Jay Inslee’s Turnaround

Jay Inslee defies initial dismissals that he didn’t have what it took to beat Rob McKenna in the 2012 Washington state governor’s race.

By Josh Feit September 19, 2012 Published in the October 2012 issue of Seattle Met

They hadn’t been planning on a primary election night party. 

But one broke out anyway. 

Standing by the life-size cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama in the back corner of the bland phone bank room at Democratic campaign headquarters in early August, the spokeswoman for gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee high-fived a colleague, her feet momentarily leaving the ground as she reached to slap his hand. 

They had something to be psyched about: The latest returns had just put Inslee ahead. It was a surprising turnaround that mirrored the arc of the last 12 months. Inslee had been trailing his Republican opponent, Washington State attorney general Rob McKenna, by four points earlier that night and had defensively told reporters that his campaign was “going to count the numbers in November when they matter.”

Then the story line abruptly changed—as it had a week before when Inslee stunned everyone by suddenly, and for the first time all year, showing up as the front-runner in the polls.

Traditionally, if a Democratic candidate for governor can keep a Republican below 40 percent in King County, he or she can overcome the advantage Republicans have east of the Cascades. And liberal King County had just come through for Inslee—he was winning 58 to 35 percent in the metro Seattle area and statewide 47 to 44. “You know what?” Inslee’s communication director, Sterling Clifford, said conspiratorially as he wandered across the gray carpet toward a table of reporters. “We’re gonna win. These numbers are devastating for McKenna.”

The primary night numbers defied the conventional wisdom that Inslee had been running a lackluster campaign and that McKenna had gained real traction in King County. 


Republican has not won a governor’s race in Washington state since 1980. It’s the longest GOP drought nationwide. Nor have Republicans won a U.S. Senate race here since 1994. Washington is a blue state where President Obama, who won here in 2008, 57 to 40 percent, was polling 17 points ahead of Mitt Romney in an early-August poll by SurveyUSA. 

Still, ever since this race started there’s been a sense that McKenna had the chops to defy history. All year, McKenna posted strong poll results in King County, where he’d won convincingly in his 2008 run for attorney general. That’s partly because he’s adopted a suburban-friendly education-funding platform instead of a Tea Party Republican agenda to put public schools on the chopping block. At one point, McKenna was up statewide as much as 11 points. And, tellingly, he had been consistently hovering around 40 percent in liberal King County. 

Former Washington state Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt, who’s now a Democratic political consultant, recalls the early days of Inslee’s campaign. “I was alarmed. Because I was getting so many calls from grassroots people who were alarmed.”

The Inslee-McKenna race inverts the traditional candidate stereotypes. Rather than the folksy Republican who voters want to get a beer with vs. the pointy-headed intellectual Democrat who’s too smart for his own good (think Bush vs. Gore), Democrat Inslee comes across as the goofus and Republican McKenna comes across as the smart guy. If Inslee, with his movie-star jawline and ’60s-era good looks, is Rock Hudson, McKenna is Bill Gates.


About a month before the governor’s race officially began, students at the University of Washington got a sneak peek at this inverted campaign dynamic, a preview of what voters—particularly Seattle Democrats, to their dismay—would soon see.

It was the spring of 2011, and the University of Washington’s student political clubs had invited both gubernatorial candidates-in-waiting, Republican Washington State attorney general Rob McKenna and Democratic U.S. representative Jay Inslee, to address a pair of joint meetings between the Young Democrats and the College Republicans. McKenna spoke in a lecture hall on the basement level of the business school at Paccar Hall, and a week later Inslee addressed a large third-floor classroom in the political science building, Gowen Hall. 

In a professorial lecture about the state budget, McKenna rattled off education funding stats: “Higher-ed funding from the state has slipped from 16 percent of the state budget to 8 percent since I was at the UW”—as student body president, by the way—“in the 1980s.” And, he added, Olympia now only covers 25 percent of college costs. He pledged a 50-50 deal between the state and students. 

Not only was McKenna fluent in education funding issues—a keen interest for the students—he played to the bi-partisan crowd, tweaking his traditional GOP rap about fiscal efficiency by stressing the progressive upside: By limiting the size of the government workforce and its benefits, McKenna told the attentive audience, the state could fund the Basic Health plan and the Disability Lifeline, and, of course, higher ed.

At the time, Wisconsin’s bogeyman Republican governor Scott Walker was big in the headlines for limiting collective bargaining rights for unions. McKenna stressed that he would only seek to change state employees’ benefits through “appropriate” collective bargaining negotiations. 

It was classic McKenna. And it’s exactly the balance he would strike in the upcoming months on the campaign trail. He seemed conservative, but reasonable. “Rob has to reassure voters that it’s okay to vote for him because he’s not one of ‘those kinds’ of Republicans,” says Chris Vance, the former GOP state chair and public affairs consultant. “That’s his mission.

“The most important thing is he’s talking about education,” Vance concludes. “That sends a message to suburban, moderate voters that that’s what he’s cares about. Rob’s not a culture warrior.”

Preelection Rally A week before the primary, Inslee stunned everyone by pulling ahead in the polls.

Before Inslee arrived at Gowen Hall the following week, the Young Democrats talked amongst themselves, sizing up McKenna’s performance the week before. The students disagreed with him on the issues, unconvinced by his pledge to fund higher ed, given that he said he wouldn’t raise taxes. (During the campaign, McKenna eventually pitched a budget plan to voters that capped noneducation spending at 6 percent of state revenue growth, which the lefty Washington Budget and Policy Center estimated would force $645 million in social service spending cuts.) Still, they were impressed by McKenna, calling him “compelling” and “willing to consider alternatives.” The UW’s student lobbyist, a member of the Young Democrats, went as far as to say: “He knows more about higher-ed funding than most people in Olympia.”

McKenna was a tough act to follow. And Inslee failed.

Inslee arrived a half hour late, clearly unprepared. He fell into the room like Kramer on Seinfeld and, speaking with his slight lisp, gave a pour-and-stir stump speech that included a call to the crowd to stomp their feet in a Husky cheer and relied on scripted anecdotes: He married his high school sweetheart, he drove a bulldozer in college. 

He was also inattentive to the students’ nuanced questions about state government. When one student asked about the state legislature’s habit of raiding dedicated funds, Inslee clumsily found his way to the national Democratic Party’s sound bite du jour that Republicans supported “tax breaks for Donald Trump’s yacht.”

Oblivious to the section in the back of the auditorium reserved for Republican kids, Inslee attacked the new Republican majority in DC for cutting back the Pell Grant student loan program, for passing legislation to prevent the EPA from enforcing the Clean Air Act, and for voting to repeal the health care reform legislation.

Asked what he thought about Olympia’s recent rule giving the UW, instead of the state, the authority to set tuition, Inslee was forced to admit that as a U.S. congressman, he wasn’t versed in the state issue. He responded with a stock statement about not “letting the UW become a private college…that’s the way it’s going” and concluded: “That’s why I’m so angry about Pell Grants.”

Out in the hall after Inslee’s talk, the College Republicans had their own chance to debrief. They weren’t as impressed with Inslee as their Democratic counterparts had been with McKenna. I asked how they thought Inslee’s speech had compared to McKenna’s. They were politic and polite at first, stressing that the two speeches had been “different.” 

Then, pausing on the staircase, a young woman told me, accurately: “Inslee did more of a pep rally.”

Inslee’s unimpressive showing—his basic lack of knowledge on state issues—not only reflected poorly on him. It reflected poorly on his campaign team. Had they not prepped him?

The governor’s race was about to go public—McKenna would officially declare in a month and Inslee less than two weeks after that. Voters statewide would soon see what the students in Paccar and Gowen halls had witnessed. 

If Inslee, with his movie-star jawline and ’60s-era good looks, is Rock Hudson, McKenna is Bill Gates.

And it wouldn’t look good for Democrats. Inslee would be consistently behind in the polls (or kind of tied, in polls done by Democrats), and he would slip behind in fundraising despite several cash downloads from the state Democratic Party totaling more than $1 million (and despite the fact that McKenna, as AG, was barred from raising money while Olympia was in session). 

In fact, by March of this year, nine months into the campaign, Inslee’s campaign seemed to be on autopilot, and a Twitter feed titled @Jay_Insleep, presumably set up by a disgruntled Democrat, had gone live. 

Inslee decided to quit his job in Congress as a way to jump-start his candidacy. His announcement that he was returning to Washington state to go “all in” and “leave everything on the field” merely seemed to highlight his fumbling efforts. Facing questions from the emboldened GOP about the decision to bail on his job in DC, he stuck to a cringingly scripted response. Asked about it on KCTS, he gave this painful nonanswer: 

“I’m in the job of helping people get jobs, and this is the best way to do that, which is to really have a governor candidate focused full time across the state of Washington to help people get jobs. That’s what was on my mind...when I made this hard decision.” He then pivoted to his well-worn speaking points about the “hard decisions” he had made in Congress, such as his votes against the Iraq war and the deregulation of Wall Street.  

After going “all in,” Inslee held a press conference to unveil his jobs program, a combo of tax breaks for research and development and agency reforms intended to boost twenty-first century businesses—biotech, green energy, and high-tech. From the start, the event was bumpy: There was no place for media feeds, no one seemed to be in charge, and feedback from a screeching microphone persisted as a tech entrepreneur tried to introduce the candidate. 

But the tech wasn’t all that was lacking. Inslee spoke in dramatic and colorful sound bites about “clean technology” and Washington state’s “culture of innovation,” but it was hard to find any substance. “We’re going to get our state working again. We’re going to return Washington to the forefront of technological development. We’ve done this before, haven’t we? We led the first technological revolution in aerospace. We led the second in computers and Internet. Now we will lead yet another technological revolution when I’m governor, in clean energy technology.” The plan would also take advantage of commercializing UW research. It was vague, and it didn’t wow the media. 

Pressed by reporters on exactly how he was going to fund his proposal to give R&D tax breaks to tech companies while the state faced a $2 billion shortfall, he fell back on the Democratic playlist about repealing tax breaks (he could only name-check one, a break for big banks that has subsequently been repealed, and only for about $30 million). He quickly pivoted to recounting how he stood up to banking lobbyists when he voted against the Wall Street bailout and then resorted to trash-talking McKenna’s plan to cut state workers. 

Inslee left the press conference without ever answering the question about funding his plan. I followed him out and pressed for an answer one more time. Besides, did he realize that repealing tax breaks takes a two-thirds majority? As he got into his car, he smiled, tapped his chest and said simply: “When I’m governor, when I’m governor.” 

That didn’t seem like a good bet. 

As for McKenna, at his campaign kickoff speech in June, he made the same pitch he’d made to those UW students. Wearing a black headset and standing in front of a dry erase board on stage at his high school alma mater in Bellevue, he identified himself as the education candidate. He was off and running. And on message. 

The pitch worked. While Inslee got busy recalibrating, McKenna was winning endorsements from education reform groups and had miraculously stolen a traditionally Democratic issue, education, that’s a top priority for King County’s suburban voters, the very swing voters who are likely to determine the election. 

Consider: In a state where Republicans have a deserved reputation for defunding education and where, during the budget crisis in 2012, Republicans took over the state senate and forced through a budget that cut $70 million from education, a KING 5 poll found that voters trusted McKenna on education just as much as Inslee. 

Indeed, in February, local Democratic mega donor Nick Hanauer circulated a letter to his wealthy Democratic friends saying McKenna got it on education and Inslee didn’t. Hanauer was thinking of donating to McKenna. “I am not a big fan of Rob Mckenna,” Hanauer wrote, “but there can be no doubt that the positions he is taking on public ed are crisper and more aligned with my thinking. One of the greatest travesties here is the way in which Democrats have ceded the issue and high moral ground to Republicans.”

McKenna is, in fact, the most formidable candidate Republicans have had in decades here—“the Great Republican Hope,” grouses Inslee staffer Clifford sarcastically. Unfortunately for the Inslee camp, it’s also an accurate assessment. Not only is McKenna prioritizing a Democratic-friendly issue such as education, he’s making the Democrats’ proven strategy of painting him as a right-wing extremist more difficult. 

Compared to previous Republican candidates here, McKenna’s record is not an extremist one. He’s no Ellen Craswell, the religious radical the Republicans ran in 1996; nor John Carlson, the talk radio jock they ran in 2000; nor Dino Rossi, the budget slasher from 2004 and 2008. 

“I loved Ellen,” says state GOP chair Kirby Wilbur, “but she allowed the media to make us look like fanatics.” Wilbur is thrilled about McKenna’s record as AG: “He’s been able to perform in terms of consumer protection, child slavery; he’s dealt with some of these issues that people relate to on a level most Republicans don’t get to perform on. He’s gone after meth. He’s got this performance record that I don’t think a lot of Republicans have been able to have.”

More importantly, McKenna supported the soda tax that Democrats passed in 2010. As AG, he sued the conservative lobby, the Building Industry Association of Washington, over illegal campaign
financing. He defended gay rights activists (all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won) in their fight to require antigay petitioners to reveal their names. He wants to put a transportation tax package out to voters. 

And on abortion, McKenna, who’s not personally pro-choice, comes across as resigned. “The law made by voters says women have a choice. I believe life begins at conception, but there are two lives, the woman’s and the baby’s. Our state has been very clear that women should have the right to choose. I hope she chooses the child. But the point is it’s her choice,” he told The Seattle Times.

Despite McKenna’s moderate cred, the Democrats have a long list to show McKenna is actually a true conservative. McKenna was one of the 26 state attorneys generals who sued in federal court to throw out Obamacare; as a King County Council member, he crusaded against light rail; he recommends health savings accounts; he opposes gay marriage; he says he wants to “harmonize” state environmental regulations with federal ones, which, practically speaking, means rolling back Washington State’s tougher environmental regulations; and he’s for charter schools and letting private insurers compete in our state workers’ comp program, despite overwhelming historical voter opposition on both counts. As for choice: When he was cornered by a young woman wielding a camera to give his position on the Reproductive Parity Act, a bill in Olympia that would make insurers cover abortions, he told her to “get a job.”

The Democrats believe they have the goods to do what they always do, scare voters about the evil Republican. However, there’s another thing they need: a compelling candidate to deliver their own positive message and win. 

Jay Inslee, 61, grew up in Seattle and went to Ingraham High School, where he was quarterback on the football team and played for the school’s winning basketball team. Inslee, who downplays his high school days by saying he was “a journeyman on a couple of good teams,” is, at six-foot-two, still a powerful--looking dude whose shoulders fill out his blue suit jackets. 

Inslee’s mom was a clerk at Sears and his dad was a biology teacher at Garfield who, Inslee likes to claim, taught Jimi Hendrix. Inslee, however, was not the Jimi Hendrix type; he was a straightlaced kid who married his high school sweetheart, Trudi, when he was 21. 

A high school senior at the height of Vietnam-era unrest, Inslee characterizes his civics teacher as the lefty and himself as the conservative. “I remember having a discussion in class one time,” Inslee says. “It was during the Chicago Democratic Convention and Abbie Hoffman was raising heck. I thought those protesters were uncivil, out of line. I just thought they were, I hate to use the word, troublemakers. But at age 17 or 18, that’s kind of a feeling I had. “

Inslee’s unimpressive showing Reflected poorly on him—And on his campaign team.

He was just as straightlaced when he was a college student. Inslee lived at Trudi’s parents’ house while going to college at the UW and working odd jobs, including the bulldozing job that he likes to boast about on the campaign trail. “I did have the scraggliest beard at the University of Washington, probably,” he remembers, “but I was not part of the drug scene. And I, incredibly, to my great, great dissatisfaction, didn’t enjoy the music.... We had the biggest musical explosion since Beethoven took his first music lesson, and I wasn’t part of that.” He graduated in 1973 and went off to law school at Willamette University in Oregon and graduated magna cum laude. After law school, he and Trudi moved to the Yakima Valley where Inslee was hired at a small law firm. 

He got involved in politics after local voters repeatedly rejected a series of school bond measures. Inslee headed up a successful local school bond campaign in 1985, and his charisma and drive caught the attention of local political leaders. Inslee was encouraged to run for the statehouse and, in 1988, the 37-year-old father of three boys ran in the 14th legislative district in Yakima. He won, taking a seat held by a Republican. (Three Republicans currently represent his old district.)

After four years in the state legislature, Inslee ran for U.S. Congress in 1992 and won in the Clinton sweep. 

He is fond of hyping his tenure in Eastern Washington as a selling point for a Democrat. 

“The most important thing is my understanding of the economy of the whole state, in particular Eastern Washington. Look, when you raise three sons there, and you work for six years in public life, and you’re a prosecuting attorney, and you teach a college class, and you work with farmers getting their apples into Japan successfully—which no one could do for 15 years, but I’ll use that knowledge and that emotional tie to that place. I love the Yakima Valley.... Nobody took an eraser and erased that part of two decades of my life.

Inslee lost his seat in Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution of 1994. It didn’t help that he’d voted for the assault weapons ban. 

He ran for Congress again in 1998 after serving as a Clinton-appointed regional administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services. This time, he ran from west of the Cascades, where he’d moved to Bainbridge Island. 

Since then, Inslee has been a flaming liberal. It might, in fact, surprise Seattle lefties to hear that Inslee’s voting record is just as progressive as Seattle Democratic congressman Jim McDermott’s (voting with the party 92 percent of the time, right there with McDermott’s 93 percent). 

In fact, Inslee’s biggest votes came in late 2008 on one of the defining votes of this era, when he voted against the Wall Street bailout. Three times. (McDermott voted yes before following Inslee’s lead and voting no on the second pass.) In addition to his righteous Wall Street vote, Inslee’s office has been on the Rachel Maddow side of every big issue.

On health care reform he pushed for a public option, telling me at the time the debate was heating up, “There’s no reason to shackle the government from doing what it does best. Witness Medicare.” And then, pounding his fist at the emerging Tea Party critics: “These people see Medicare as socialism. That’s where they’re coming from. I’m not kidding. Choice is important. The public option lets people have a variety of choices.” When that failed, he became a key author on a series of cost--containment amendments to encourage the use of preventive health care and equalize Medicare reimbursements regionally—working with Maria Cantwell in the Senate to reform the original Democratic proposal that would have inadvertently penalized states that had already instituted preventive care measures.

As an antiwar liberal, Inslee followed up his Bush-era vote against the war in Iraq with votes to bring the troops home from Afghanistan, in defiance of Obama’s war budget requests. “We have all these Republicans talking about cutting federal spending,” Inslee told me after his vote. “Well, if you want to cut federal spending, there’s about $30 billion a year we could cut.”

In addition to grappling with the era’s headline issues, Inslee also burns the midnight oil on his own wonky, pet lefty agenda items—battling companies such as AT&T for net neutrality (fighting for regulations that would prohibit Internet service providers from controlling content) and pushing for investments in smart cars and alternative energy. 

Environmentalism has been, in fact, Inslee’s signature issue. 

Inslee was a lead supporter of the 2009 cap-and-trade proposal to limit carbon emissions that passed the House 219-212, bringing along conservative Democrats from coal states (he gave them some loopholes) and a Republican from his own Washington delegation, Dave Reichert. “In terms of something where he put his marker down and then went to work on it, nothing compares to the cap-and-trade effort,” says McDermott, who says he and Inslee had a friendly competition over which would pass the house first, health care reform—McDermott’s pet issue—or cap and trade. “I laughed at him. I said it won’t happen, and he said, ‘Yes it will.’ I got to hand it to him; he got something that I hadn’t thought was possible. He’s a serious legislator.” When the bill stalled in the Senate a year later, Inslee groused: “The Senate is frozen in a block of ice while the rest of us are melting.” 

Inslee, in fact, took his environmental cause to Washington state, venturing out of DC in 2006 to stump for I-937, the initiative that raised standards on utilities, mandating the use of renewable resources. It passed 52-48. Despite the clunky start and his clunky image, Inslee’s stumping for governor eventually began to come together. 

I noticed the change at an education forum in downtown Seattle, where Inslee and McKenna took the stage nearly a year after I’d seen them back-to-back at the UW. This time they were at the Westin in front of a packed Alliance for Education breakfast hosted by KCTS’s Enrique Cerna.

And this time Inslee had done his homework. Well versed in the details of an education reform bill that passed the state legislature earlier this year, Inslee said the bill needed to go even further, and use evaluation systems more effectively for ensuring effective teachers. Not only was he up on the specifics of the bill, but he was challenging one of his top 10 all-time contributors, the teachers’ union.

A week later, Inslee released an education plan that wowed both reformers and the union. It’s worth noting that at press time Nick Hanauer, who had circulated the letter decrying Inslee’s education stance, never did donate to McKenna. 

After Inslee won the primary, I took another shot at asking Inslee about his jobs plan. How was he going to fund those R&D tax breaks? This time Inslee was prepared to discuss the details and the minutiae of state government. “We are losing a lot of good opportunities,” he told me. “We have artificial restrictions on the ability of our colleges to enter into any partnerships with businesses. If we create commercial businesses at one-half the rate of University of Utah, we would create $3 billion of economic opportunity in this state in the next several years.”

Indeed, it’s Inslee’s jobs plan that ultimately boosted him on primary night; or more accurately, a $1.1 million statewide TV commercial about his jobs plan. The ad, which ran during the July run-up to the primary, transformed the narrative of the campaign—from goofy Inslee vs. nerdy McKenna to everyman Inslee vs. effete McKenna. 

Posing in a work shirt in front of a bulldozer, Inslee hyped his jobs message in a blue-collar setting. Juxtaposed against McKenna’s competing ad—which featured iPads and jogging suits and McKenna’s sparkly kitchen—Inslee was focused on heavy lifting to create jobs while McKenna was an elitist in the suburbs. 

It didn’t hurt that McKenna also imploded a bit over the summer: An aide got caught making racist tweets; McKenna was seen on TV avoiding popular KIRO reporter Essex Porter; he made the “get a job” gaffe when asked about pro-choice legislation; and his suit against Obama’s health care act went down in flames in the Supreme Court.

These changes in Inslee’s fortunes forced me to reevaluate his sound-bite-heavy dry run in front of the UW students more than a year ago. His cartoonish approach of talking in canned partisan themes certainly flips the traditional Democratic and Republican roles. But in 2012, in an election that DC news site Politico has consistently rated as one of the hottest races in the country, it may also be just what the Democrats need to hold on to the governor’s mansion.


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