Washington's governors race is going to be a donnybrook

An early handicapping of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. The likely nominees still haven't honed compelling messages, giving some room for challengers.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire.

An early handicapping of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. The likely nominees still haven't honed compelling messages, giving some room for challengers.

Unsustainable budgets, angry constituents, rising demands, evaporating revenue streams, obtuse critics, and obnoxious interest groups.  Not the best of times to run for governor. But half a dozen or so people, all of them qualified, are preparing to run or thinking hard about it.  Allow me, with some of the hindsight of having run once myself, to preview the field.

The Democrats.

Governor Chris Gregoire.  Advantage: Incumbency.  Disadvantage: Incumbency.

A third term? It hasn’t been tried since Dan Evans did it in ’72 against former two termer Al Rosellini (The race had its rough moments.  The year’s biggest movie was “The Godfather” and bumper stickers appeared on cars that summer reading “We Need a Governor, Not a Godfather”). A third term would be mercifully easier than Gregoire’s second, but it is precisely because of her current term that she won’t get it.  Besides, wouldn’t she be more at home as a federal judge?

Congressman Jay Inslee. Advantage: Not part of the unpopular Olympia establishment. Disadvantage: Part of the unpopular Washington, D.C., establishment.

The progresive Congressman from north King County and Bainbridge Island is already running without announcing, hoping that early momentum will deter other Democrats from stepping in.  But what’s his message? Six short months ago, voters repealed a tax on candy and soda, prevented legislators from raising taxes, and thumped an income tax on wealthy people by more than 30 points.  Why would such voters want to replace unpopular liberal policies in Olympia with unpopular liberal policies from DC?

The Inslee message so far is that he doesn’t like Tim Eyman and he opposes Rob McKenna on health care. The Congressman needs a more substantive and positive message than that if he’s going to improve on his first run for governor in 1996, when he finished third in the Democratic primary behind Gary Locke and Norm Rice.

State Sen. Lisa Brown.  Advantage: Lots of uncollected favors.  Disadvantage: How can an Olympia insider change Olympia?

Democrats are hoping that if President Obama carries Washington state next year, which is likely, he will sweep a Democrat into the governor’s mansion. State history doesn’t always track that way. Republican Dan Evans won his first term during the Goldwater debacle of ’64.  Ronald Reagan, the last GOP Presidential candidate to carry the Evergreen State, won 59 percent of the vote here in ’84 while voters replaced John Spellman, the last Republican to win a governor’s race, with Pierce County Executive Booth Gardner. Washington voters may be divided about Washington, DC, but they are uniformly thumbs down on Olympia.  Lisa Brown, the state senate Majority Leader from Spokane, would be running at exactly the wrong time.  

King County Executive Dow Constantine.  Advantage: Left the legislature before the Olympia train wreck.  Disadvantage: Was running the locomotive during King County’s train wreck.  

King County suffers from some of the same problems plaguing Olympia: sky-high deficits made worse by the unchecked demands of government unions.  In fairness to Dow Constantine, much of this happened on the watch of his predecessor, Ron Sims, the most gifted speaker and inept manager since King County began electing a County Executive back in the late 60’s.    

Here’s the challenge for Dow. Gov. Gregoire has been unwilling to confront public unions in any meaningful way because their active opposition dooms a Democratic candidate in the primary for governor. Yet the price of loyalty has become steep. The governor is willing to toss thousands of working poor people off the state’s Basic Health Care Plan, cut back services for the elderly and mentally ill, and raise classroom sizes — but she won’t insist that state employees pay more than 15 percent of their health care plan.  Most people in the private sector pay closer to 30 percent.  The 3 percent “pay cut” for state workers is actually extra time off without compensation.  And some public workers continue to collect pay raises (called “step increases”).

So how would Dow be different? Would he stare down government unions the way Democrat Andrew Cuomo is doing in New York? Keep in mind that Dow was the anointed choice of public employee unions to succeed Sims. 

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon.  Advantage: His budget is balanced and his government is better run than King County’s or Olympia’s.  Disadvantage: Aaron who?

Reardon is focused on winning a third term this year, but this former legislator, a popular Democrat, is being urged by some people to consider the governor’s race for the most basic of reasons: He would be a better leader than the others. If a successful track record is any indication, his supporters have a point. Snohomish County resisted the impulse of massive spending increases five years ago, and Reardon started applying the brake when Olympia, King County, and terribly run cities like Lynnwood were still pushing the spending pedal to the metal.

But a Reardon race won’t be easy. The liberal wing of his own party is frequently at odds with him up in Everett.  So how could he win?   By running as a moderate outsider in a field crowded with liberals from Seattle and Olympia and campaign aggressively against business-as-usual in Olympia. 

The Republicans.

Attorney General Rob McKenna. Advantage: A popular alternative to Olympia’s status quo. Disadvantage: The sole Republican who can win, which makes him an early target.

One reason there are more Democrats in office than Republicans is that they are usually better at politics.   They know that McKenna, a popular two-term Attorney General, is the one Republican who can beat them next year so they are already running newspaper ads attacking him as a clone of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  Are the ads accurate?  Of course not, but the Dems understand that politics isn’t about negotiating; it’s about winning, then negotiating on your terms. 

So, can McKenna take the hits?  Yes.  He did during his days on the King County Council when he was bushwhacked for asking inconvenient questions about Sound Transit, and he emerged stronger for it. But is he willing to hit back? Again yes. He’s given better than he’s gotten in the debate over the constitutionality of Obamacare. A McKenna campaign will remind voters that after 28 years in the governor’s office, the Democrats have little left to offer. But that won’t be enough. He’ll need to illustrate where a different direction would take us.      

Port Commissioner Bill Bryant.  Advantages: Has earned bipartisan praise for his leadership at the Port.  Disadvantage: Holds a low profile office.

Bryant, a Dan Evans Republican (pro-business, pro-green, moderate to liberal on social issues), wants to run for this office.  He owns a successful trade consulting business in Seattle and won his seat on the Port with strong bipartisan support.  His biggest obstacle of course is McKenna.  He lacks the AG’s name recognition, volunteers, and fundraising ability, but should McKenna not run or seriously stumble, Bryant would be there.   Some people are asking him to consider running instead for Maria Cantwell’s senate seat.  So far, no interest there. 

The only safe prediction to make about 2012 is that it will be the most consequential contest for the governor’s mansion in a generation. It will be a donnybrook.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.