What McKenna and Inslee aren't saying

Washington state has two good candidates, but does either have ideas that confront the real needs of the people?

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Washington State Capitol

Washington state has two good candidates, but does either have ideas that confront the real needs of the people?

In recent weeks I've had a chance to listen to the two candidates for governor, Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna, in small group settings with a chance for Q&A. The good news is that both are quality candidates. The bad news is that neither is being entirely honest.

What candidates are? True enough. In this case, there's the way each is leaning a bit in the counter-intuitive direction to appeal to swing voters. McKenna has made education reform the centerpiece of his campaign and actually wants to raise spending on education, from kindergarten through higher-ed. That's a big switch from some previous GOP gubernatorial wannabes like Ellen Craswell who once floated the idea of selling off parts of the University of Washington. McKenna believes in government, limited government. But he's sending signals that he's not running as a hatchet man for the far right.

Inslee's lean has been to accept some education reforms resisted by the teacher's union. But his big reach is to make the economy the center of his campaign. He's got plans for boosting Boeing, selling apples and wheat, manufacturing solar panels, and for increasing Pentagon contracts with Washington businesses. Inslee has also served in Congress on both sides of the state and in a swing district, so he understands the kind of moderate, middle class stances required to make that work (translation: he's no liberal urban isolationist). He doesn't talk much about the social safety net, he talks about restoring the middle class.

There's nothing much original in all this. Economic development and education are often the staple of campaigns. The two candidates seem to embody their suburban home bases. McKenna is very Bellevue (he's anti-rail, wears a tie, seems like a good manager), and Inslee is all Bainbridge Island (fleece and jeans, loves hybrids).

Both candidates are trying to balance that mix of insider and outsider to their advantage. McKenna touts his experience holding statewide office and running a tight ship at the Attorney General's office. But, as a member of the party that has been out of the governor's office since 1985, he can claim to bring in a fresh approach. Inslee also grabs for the mantle of outsider. He takes a shot at McKenna: "I'm not the person asking for an increased budget every year while laying off teachers," he says. He promises to bring efficient management to Olympia with new blood: private-sector outsiders who will help whip the place into shape.

That promise is as old as the hills. Dan Evans had his Advisory Commission on State Government Productivity. John Spellman issued an executive order to reorganize Olympia's administration. Booth Gardner was elected in '84 with a Harvard MBA and promised to engage in management by walking around. Mike Lowry signed watered-down civil service reform (a tougher version had caused the public employees union to dub him a traitor). Gary Locke became an acolyte of Total Quality Management and said "We have no room in state government for managers who bear any resemblance to Dilbert's boss." Chris Gregoire has had to do more with less, and do less with less, during this Great Recession.

Inslee has his own plan, which calls for implementing "Lean Management," also called the "Toyota System." Or the quick-hit version of the same philosophy called the "Kaizen Blitz." It's the late 1980s idea that what makes a great Toyota truck can transform the Department of Social and Health Services into a lean public service machine by focusing on keeping its "customers" happy through an intense commitment to efficiency.

Studies have demonstrated that this approach can yield limited benefits in the public sector, but there are likely too many barriers to transforming the overall "culture" of government, in part because much of what it does defies the manufacturing model. Inslee's approach might, say, make issuing license renewals speedier, but it won't replace formation of policy, analysis, and politics. Nor the providing of services that aren't widgets.
These efforts do, however, prove to be a boon for consultants with PowerPoints.

Still, despite the fact that every administration since Al Rosellini's has ultimately failed to satisfy the public that state government is sufficiently efficient and reformed, it is necessary window dressing, particularly for Democrats. That's because "reform" is inherent in the Republican message. They see reform as simply starving the beast, or those parts you don't like. That is part and parcel of McKenna's strategy under the guise of education reform. How do you increase education funding without raising taxes? You steer revenue increases into schools and universities and hold the line on expenses everywhere else. Cut funding to other agencies and they'll be forced to reform, shrink, die.

I asked Inslee if he had talked to any of the ex-Democratic governors and asked them how he could succeed where they have arguably failed. He said well, he'd talked to Al Rosellini and his advice was to "shake a lot of hands." Not exactly out of the Toyota management handbook. But the late governor might have been more right than wrong. Reforming government is more meme than material. Say what you have to, but retail politics is how you get elected, especially if, like Inslee, you have a name familiarity problem.

Still, both McKenna and Inslee are avoiding the beast in the room. Neither one is talking about raising revenues to help make government work better than a state government that is robbing Peter, or worse, one that only has only one option as it is being squeezed by the economy, Tim Eyman initiatives, and a failure of leadership: to devour its own tail for budgetary "balance." Inslee wants to "grow" our way out of our problems with economic development, McKenna wants to cut our way out of fiscal trouble. Neither is sufficient by itself.

Another worry is the smoochy embrace of business. You would think that Washington state was an unfriendly, business-hostile place, except that we know it's not because Olympia has left us with so many business tax breaks that the Legislature, Democrat or Republican, has been loath to roll any of them back. And when they do, they slip in new ones (e.g. out of state banks get an increase, but in-state distillers get a new break). Inslee supports the concept of sunsetting corporate loopholes, which is good, but his economic plan also paints the governor's primary role as cheerleader for business; and the business community lobbies and gets support making the very arguments Inslee is making: jobs will cure our ills. Except those caused by the inequities of prosperity, of the bust, of the next bubble.

And what about tax fairness? What about making a priority out of advocating for a less regressive tax system? Inslee's focus on growth and McKenna's on cutting and parsing won't make long term sense if the state tax system is not equitable and sustainable for the people.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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