Another gubernatorial speechwriter bites the dust

As a seasoned executive and lawyer, Gov. Chris Gregoire proves to be a tough customer. But workload alone is an issue. Three people have held the job in two years.
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Gov. Chris Gregoire delivering the words. (State of Washington)

As a seasoned executive and lawyer, Gov. Chris Gregoire proves to be a tough customer. But workload alone is an issue. Three people have held the job in two years.

What's the toughest job in Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's administration? Arguably, speechwriter. Gregoire's chief of staff, Tom Fitzsimmons, confirms that yet another ghostwriter for the governor is moving on – the third in the past couple of years. "It's true, we're making a change," says Fitzsimmons. "Speechwriter needs have changed, have evolved." Adam Vogt, who had worked for U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is out after less than eight months on the job. "It's very difficult to put words in someone else's mouth," says Vogt, explaining his short tenure. "I think most of what I wrote worked well, but again, so much of public speaking is about delivery, it's about emphasis, it's about storytelling ... and that's rarely the same among two people." Vogt's predecessor, Peter Jackson, lasted in the job six months. "It was sort of a mutual agreement that I no longer fit there and I was not able to capture the governor's voice in a way that she found satisfactory," explains Jackson. The speechwriter before Jackson was in the job for about three months. Fitzsimmons acknowledges the governor has been frustrated with the caliber of speeches written for her. "I think sometimes she's feeling that we've not given her all of what could be given to her to be more effective," says Fitzsimmons. Part of the problem is it's hard for a younger, even very smart speechwriter to write for a governor who's a lawyer and policy wonk with decades of experience in state government. Put another way: "I think it's hard to write for people who are perfectionists and attorneys," says Jackson. The one person who seemed able to do that - and sprinkle in personal anecdotes – was Fred Olson, Gregoire's close personal friend and her former deputy chief of staff. Olson retired earlier this year. "Fred was always there to help fill some of these gaps in," explains Fitzsimmons. Jackson says he feels badly for Vogt, who moved from Washington, D.C., to take the job with Gregoire. "He's a really good guy ... and I encouraged him to come out and do this because I thought it would be a good opportunity," laments Jackson. The lesson, says Jackson, is speechwriters are expendable and sometimes take the fall if the governor is unhappy with how a message is being received. But another factor is also at play: workload. Fitzsimmons calculated that Gregoire had 58 speaking engagements from mid-May to Mid-June. "It is an impossible job" in any administration, says Denny Heck, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Booth Gardner. In an e-mail, Heck writes: "People carry around in their heads this myth about every speechwriter being a Peggy Noonan in the making. What they don't realize is that Peggy Noonan had about three months to prepare for every major speech. The governor's speechwriter is given two to eight speeches per day to prepare remarks for." A logical solution might be to hire a second speechwriter or spread the writing duties among other communications staff. Whether that happens in Gregoire's office remains to be seen. In the meantime, the search is on for yet another Gregoire speechwriter. "We're looking for the perfect person," says Fitzsimmons. As for Vogt, the outgoing speechwriter, he's headed to the governor's budget office to do communications work. "I worked hard here and I want to continue to support the governor's work," he says.


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