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Jay Inslee is in the fight of his life

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is well known as a competitor. During his days at North Seattle’s Ingraham High School, his name and image were common in the city’s sports pages. His senior year, 1968-’69, he was starting quarterback of the football team, and a key player on the undefeated, 23-0 state-championship basketball team.

Lately, Inslee has been amped up about another contest — with the president of the United States.

When Donald Trump signed a partial immigration ban, throwing the nation’s airports — and many people’s lives — into chaos, Inslee lambasted the move as “a train wreck.” “These people couldn’t run a two-car funeral,” he said at a hastily organized press conference at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

After Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson won an emergency stay on the travel ban, Trump tweeted defiantly that he’d see the state of Washington in court. “We just saw him in court and he got beat,” Inslee told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “He got thumped.”

Inslee seems to have been right, at least for now: The Department of Justice filed papers Thursday saying it wouldn’t appeal a key ruling in the case, and the president said his administration would start over with a new order on immigration.

But what does this “four-year battle to preserve the fundamental values of this country,” as Inslee has described it, mean for his ability to govern Washington state? Will he be drawn into partisan combat? And, even if you welcome his forceful support of refugees and immigrants, should we worry about him being distracted from the business we elected him to oversee?

Here he is on Thursday, talking to Enrique Cerna with Crosscut’s sister organization, KCTS 9:

State Republican Party Chair Susan Hutchison is trying to play to those questions, suggesting that Inslee might be interested in running for president himself. It’s one of the oldest political tactics used against a governor who deals with national politics: Get people to wonder whether their governor is working for them or just raising his own political profile. Hutchison claims to have “sources.”

At least one Republican suggested to me that it may simply be a fund-raising tactic that, despite the Northwest leaders’ long-term irrelevance in presidential politics, plays well with the Republican base here.

After all, much of the Republican Party has long questioned whether Inslee was really the person to work across party lines to create results in Olympia. And they had their reasons. U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, the Eastside’s moderate Republican member of Congress, once recounted to the Seattle Times how Inslee refused to support a measure to protect wilderness in the state. When Reichert asked him personally, Inslee refused, citing an upcoming election challenge facing the Republican: “We want to beat your ass in 2008.”

While many Washingtonians may still have their doubts about Inslee’s leadership, he easily won re-election in November, running partly on a record of transportation and educational funding improvements that have been bipartisan achievements.

Still, his willingness to engage in a political fight has come out front and center as the Trump administration has settled — or maybe bumbled — into the White House. Even among other political leaders eager to stop the Trump’s travel ban, Inslee’s passion stood out. As Crosscut’s David Kroman wrote in a reconstruction of how the state won its restraining order against the administration, Inslee was consistently frustrated and eager for action.

His CNN appearance after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the restraining order was also vintage Inslee, if more relaxed. As had often been the case in Congress, he had a smart, cutting line: We beat you. It was a particularly effective response to a president who likes to project an image of invincibility. And he followed up with a few lines of certainly partisan but ultra-smart analysis, seamlessly drawing on his legal background to remark on the unanimous agreement of the judges considering the case. And all in a sound bite that probably delighted CNN producers.

The Democratic Governors Association quickly grabbed a clip from the interview and posted it online.

Here he is with Cerna again:

For those worried about where the governor’s attention is, there’s also this: He’s one of the association’s leaders, and will take on the chair position next year when the Democrats engage in critical efforts to regain more state governorships. That’s important to the party’s national future because most governors can veto the kind of redistricting plans that Republican legislators have used to assure the party control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Although Inslee wasn’t available for comments early this week, his communications director, Jaime Smith, said there’s no doubt how the governor balances state and national responsibilities: “The priority has always been on Job No. 1, governing the state of Washington.”

She said that the Trump administration’s ideas on the Affordable Care Act and climate change threaten the progress that the governor feels the state has made on widening access to health care and protecting the environment.

If it’s true that Inslee is thinking of running for president, Hutchison’s sources must be among the few talking about it. Smith cheerfully deflects the question, saying that if everyone criticizing Trump is a candidate, the 2020 field will be rather large.

One key Republican state legislator, Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm, said that Inslee came into office in 2013 with very aggressive stances and was largely ineffective. Wilcox, who tends to be quite fair-minded, says the governor does spend more time with legislators than he used to at key points. But, like a number of veteran Republican legislators, he still misses Inslee’s Democratic predecessor, Christine Gregoire, who is fondly remembered as someone who worked across party lines for, in Wilcox’s words, “solutions and real progress.”

And, he thinks that it’s clear Inslee’s heart is in national issues. He recalled sitting at the governor’s State of the State address last month, where the governor “really got fired up” as he shifted from state issues to the national political setting. “It was amazing, the transition that he made from just reading a speech to delivering something with real conviction.”

Asked if he was describing the governor as someone who has made progress but is performing only at a middling level, Wilcox said, “He has learned to do no harm, maybe.”

One ex-Republican legislator, whose position requires close contact with Olympia politics, sees considerably more progress, and is dismissive of the idea that Inslee’s interest in national issues is a problem for his responsibilities of governor. The ex-legislator, who didn’t want to be identified because of the need to work with both parties, said Inslee now has a strong staff that keeps him very engaged with issues like the state’s need to put more money into education funding.

Along the same lines, state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, gives Inslee high marks for the work on education funding in the six months before the 2017 Legislature convened. That was, Carlyle said, key to setting up the Legislature for moving forward on school funding, which both parties agree is the major issue for the state this year.

Indeed, if the Legislature and the governor can finally meet the state Supreme Court’s mandates for better and fairer funding of schools, that will be quite an achievement. A big win for both parties, and for Jay Inslee.

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