Democrat Jay Inslee wasn't known for signature legislation or steering big money to projects back home during his 15 years in Congress. Instead, he burnished his reputation by becoming an authority on his abiding passion, renewable energy.

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This is one in an occasional series of stories examining the records of Washington’s candidates for governor. Coming next Sunday: Rob McKenna as attorney general.

WASHINGTON — Jay Inslee listened as the author of the controversial Danish book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” testified about climate change.

The Earth is heating up and sea levels will rise, Bjørn Lomborg acknowledged at the U.S. House hearing in March 2007. But it won’t be the catastrophe Al Gore warns about, Lomborg declared, and reducing carbon emissions would take huge amounts of money better spent fighting HIV or malaria.

For Inslee — arguably Congress’ leading proselytizer for green energy at the time — Lomborg’s words were like flapping a red cape.

“Now maybe Denmark, with all due respect, is incapable of dealing with those things” simultaneously, Inslee told the witness, his tone laced with contempt. “But I’ll tell you something about America. We are capable of dealing with HIV, malaria and the commitment to our grandkids to not despoil this planet.”

The exchange was typical Inslee — idealistic activism coupled with a dose of political showmanship. It’s a combination that allowed the Bainbridge Island Democrat to snag more than his share of the limelight in the House, most of whose 435 members pass their careers in obscurity.

Inslee isn’t known for signature legislation or steering big money to projects back home. Instead, he burnished his reputation during 15 years in Congress by becoming an authority on his abiding passion, renewable energy. Even before Barack Obama won the presidency, Obama’s advisers were seriously bandying Inslee’s name as a contender for secretary of energy or the interior.

Now running for Washington governor, Inslee, 61, has made clean-energy jobs — an interest he traces back to a college trip to study energy use in Sweden — an economic centerpiece of his campaign against Rob McKenna, the Republican state attorney general.

Beyond energy issues, Inslee also helped pry open Japan to Washington apple exports, extend monopoly protection for brand-name biotech drugs, equalize Medicare reimbursement rates and write a key amendment to the 2000 electronic-signature law that unleashed the era of paperless commerce, among other things.

He has displayed contradictory positions at times on key issues. He twice voted for the balanced-budget amendment while supporting huge spending projects. He once campaigned on capping entitlement programs, but now fully supports keeping Social Security and Medicare largely intact. He’s been on both sides of gun control.

Inslee, a Seattle native, displayed that political finesse — or opportunism, as his critics see it — while representing two very different congressional districts. From 1993 to 1995, he served Central Washington’s 4th District, a Republican region where conservative talk radio held sway and gun owners were a potent voting bloc. Inslee lost that seat after a single term in the Republican revolution led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

He moved to Bainbridge Island and ran for Congress again in 1998 in the more liberal 1st District. He won, and he held that seat until March when he resigned to run for governor.

McKenna’s allies accuse Inslee of being a political chameleon with no landmark law to his name. His most notable feat in Congress, they contend, was advancing his own career.

“Some people want to do something, and some people want to be something,” said Dan McDonald, a former state senator from Yarrow Point and a McKenna adviser who made a failed bid for Inslee’s congressional seat in 2000.

Inslee, McDonald said, “was just very good at representing himself.”

Inslee’s former colleagues disagree. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, said that like all House members, Inslee had to strive to find a path to influence.

“We don’t get allocated one bill apiece to write and then pass,” Larsen said. “You have to work on legislation constantly.”

Effective policymakers, Larsen said, embrace an issue, envision the potential, then educate and energize peers and the public — much as Inslee did with clean energy.

Guns and budgets

In the early 1990s, Inslee was a small-town lawyer and state representative from Selah, Yakima County, making his first bid for Congress and channeling his more conservative constituents.

He declared himself “a Second Amendment guy” and took out a newspaper ad vowing not to support gun control. He delivered on that after his victory by voting against the Brady bill imposing a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases.

But Inslee also voted to ban military-style assault weapons, galvanizing the gun lobby against him.

Later, after returning to Congress from the 1st District, he voted against shortening the wait period for gun buyers from three days to one.

One of Inslee’s toughest votes politically came in his first term during the 1993 battle over President Clinton’s tax-increase-and-deficit-reduction budget. Among other things, it created two new top income-tax brackets, removed the cap on Medicare taxes and enlarged the taxable portion of Social Security benefits.

In May of that year, the White House and congressional Democratic leaders pushed for votes for the teetering package so furiously it sent one reluctant member from Minnesota hiding in the House gym. Inslee, who had campaigned on fiscal restraint, had criticized the tax package at a news conference for not cutting enough spending.

Finally, Clinton picked up the phone to plead for Inslee’s support, according to news reports at the time.

Inslee agreed to vote yes, believing that additional spending cuts would be added later. His vote was No. 217, which, because the chamber at the time had two vacant seats, moved the package on to the Senate.

But when the compromise version of the budget was hashed out with the Senate, Inslee switched his vote to no. He said the final bill still did not include the cuts he had been counting on. The measure passed 218-216. Forty other Democrats voted against it, as did all 175 House Republicans.

U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, said Inslee’s first vote may have cost his re-election. “The Republicans were screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘You’re gone. You’re gone. You’re gone,’ ” Dicks recalled. “And he was.”

Global warming

Inslee’s second stint in Congress coincided with the national dawning about the threat of global warming. But his interest in the topic began much earlier.

In 1972, he was among two dozen University of Washington students who traveled to Sweden as part of a yearlong program in conjunction with the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Inslee’s group focused on water quality, energy and technology issues, said David Fluharty, who was a teaching adviser on the Stockholm trip.

Years later, after losing his 4th District seat but before returning to Congress, Inslee fell in with a loose-knit circle of people who met for several years either at Julia’s restaurant or a now-defunct Mexican joint in Wallingford to discuss global warming. The sessions were organized by Blair Henry, then the president of the Northwest Council on Climate Change.

Over three-hour dinners, Henry said, the group might ponder the effect of climate change on transportation, and then debate with invited experts on mass transit. The 30 or so people who were involved included such folks as Bill Nye, of “Science Guy” fame, and occasionally U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, the Seattle liberal.

KC Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions, a nonprofit environmental group in Seattle, was one of them. Golden said Inslee’s enthusiasm for conservation and green energy was far-ranging. For instance, Inslee helped promote the renewable-energy standard that state voters passed in 2006, which sets targets for the amount of power that electric utilities must derive from alternative-energy sources. He also advocated higher gas-mileage standards for vehicles and more energy-efficient buildings.

Golden said Inslee easily links policy to practice. “It’s not abstract to Jay,” he said. “He gets excited and invested in the real stuff that’s happening.”

Inslee supported other environmental efforts too.

In 2005, he helped block a House Republican proposal to ease restrictions on oil-tanker traffic in the Puget Sound. He pushed cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation and tougher pipeline-safety rules. And for a decade, he led efforts — thus far unsuccessful — to make permanent a Clinton-era rule that designated nearly 60 million acres of national forests as roadless areas off-limits to logging, mining and oil and gas development.

Inslee spent his final four terms on the Energy and Commerce Committee, whose jurisdictions include health, economy, trade, technology and energy.

In January 2009, Inslee and Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., co-founded the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition with three dozen charter members as a main vehicle for “green voices” in the House. By the time Obama signed the $800 billion federal stimulus bill the following month, the caucus had successfully pushed to earmark $2 billion for advanced battery makers and help jump-start domestic manufacturing for electric- and hybrid-car batteries.

Government spending

Inslee’s record on budget and spending is murkier.

He once styled himself as a fiscal hawk, pledging during his 1992 campaign to resign from Congress if it didn’t cut the federal deficit, then a mere $300 billion, by half in five years. “I’m not interested in building a career,” he said at the time.

Today, Inslee can’t quite recall his long-ago resignation pledge. In 1998, the federal deficit had turned into a $69 billion surplus under Clinton, but Inslee was long gone from his first stint in Congress by then.

Since his return, he voted for the stimulus plan in 2008 and the auto-industry bailout, though he twice voted against the bailout for banks. He believes strongly that the federal government should help nurture promising industries. And he backs the Democrats’ emphasis on preserving social programs for the poor while asking the wealthiest Americans to pay more taxes.

Inslee also twice voted for the balanced-budget amendment, the fiscal straitjacket that has been a dream of many small-government conservatives. The second time was last November, a vote House Republicans had insisted on as a condition of agreeing to raise the federal debt ceiling.

Inslee was one of just 25 Democrats to back the measure, which failed to receive the required two-thirds vote. All four remaining House Democrats from Washington voted no, including U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, who is considered the delegation’s most fiscally conservative Democrat.

Inslee’s stance on the balanced-budget amendment left many of his former colleagues stumped. Larsen, like Inslee, belongs to the New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderate, pro-growth House Democrats. Larsen said constitutionally capping spending to match tax revenue will force cuts to education, research and technological innovations.

“It would eviscerate a lot of the things that New Democrats are about,” he said.

In an interview, Inslee said he has followed his convictions on fiscal matters. About the balanced-budget amendment, he said: “I thought it was a good tool in the toolbox to help us get back to a more stable fiscal situation.”

Inslee noted he also was in the Democratic minority on another key budget vote: the showdown in December 2010 over whether to extend all Bush-era tax cuts for two more years. Democrats wanted to renew the tax cuts only for middle- and lower-income Americans. Republicans wanted everyone included.

On the House floor, Inslee said Republicans would “blow a $700 billion hole in the federal deficit by giving away tax cuts to millionaires.”

But President Obama, to the howls of some liberals, capitulated and agreed to a wholesale extension. The measure passed 277-148, with 139 Democrats voting yes and Inslee and 111 other Democrats opposed.

The Bush tax cuts are set to expire again at year’s end. This time, Inslee won’t be voting on the issue.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or Material from the archives of the Tri-City Herald were used in this report.