’Tis the season for political scuttlebutt, and D.C. insiders have name-checked multiple Washington pols in conversations about a potential Joe Biden cabinet. Many Democrats have cast shade on any sunny presidential prognostications—stop! don’t jinx it! it’s a trap!—after 2016’s infamously inaccurate election forecasts. Biden’s own campaign has even downplayed the predictions.
Nonetheless, you’ll continue to hear Jay Inslee’s name bandied about in the coming days for a possible environmental role in a Biden administration, perhaps as Secretary of the Interior, head of the EPA, or a yet-to-be established climate chief position. The rumors first surfaced following the governor’s brief bid for the presidency in 2019, after which fellow Dems, including Biden, praised his laser-focus on climate change. Inslee endorsed Barack Obama's veep in April and has backed Biden’s climate plan. “It’s perfect for the moment,” Inslee's said. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am.”
For his part, Inslee has repeatedly dismissed any cabinet talk, most recently telling The Seattle Times, “I’m not interested in those federal positions.” I checked in with James Singer, Inslee’s campaign spokesperson, to see if the governor still felt that way. “The governor has been clear on his stance on a federal position,” Singer wrote back.
Inslee’s currently seeking a rare third gubernatorial term, an election that polls say he’s likely to win. Assuming he does, it might be an awkward time for the governor to uproot from state politics. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, Inslee and others in his position wield an inordinate amount of authority over nearly every aspect of public life. The governor’s early social distancing mandates and science-based decisions have drawn acclaim from Biden and others; seeing the crisis through to its conclusion would seem like a wise move, practically and politically. Also, Biden’s team reportedly wants to build a diverse cabinet. As an older white man, Inslee wouldn’t help a new administration fulfill that goal.
Pramila Jayapal would, though. The U.S. representative for Washington's 7th congressional district and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus perhaps hasn’t been whispered about as much as Inslee for a cabinet role, but she did make a Vox roundup of hypothetical appointments for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Jayapal’s Medicare for All sponsorship has placed her at the forefront of national conversations on the topic; in May, Biden and Bernie Sanders also picked Jayapal to co-lead a health care policy task force aimed at uniting the party’s policy in the run-up to November 3.
The selection of Jayapal would certainly earn plaudits from the left (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, has urged Biden to appoint progressives if he triumphs). And as a prominent member of several House committees, Jayapal could help shape reforms in multiple areas of governance, making her a viable candidate for a few cabinet positions. Her communications director, Chris Evans, wouldn’t comment on any speculation as Jayapal aims to hold onto her House seat this November. Evans writes that “Congresswoman Jayapal is focused on the election so we do everything we can to defeat Trump, flip the Senate, expand our House majority, and elect Democrats up and down the ballot.”
Which has been a refrain among Democrats: Let’s talk about this after the election. But certainly the angling has already started, with Washington politicians making eyes at the Washington across the country for various federal jobs.
That courtship usually manifests itself in two ways, according to Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman. The first and most obvious way is an early public endorsement. Sometimes, these declarations are just what they appear: demonstrations of support. Other times, they’re early job applications.
Worth noting: Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan backed Biden in early March, well before Jayapal and many other progressives. Durkan isn’t a candidate for a cabinet role, but might the former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington return to federal service? She’s facing backlash from both sides of the political aisle after the city’s response to Black Lives Matter protests, and she has just one year left on her mayoral term. Sinderman, who founded NWP Consulting in 2001 and has worked on campaigns for Inslee, senator Maria Cantwell, and many others, says there have long been whispers and even open conversations about her considering such a move. He stressed, however, that he couldn’t speak to Durkan’s, or any local pol’s, current talks with the Biden camp. (Durkan’s campaign team did not respond to an interview request for this story.) “I think the events of the last couple months have perhaps dimmed that star a little, but I think she clearly had rave reviews as a U.S. Attorney,” Sinderman says. “And, irrespective of her tenure as mayor, that's still a feather in her cap.”
The other way politicians woo administrations is more of what TV political drama bingers might expect. Pols build connections with transition team members, pitching their subject matter expertise for roles they believe might be up for grabs, says Sinderman. This knowledge can be of a topic—say, climate change—or a geographic region.
Of late, Washington has harbored the kind of innovative brainpower that’s desired on a national level. Obama chose former state governor Gary Locke as his first Secretary of Commerce in 2009. Four years later, he plucked Sally Jewell from her CEO’s office at REI to be his Secretary of the Interior. And in between, former King County executive Ron Sims served as Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Current King County executive Dow Constantine could be in line for some national looks, says Sinderman (who's advised Constantine in the past), as could Rep. Adam Smith of Washington’s 9th Congressional District. The region’s quick response to Covid-19 and burgeoning economy might mean more than a couple Washingtonians end up in the nation’s capital should Biden defeat incumbent Donald Trump. “It would be great to see,” says Sinderman.