The year 2020 turned out to be the worst hard times for many in Washington and the nation, but the best of times in the political career of Gov. Jay Inslee. The Big Guy was sworn in on Wednesday as only our second Governor (Dan Evans was the first) to be elected to three consecutive terms.
In pre-pandemic times, 12 months ago, Inslee was registering anemic low-40’s approval ratings in Stuart Elway’s polling. His quick reaction to the coronavirus saw his approval rise into the high 60’s, as Washington quickly fell off lists of most impacted states.
It was also springtime for the nation’s governors, as their visibility and popularity grew. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York starred on cable TV each morning. In this Washington, a feud with Trump fueled Inslee’s love of grandstanding, and Cable TV networks welcomed him as an expert in quick pandemic response.
As President Obama notes in his memoir, however, popularity wanes. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was on top of the political world last spring. He is now facing a pandemic resurgence, resistance to reinstated stay-at-home order, and a recall movement.
Inslee, on Wednesday, delivered an inaugural address evocative of a famous blooper by (the first) Chicago Mayor Richard Daley: “We must rise to higher and higher platitudes.” “It’s time to take back the torch of progress,” Inslee told us. ”We know what it is to get through these times.”
The question is how to get through, and Inslee didn’t tell us very much. He made no mention of a capital gains tax, in contrast to the single sentence it usually merits in his state-of-the-state speeches. Inslee is tepid and timid on taxes. A recent Crosscut-Elway poll showed only 41 percent support for taxing capital gains. The poll found anemic 47 percent support for a statewide cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gases, another pet project of the Governor.
The Governor waxed on about the severe 2020 wildfire season – 800,000 acres burned — and the “health cataclysm that is climate change.” No mention or expression of support for the $125 million-per-biennium wildfire response and forest restoration plan proposed by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.
The Democrats’ political base wants a capital gains tax, pointing out that Washington has the nation’s least equitable tax structure. The voters are not convinced, having rejected a carbon “fee” on polluters and a tax on the state’s wealthiest citizens. The Senate Ways & Means Committee holds a public hearing Thursday on capital gains.
Jay Inslee loves the public aspect of being Governor, whether touring landslides or celebrating the new “green” economy.. He has delivered all major pandemic announcements and policy reports. The Governor’s approach contrasts with that of British Columbia Premier John Horgan, who has left the stage to daily briefings by B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and B.C. health officer Bonnie Henry. Horgan comes on only for heavy lifting. Inslee’s advisory orbit consists of health professionals, whose advice he has followed, as well as such politically allied groups as labor unions and Native American tribes. His supporters show up on advisory panels where you would expect greater expertise.
Surprisingly, in the state that is home to Microsoft/Starbucks/Amazon, we’ve witnessed limited enlistment of the business community. Inslee received cooperation from Republican legislative leaders when initiating stay-at-home orders last spring but has cut them out of subsequent decision making. Inslee is an intensely partisan Governor.
As the pandemic wears on, and wears us down, Inslee will likely miss days of last March and April, when he gave directions and the state followed, and he had clowns like Tim Eyman for opposition. The Republicans remain upset the Legislature was not called into special session. The state’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program has been fair at best, with a public parched for information and no driving leader put in charge.
Inslee has spent a life in politics since he was Selah City Attorney. He did a stint in the Legislature, was elected to Congress seven times (from two very different districts), took a Clinton Administration job after losing his House seat in 1994, ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 1996, has been Governor for eight years, and briefly ran for President as a single-issue candidate.
Inslee’s leadership on the pandemic raises the question: How much does the Governor know about small neighborhood businesses? All of us have witnessed hurting restaurants and gyms, watched the ingenuity they’ve put into semi-reopening only to see the ban on indoor dining. The rug was pulled out again last month. Even warmed by propane heaters and shielded by thousands of dollars’ worth of plastic, outdoor dining has limited attraction in mid-winter.
The Governor is in for a tricky third term. Gems from Wednesday’s speech: “Let the new era lift our hearts” and “Our recovery will be robust and more equitable.” Inslee talks like that. But a tougher term is upon him. No more feuding with a repellant Trump. A Democratic base that wants taxes, but an electorate that turns down taxes. The citizenry asking, how and when do we get vaccinated? Neighborhood restaurants hanging on, but for how long.
An old Adlai Stevenson maxim comes to mind: The ability to govern is the acid test of politics, the acid final test. We’ve witnessed Inslee’s political skills. Can he reach out beyond his base of support and engineer his state’s recovery?