As Inslee launches the first presidential campaign by a Washington politician in more than 40 years, the business of the state will carry on, with him present or not.
Jay Inslee plans to spend the next several months barnstorming the country — speaking at steak frys in Iowa, county fairs in New Hampshire, union halls in Nevada and on every national cable news show that will have him.
He’ll also continue to be the chief executive of Washington state, a job for which he’s paid $177,000 a year.
As Inslee launches the first presidential campaign by a Washington politician in more than 40 years, the business of the state will carry on, with him present or not. The Legislature will have to pass a budget this year, or the government will shut down. The state will try to, finally, reverse the crisis in its struggling mental-health system. And, two years after declaring victory, legislators face yet another education-funding shortfall.
Ultimately, Inslee will be responsible for those issues, whether there are resolutions or not, and whether he is here or not.
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Asked if he can do both his day job and seek the White House, Inslee told reporters “the proof is in the pudding,” pointing to his legislative agenda advancing in the Capitol even while he has periodically left the state on political and official business.
On Friday, while Inslee held a campaign rally in Seattle, followed by a cavalcade of national media interviews, the state House passed his proposal to reduce carbon emissions from hydrofluorocarbons in air conditioners and the state Senate passed his proposal to phase out emissions from power plants by 2045.
“I feel very confident over the last few months that I can prove that I have done this job and continue to do so,” he said.
State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, shrugged off Inslee’s absences when it comes to the Legislature.
“We’re good with the governor, without the governor,” said Hobbs. “We’re the legislative branch. We’re not concerned about those things.”
But Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said he’s been concerned about Inslee’s absences over the past year already. Braun pointed to the federal decertification last spring of Washington’s largest psychiatric hospital, which has struggled for years to correct a range of serious problems.
“We’ve known for months, maybe over a year, that a lot of his schedule has been devoted to things not focused on the state of Washington,” Braun said.
The state “needs somebody running the show, and that somebody should be the elected governor,” he added.
As far as daily management of the executive branch, Inslee’s chief of staff, David Postman, said the governor and his staff have worked out ways to manage the governor’s extensive travel over the past few years. He said Inslee stays in touch with staff via phone and email, and sometimes calls in from the road for his 8:30 a.m. executive-team meetings with questions or directions.
“He is obviously going to be spending more time doing this,” Postman said. “It certainly means you have to work to keep all the communication lines open to make sure the decisions get made on time.”
Postman said Inslee also makes himself available while traveling to speak when necessary with key legislative and agency leaders, such as House Speaker Frank Chopp and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Last year, when Republican leaders criticized his frequent-flyer status, Inslee retorted: “I guess the Republicans haven’t figured out the mysteries of the cellphone, but we find it quite an effective technology. And I can do this work anywhere there is a cellphone, and I do it.”
Former State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said she couldn’t recall an instance when the governor being out of state was a big deal.
“Governors themselves don’t run the day-to-day operations of their agencies, that’s why they have a cabinet,” Hammond said. “We had full authority to implement our budgets and the policies and sign legal documents, so that isn’t going to hold anything up.”
“It’s more of a challenge for a governor”
Inslee joins a sea of senators in a rapidly growing Democratic field. Six Democratic senators have announced campaigns and at least two more are publicly considering it.
But only one other current governor, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, is publicly mulling a run.
Governors running for president are not unusual. In 2016, 11 current or former governors ran for president. Seventeen of our 44 presidents have been former governors. Six former presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were governor at the time they were elected president.
That means they ran a full campaign, which these days lasts more than 18 months, while also serving as the chief executive of a state.
That’s what Inslee intends to do.
“It’s more of a challenge for a governor than for a congressman or senator, because for a congressman or a senator there’s some expectation they’re going to spend time out of state, in Washington,” said Kristoffer Shields, a historian at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center on the American Governor. “For the governor, there’s a little bit of an expectation that he or she is going to be in the state.”
Inslee has already been out of state quite a bit. He led the Democratic Governors Association last year, spending at least part of 93 days out of Washington in 2018 on both official and political business.
His trips over the last couple of years busted the budget of his taxpayer-funded State Patrol security detail, which accompanies him on all trips, whether political or official. The Patrol has requested a $1.3 million budget increase for the unit in anticipation of Inslee boosting his travel.
“I don’t think the taxpayers of Washington should have to provide executive security detail in Iowa, New Hampshire and wherever else,” said state Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Inslee’s travels this year so far have included a swing through New Hampshire, home to the first primary of the 2020 election. He’s in New York this weekend and is headed to Iowa, Nevada and California this week.
All those absences also mean a decent raise for Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who assumes the role of acting governor whenever the governor “absents himself or herself from the state” and receives the prorated difference between the governor’s and the lieutenant governor’s salary on those days. Secretary of State Kim Wyman becomes acting governor when Habib is also out of state.
Habib gets an extra $291.42 a day when he serves as acting governor, according to figures provided by his office.
“The revolution will not be televised”
Modern mores — not to mention phones, emails and airplanes — have probably sapped some of the gumption from “acting” executives.
In 1924, in one notorious example, Seattle City Council President Bertha Landes used her authority as acting mayor to fire the police chief, accusing his department of colluding with gamblers and bootleggers. Mayor Edwin Brown, who was in New York for the Democratic National Convention, was notified by telegram and had to jump on a train back to Seattle to reverse the decision.
In theory, Habib has the same power when Inslee is out of state. He could sign or veto legislation, fire cabinet members and appoint judges while Inslee is out campaigning.
“Every provision of law in relation to the powers and duties of the governor,” state law stipulates, “extends to the person performing for the time being the duties of governor.”
In practice, that’s not going to happen.
“We have a great working relationship with all of the statewide electeds,” Postman said. As such, they’ve been content to perform merely ministerial duties on days when they are acting governor, such as signing declarations to lower flags for official mourning periods.
There are times when official action is needed. Inslee was at a fundraiser in Montana in 2014 when the Oso mudslide killed 43 people. Then-Lt. Gov. Brad Owen signed an emergency declaration in his absence, and Inslee hurried back to oversee recovery efforts.
In an interview last fall, Habib agreed he’s not likely to stage a minicoup while Inslee is away. “The revolution will not be televised,” he joked.
“It’s not as a practical matter a big part of my job,” Habib said. “I am always aware of when I am acting governor and conscious I need to be readily accessible, but otherwise it doesn’t change the state.”