Shake-up at the Washington governor's mansion

Two top-level departures signal preparation for Chris Gregoire's 2008 re-election bid, politicos say.
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Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. (State of Washington)

Two top-level departures signal preparation for Chris Gregoire's 2008 re-election bid, politicos say.

There must be a reelection campaign around the corner. This week, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's chief of staff and communications director both announced they're stepping down. The official word is Tom Fitzsimmons and Holly Armstrong are leaving on their own accord, although neither announced they've accepted a new job.

Fitzsimmons, as chief of staff, was a holdover from former Gov. Gary Locke's administration and was never expected to stay as long as he did. Armstrong, who's been communications director for the past two years, isn't from the Northwest and says she's moving to Denver to be closer to family and friends.

"People should put these changes in perspective, they are the natural order of things," says Denny Heck, former chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner. "Especially with respect to Tom - Tom served many years under two governors. That was truly exceptional."

Other Democratic insiders say these changes were a long time coming. Explains former state Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt: "The governor came back from her August recess all pumped up about running for re-election. I think she took an assessment of where she is and what she needs to do to get things into top condition heading into the election year ... and decided to shake things up a little bit, and I think that's a good thing."

Gregoire is up for reelection next year. If Republicans have their way, she'll face a rematch with Dino Rossi, whom she beat by 129 votes in the contested election of 2004.

"Anytime you've won a race by really a handful of votes, you have to run a very effective reelection campaign," says Roger Nyhus, who served as communications director to former Locke.

Nyhus and Berendt both think the changes at the top were overdue. "These were changes whose time had come," says Berendt. Says Nyhus who now runs his own public relations firm in Seattle: "I think there's been a strong desire on the part of the business community and some other folks to see the governor make some changes ... especially after the viaduct debacle."

That's a reference to Gregoire's handling of the debate over what to do about Seattle's earthquake-vulnerable, double-decker waterfront freeway, the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Prior to a public vote on the matter earlier this year, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was pushing to replace it with a tunnel. Gregoire said she supported rebuilding it but was also open to the idea of a surface alternative. "I think the mayor was consistent in his position," Nyhus says, "and the perception was the governor was wishy-washy and flip-flopped her position frequently, and that did not go over well."

Nyhus says a new chief of staff can help repair any damaged relationships with Seattle business and political leaders - supporters Gregoire will need in her reelection bid. "It's not that people would necessarily vote for a Republican candidate, but they might not actively support her or raise money."

Gregoire has already announced that Cindy Zehnder, president and CEO of TVW, Washington's public-affairs cable-TV channel, will become her new chief of staff Oct. 1. Zehnder previously served as chief clerk in the state House of Representatives and held several positions with the Teamsters union. That means she knows the Legislature inside and out and has connections to labor unions.

"I've heard a little grousing that, oh, it's another Olympia insider," says Nyhus. "But I think Cindy is a fantastic choice."

Berendt agrees. He says Fitzsimmons' strength is as a negotiator. He calls Zehnder an "extraordinary communicator" who will "be able to market the governor's ideas very effectively."

It might appear Gregoire is swapping out a policy wonk for a political operative as chief of staff. But Heck rejects that idea. He calls Zehnder the new chief operating officer of the state. Zehnder told The Seattle Times she intends to focus on managing the cabinet and "the administrative part of the job."

As for the communications director position, no replacement has been named. But Nyhus has a piece of advice for the governor: "I think it's important that she hire a communications director from the state, someone who knows our state intimately."

So what do Republicans think of the changes at the top of the Gregoire administration? "Do we care, no. Do we notice, yes," says former state Republican Party Chair Chris Vance. He thinks Gregoire is amassing a "wartime conciliary" in advance of what promises to be a highly contested election.

"To change major positions like this now would indicate that for whatever reason, Team Gregoire didn't think they had their best team on the field and wanted to make a change now before it gets too late. ... As an outsider, that's what you have to infer."


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