shuttered businesses that have frozen Washington’s economy.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm said the governor has not made a compelling argument why some seemingly low-risk activities — like online car sales, residential construction and outdoor recreation — were banned.
Wilcox warns the lack of details and a time frame for reopening could cause people to become even more suspicious of government — and to disregard the stay-at-home order. “He’s losing his mandate,” said Wilcox. “And he will soon lose public compliance.”
Despite the critiques, Inslee has remained steadfast on keeping the state shut in order to dampen the infection rate, even as other states — in some cases against public health guidelines and the advice of Trump — begin to reopen.
But Friday, Inslee announced a 30-point plan to allow some construction to restart, provided the companies adhere to strict rules governing distancing, the wearing of protective gear and have a supervisor on site expressly for coronavirus safety.
Polls have so far shown support for Inslee’s actions. An Elway Research poll of 405 registered Washington voters, conducted April 18-20, found 75% rating the governor’s coronavirus response as “satisfactory” or “good.” Just 21% rated him “unsatisfactory” or “poor.” The poll, conducted for the online news site Crosscut, reported 61% remain wary of reopening the economy too soon.
The politics of a pandemic
Inslee is asking voters this fall to make him Washington’s first three-term governor since Republican Dan Evans won a third term in 1972. With the COVID-19 outbreak — or at least the economic recovery — likely to last through fall, voters will be judging his response.
His Republican gubernatorial opponents have stepped up criticisms of the governor’s stay-at-home order, calling it overstepping and even tyrannical.
Initiative promoter Tim Eyman called Inslee’s restrictions “stay-home-and-starve” in a fundraising email to supporters, asking for $30 donations to his campaign. “By the end of the year, which will have caused more damage to people’s lives, livelihoods, and liberty: Jay Inslee or COVID-19?” he wrote in another email.
Eyman and other GOP gubernatorial candidates, including former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed and state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, joined a protest last weekend at the state Capitol, where more than 2,000 demonstrators, displaying “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and pro-Trump signs, largely disregarded social distancing guidelines and demanded Inslee reopen the state. Freed sued Inslee in federal court last week, arguing his ban on in-person church services and other spiritual gatherings violates the U.S. Constitution.
While he’s raised money for his reelection bid, Inslee hasn’t been holding public campaign events, and by his account and others, is concentrating on quashing the virus.
“Honestly, I think the governor, and rightfully so, remains really focused on how do we drive down disease rates,” said Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma. In her conversations with Inslee, “he really wants us to remain very focused on driving down the disease rate, because in the end that’s what’s going to help us be able to open things back up.”
For a governor who likes to get out and shake hands — he calls it “the greatest joy of the job” — that means spending hours on the phone.
Inslee’s schedule these past two months has been dominated by phone calls, meetings and videoconferences, according to a copy of his official calendar provided under a public-records request.
In addition to calls with Vice President Mike Pence, Inslee has checked in with other Trump administration officials, including Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
He’s spent hours on calls with city and county government leaders, Washington’s congressional delegation and state legislators. He’s spoken with labor union leaders, and business executives from companies including Boeing, Starbucks, Facebook and Microsoft.
And Inslee conducts one-on-one calls with other governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mike DeWine of Ohio. They share advice and discuss the need for more testing and protective equipment, Inslee said. Some governors ask Washington for tips on how nursing homes can prevent or mitigate outbreaks.
On March 27 alone, Inslee spoke for a half-hour with former Vice President Joe Biden — who has been interested in Washington’s response — and had a separate video talk with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and a phone call with Tesla’s Elon Musk.
The call with Musk was about potential ventilator production, according to Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk, and the discussion with Gates focused on the need for widespread testing and how Gates might help.
Social distancing at work
With the Capitol campus effectively closed, only a fraction of Inslee’s staff still appear at the office. The rest work remotely.
The in-person team generally includes Communications Director Tara Lee, General Counsel Kathryn Leathers, Chief of Staff David Postman and some others. The official calls generally begin at 7:45 a.m., when Inslee checks in with Postman and Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly Wicker.
Postman’s day starts earlier, around 6:30 a.m., as he wades through an hour’s worth of emails. “I’ve had so many emails I’ve had to get Wa Tech to expand my inbox capacity,” he said, referring to the state’s IT agency.
Then, Postman gets on an 8:15 a.m. call with the state’s emergency response leaders and some members of the Cabinet — like Department of Health Secretary John Wiesman — to discuss the day and any directives from the governor.
Inslee mostly stays in the governor’s mansion, except for when he needs the technology of the office’s conference room to hold news conferences on the outbreak.
Those events, streamed on TVW.org, include remarks by the governor, and often appearances by members of his cabinet. Inslee ends them with his virus-themed farewell: “Wash your hands.”
Building trades battle
The governor’s frequent televised updates have not quashed questions or anger from some over Washington’s handling of the outbreak, particularly about which industries have been allowed to remain open under the stay-home order.
Among Inslee’s most-questioned decisions was his insistence on shutting down residential construction as nonessential — a step taken by only five other states, according to the National Association of Homebuilders. Meanwhile, some public-works projects had continued under the governor’s order.
Homebuilders and some trade unions had put together detailed proposals for Inslee, showing how they could work at construction sites while maintaining social distancing requirements.
All 21 state Senate Republicans asked Inslee in a late-March letter to open up residential construction, and Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, pointed to Inslee’s announcement that he’d coordinate with California and Oregon on reopening the economy, noting those states had not halted residential construction. But the governor maintained the shutdown, leaving industry leaders chafing at what they viewed as an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound to the state economy.
Some builders have even reported widespread problems with construction sites getting pillaged during the lull, with thieves ripping out water heaters, wiring and other materials.
After weeks of pressure, Inslee on Friday eased up on the construction ban, announcing “low-risk” construction work can resume provided safety guidelines are followed.
Inslee defended his decision to keep construction and recreational activities off-limits by saying Washington was hit the earliest, and initially the hardest, by the virus.
“It shouldn’t be shocking that we’ve got the best stay-home, stay-healthy order on the West Coast, because we’re the ones that needed it most, and most intensely,” he said.
He acknowledged that recreational activities — like fishing — were a tougher decision, since people could maintain 6 feet of distance while doing them.
“But every time somebody drives around to go out to some place, and they stop at the service station and they stop at their friend’s store and they happen to talk to somebody at the gas station, it’s another physical contact,” he said.
Pandemic changes personal life
Even before the stay-at-home order, Inslee’s skeptics were keeping an eye on, of all things, his hair. With the barbershops closed by emergency order, they wanted to make sure he wasn’t cheating.
So when first lady Trudi Inslee whipped out the shears to give the governor a haircut, it generated, well, a buzz, including a news story on Mynorthwest.com.
“She still has the shears she bought when I was in law school,” Inslee said. “I thought she did OK.”
The governor — who at age 69 counts in the virus’s risk category — has also limited his personal contacts.
On Easter — same day as the haircut — Inslee challenged his family to make Easter bonnets. They discussed the project over FaceTime and shared results by phone photos.
In his weekend trips back home to Bainbridge Island, Inslee has seen his grandchildren only from a distance.
“I see them 20 yards down the beach and wave at them, and we each might throw a rock in the water together and call it good,” he said.
To change that, the governor’s hours on the phone will have to translate into concrete success for Washington’s testing capacities and medical supplies.
For now, even the poem penned by Inslee for National Haiku Day took its direction from the virus:
The quiet has power
This is the time when birds sang
Stay home, stay healthy