On the biggest stage of his political career Wednesday night, Gov. Jay Inslee at times seemed invisible.
More than half of the first Democratic primary debate in Miami passed by without a question on the subject on which he has staked his presidential candidacy: The looming climate-change crisis. When it did come up, the discussion lasted less than seven minutes in the two-hour debate.
And even on other topics, from guns to health care to immigration, Inslee was largely sidelined as moderators returned again and again to better-known candidates, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Others, like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and even little-known Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, bulled their way into the fray by speaking out of turn and were rewarded with extra time.
Inslee, positioned near the right end of the stage, repeatedly raised his hand and pointed his index finger to try to get called on, only to be passed over.
Going into the debate, Inslee estimated he would get eight minutes of speaking time. He got about five. That was the least of any candidate, according to The New York Times.
Inslee did have moments where he seemed to connect. Asked near the end of the debate to name the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States, he drew big applause with his answer: “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump.”
Several other candidates, including O’Rourke, Booker and Warren, mentioned climate change as the biggest threat.
Inslee was the ninth candidate called on in the debate, for a question on how he would address income inequality. He got applause for saying he has a plan to empower unions, “the people who brought us the weekend.” Support for good-paying union jobs has been woven into Inslee’s climate platform, which is essentially his version of a Green New Deal.
On a question about health care Inslee tried to differentiate himself as the only candidate “who has actually advanced the ball” on issues including a public health-insurance option and protections for women’s abortion rights.
That led Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to respond: “There are three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose” — to laughter and applause at Inslee’s expense.
As the debate wore on, Inslee advisers vented frustration with how little time was devoted to climate change.
“Jesus, finally,” tweeted his official communications director, Jaime Smith, from her personal Twitter account when the first question about climate was posed 80 minutes into the debate.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow threw the question to Inslee, asking whether his climate platform would save Miami, the debate-host city threatened by climate-change-induced rises in sea level.
Yes, Inslee responded, pledging to end the Senate filibuster, which makes progress on climate and other issues impossible by allowing a minority of senators to halt legislation — an answer that got applause.
Inslee boasted of his record as governor, pointing to legislation passed this year that puts Washington on a path to eliminating fossil fuel-based energy in the electric grid by 2045. And he repeated his central theme, that he is the only candidate to prioritize the issue.
“I am the candidate, the only one, who’s said this has to be the top priority of the United States, the organizing principle of the United States,” he said. Inslee’s answers got some applause, but moderators quickly turned to other candidates and then shifted to other topics.
“I guess we’re officially done with the #ClimateDebate portion of the evening? I think I missed it when I accidentally blinked,” Smith wrote as the climate segment ended.
Back in Seattle, some Democrats gathered at St. Andrews Bar and Grill, a Scottish pub near Green Lake, for one of several debate-watch parties in the city. The crowd there cheered a seeming favorite in Warren, and groaned more than once when the audio cut out portions of Inslee’s few statements.
“Really all of them did quite well,” said attendee Martha Jackson, who said she has no favorite candidate yet but is leaning toward Warren. Rounding out her top three choices, she added, are Klobuchar and former housing secretary Julian Castro.
Inslee qualified for the Miami debate by hitting 1% support in three polls — a low bar that few candidates missed — and also by bringing in campaign donations from more than 65,000 contributors in 20 states. That same threshold has been set for the second Democratic debate scheduled for Detroit in July.
But he’ll have to do better to reach the third and fourth debates this fall. The Democratic National Committee says candidates must hit at least 2% in polls and attract 130,000 donors to be invited to those events.
Seattle Times staff reporters Brian Contreras and David Gutman contributed to this report.