The Governor's race: Tough times, solid candidates

Rob McKenna and Jay Inlsee bring skill, broad knowledge, and smarts to a gubernatorial campaign that will hinge on independent voters  both appeal to.

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Rob McKenna

Rob McKenna and Jay Inlsee bring skill, broad knowledge, and smarts to a gubernatorial campaign that will hinge on independent voters  both appeal to.

I'm not sure why anyone would want to be governor right now, but in Washington we're lucky that the 2012 gubernatorial race is shaping up as a battle between at least two quality candidates. Are the worst of times bringing out our best people? Let's hope so. 

Ideologies aside, Attorney General Rob McKenna, the Republican, and Congressman Jay Inslee, the Democrat, are experienced, smart, and decent men. There will be a lot of money spent convincing the voters otherwise. Conservative commentator John Carlson estimates that it will be a $45 or $50 million race, a good thing for Carlson's KOMO and every other radio and TV station in the state. Want to boost the local economy? Drain the PACs of money pitching sleazy campaign ads. It's toxic, but it pays.

Political bases will need to be mobilized. The Republicans will try to spin (well, they already have) Inslee as Jim McDermott-lite. The Democrats will position McKenna as a gay- and health-care-hating right-winger. But the real race is more likely to occur in the battle for the middle.

The top two candidates have not yet been picked, and there could be other major candidates in the primary mix. But Inslee and McKenna are looking beyond the primary to the general, as evidenced by their announcements. As has been noted, both played against type a little bit.

McKenna came out as wanting to dramatically boost education spending, especially in higher-ed, by billions of dollars. This will be music to the ears of education boosters, especially the business community, which wants a strong University of Washington, a key part of the state's economic engine. The system is already seeing huge tuition increases, and struggling with some realities. King County, for example, only produces only 25 percent of its own college graduates.

That we still have a large percentage of grads here is a testament to our ability to import them from elsewhere. Washington remains near the bottom of states producing own homegrown bachelor's degrees. Such a stand shows that McKenna is no anti-government Tea Partier, no Ron or Rand Paul libertarian out to privatize everything, even if he thinks he can do this without raising taxes (good luck with that).

In Inslee's campaign announcement he came out strong with a pro-business pitch. He said, essentially, that he would do just about anything to keep and attract business and jobs for Washington, indicating a full willingness to engage in dog-eat-dog competition with other states. He also made the suggestion that small slice of state workers pension funds could be invested in innovative local start-ups, a somewhat surprising stance for a Democrat who doesn't want to see Social Security privatized. (McKenna has already pooh-poohed the idea.) Isn't part of the argument against privatization to protect pensions from Wall Street and high-risk ventures?

Still, it's an important statement to funders that Inslee is a pro-business Democrat. He's also said he opposes the income tax, and while he hasn't ruled out closing loopholes, so far there is no populist emphasis on eliminating subsidies or tax favors for big businesses. Indeed, if you're going to compete for business with other states, these are the tools in your arsenal. They're how you "wheedle and cajole."

The reason for these counter-type declarations is to get people to take another look at the candidates beyond the labels because success will lie in snagging as many independents as possible. The race will come down to how well Inslee and McKenna do in Pugetopolis' populous counties, and where swing voters go. King, Pierce, Kitsap and Snohomish counties will be key, as will vote margins. McKenna would like to do, at the very worst worst, at least a 134 votes better than Dino Rossi did in 2004.

Inslee, who has the rare distinction of having served in Congress representing both sides of the Cascade Curtain, has at least some chance of picking up votes in central Washington and doing well in Spokane and Whitman counties. Unlike many gubernatorial candidates, he's not an utter stranger to the issues and landscape of Eastern Washington. He even served in the state house representing the Yakima area.

McKenna has been a solid, consumer-minded AG, and is reputedly a very good boss who runs a smart operation. He's a proven winner statewide and has exceptional relationships with the media (he's even reached out with special briefings to bloggers). He's great at answering questions, deeply knowledgeable. I've covered McKenna for years and got to know him when I was editor and publisher of Eastsideweek back in the early '90s. He's been a strong force for building the GOP mainstream in the state.

By that I don't mean that he's a moderate, or an old-fashioned Dan Evans Republican liberal. He's of the once-young generation inspired and mobilized by Ronald Reagan in the '80s. But he has been a consistent force for a bigger-tent Republicanism, a focus on mainstream issues (not eliminating government, but making it more responsive and efficient). There's a there there with McKenna, whether you agree with it or not. I've teased him in the past about being Bill Clinton-esque in the sense of being a young, rising political star in three decades. There's no doubt that he is prepared for this moment.

I've also watched Inslee for years, and when I lived in Kirkland, he was my Congressman. He has been way ahead of the curve on green jobs and energy innovation, and he too is not a political empty suit (or blazer with jeans). During the Social Security dismantling efforts of the George W. Bush administration, I saw him at work in a Town Hall dealing with confused and angry constituents of all persuasions and was deeply impressed with his smarts, his deftness in handling the public, his sincerity, his ability to explain issues. Inslee's also been far out in front on some issues, as with the New Apollo Project aimed at clean energy independence.

I also think it's valuable (and rare) for a candidate to have on-the-ground experience on both sides of the mountains. Washington hasn't had a governor from Eastern Washington since Clarence Martin left office in 1941. An Inslee win wouldn't correct that, but it'll be harder to peg a guy who's lived in and represented Selah in the legislature as just another Seattle liberal.

He's also lives on Bainbridge Island. McKenna is from Bellevue. This isn't a city vs. rural contest, as least as embodied by the two candidates, but rather it's between two guys who know the suburbs and exurbs well. That should make the battle for independents more interesting. Bainbridge is a kind of suburban-rural idyll that is part of a sprawling county that has the potential to be the Westside counterpart of the Eastside. Bainbridge feels a bit like the old Mercer Island. McKenna's Bellevue is rapidly diversifying and urbanizing, and both Kitsap and suburban King counties are key pieces of Pugetopolis' economic future. Slade Gorton-style politics of driving a wedge into the urban-rural divide should be less effective.

The economy and jobs will obviously be a big issue. McKenna's hopes are in part pinned on general dissatisfaction with the status quo. People want a change in Olympia and in the job market. But Inslee can run as something of an Olympia outsider, bringing a fresh perspective and promising to break up ossification. Both can pitch themselves as refreshing change agents. 

One problem with Christine Gregoire has been her inability to paint an optimistic vision for the future. She's been mired in cuts, tough but often uninspiring, insiderish. My hunch is that the electorate will be looking for competence combined with a realistic and upbeat path to the other side of the Great Recession. While mud will be thrown, both of these candidates seem highly capable of laying out that path. Achieving is a another matter.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.