What happens if WA Gov. Jay Inslee takes a job in Biden’s cabinet

A federal appointment for Inslee would set off a cascade of political moves here in his home state.

View of Jay Inslee's back as he walks through a door

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee walks back to his office through a doorway after he spoke at a news conference, Nov. 15, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Days after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee won a rare third term in office, the 69-year-old Democrat started appearing on lists of possible picks for President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet.

A New York Times article the week after the election mentioned Inslee as a possible contender to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, the Interior Department or the Environmental Protection Agency. A piece in Politico similarly talked about Inslee as a possible cabinet choice.

But what happens in Washington state if Inslee leaves to take a job in the nation’s capital?

While Inslee has said many times he plans to serve his full term as governor, many think it would be hard for him to turn down a job serving under a new Democratic president — especially one that involves combating climate change, one of Inslee’s core issues.

“While he’s stated that he loves Washington, wants to be near his grandchildren, and feels he has unfinished work here, I believe his core concerns around the environment and his desire to make an impact on the largest stage possible would make a cabinet post hard to turn down,” political science professor Vernon Johnson wrote in an email. Johnson directs the Ralph Munro Center for Civic Education at Western Washington University.

Biden announced last week that former Secretary of State John Kerry would serve as a special presidential envoy on climate, which will involve sitting on the National Security Council. But there are other climate-focused jobs Biden has yet to fill.

Should Inslee accept a federal job, it would set off a chain reaction in Washington state politics, starting with a temporary replacement — followed by a field of people jockeying to replace Inslee permanently. 

Who fills in?

The state constitution is clear: Should Washington’s governor vacate his office in the middle of his term, the lieutenant governor takes over.

Starting in January, that will be U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, who recently won election to the lieutenant governor’s office. Heck, 68, is retiring from Congress at the end of this year. 

This arrangement would be a temporary one, however. A vacancy in the governor’s office would trigger a special election to decide who will replace Inslee on a more permanent basis. Heck has said he isn’t interested in the job long term and would return to the post of lieutenant governor after a permanent replacement is elected. 

When would a new governor be elected? 

If Inslee quits before mid-May, when candidates in Washington state begin filing to run for office, the special election to replace him would be held in November 2021. If he resigns after candidate filing week begins in May, the timing of the special election is less clear, said Kylee Zabel, a spokesperson for Washington’s Office of the Secretary of State. Zabel said the secretary of state’s office and the state attorney general “are conferring on that hypothetical scenario” right now.

Whenever the special election  occurs, whoever wins would serve the remainder of Inslee’s four-year term, which runs through January 2025.

What are Inslee’s chances? 

Aseem Prakash, a political science professor at the University of Washington, said the selection of Inslee for a cabinet post or cabinet-level role is within the realm of possibility.

Prakash, the founding director of the UW’s Center for Environmental Politics, said he thinks EPA administrator or energy secretary could be a fit for Inslee, should he be tapped for a federal job. Prakash said others have started to emerge as favorites for the Interior department, including U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who would be the first Native American cabinet secretary if she is selected.

Biden is facing several different pressures as he chooses his cabinet, Prakash said.

“I think the left is putting pressure on him, and they’re giving two kinds of signals,” Prakash said. “One is that you need someone who is totally committed to a Green New Deal. And, secondly, they want someone who is representing the diversity of the Democratic coalition.”

Inslee, who is white, wouldn’t contribute to the diversity of Biden’s cabinet. But unlike some other picks, he is “relatively noncontroversial” and may have less difficulty getting confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Prakash said. The Senate may very well remain in Republican hands for the next two years, pending the results of two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia. 

As far as Inslee saying he won’t take a federal cabinet job, Prakash, too, is skeptical.

He said Inslee made his federal ambitions clear last year during his climate-focused run for president.

“Everybody knows that Inslee is interested,” Prakash said. “...Everybody acts coy and shy and says, ‘I won’t do it.’ But they will.”

Who wants to be Washington’s next governor?

There is no shortage of interest. In fact, Inslee’s decision to run for a third term put many of his fellow Democratic politicians’ ambitions on hold

During Inslee’s short-lived run for president last year, several people said they were interested in succeeding him as governor. Chief among them were state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz and King County Executive Dow Constantine.

Each decided not to run after Inslee dropped out of the presidential race and said he would seek a third term instead. At the same time, all three Democrats said they would be interested in running for governor should the position become open in 2021. 

On the Republican side, no one has been as forthright in expressing interest. But GOP politicians who are commonly discussed as possibilities include state House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm; Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier; and Kim Wyman, Washington's secretary of state

Further down the ballot, others had expressed interest in becoming attorney general, should Ferguson run for governor, as well as succeeding Franz in her position managing the state’s public lands. Inslee’s reelection bid put the brakes on their aspirations, too.

For that reason, Prakash said, “I don’t think the local politicians will mourn” if Inslee takes a job in Washington, D.C.

Right now, “Everyone is stuck,” Prakash said. If Inslee goes to Washington, D.C., by contrast, “Everybody would move up.”

This month, Constantine announced he is running for reelection as county executive. But when asked if that means he’s no longer interested in the governorship if it becomes available, he didn’t rule out the possibility. 

Instead, Constantine sent by text message a list of all the things he wants to tackle in another term leading King County, including ending chronic homelessness and remaking the criminal legal system. 

“Any other bridges I will cross if and when I come to them,” Constantine wrote.

This story has been updated to include more information about possible candidates for governor should a vacancy arise.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.