Gov. Inslee is there when disasters strike — but can he prevent them?
One image of Jay Inslee tells a lot about the tall, relentlessly upbeat, sometimes goofy, politician-to-the-tips-of-his-toes guy whom Washington narrowly elected governor in 2012.
Shortly after the Oso landslide, Darrington’s high school baseball team was back on the field for the first time after the mill town’s partial isolation.
In the rain-swept bleachers, cheering on the team, was Jay Inslee.
When disaster strikes, Inslee is nearly always there. He’s presently headed over to the massive wildfires hitting Central Washington. He was there for the Whidbey Island mudslide, and omnipresent at the I-5 bridge collapse outside Burlington. He was at Hanford soon after a leaky radioactive waste tank was identified. He was repeatedly on the scene at Oso.
So far, Inslee has avoided the legendary blooper of California Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (father of Jerry). The elder Brown flew by helicopter over a flooded Sacramento River delta, and upon landing told reporters: “This is the worst disaster to hit California since I became governor.”
Inslee does, at times, sound like Joe Biden on steroids.
If the West Coast could give us “Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys and Nirvana,” he told a conservationist breakfast in May, then it can lead the world in turning out windmills and solar cells.
Inslee gets an undistinguished 43 percent approval rating in the latest statewide Elway Poll. He’s far more popular in the Seattle area than where the fires are burning, in a Central Washington congressional district that Inslee briefly represented in the 1990s.
How is Inslee doing? A few thoughts:
– Inslee does best when he has Attorney General Bob Ferguson serving as consigliere. The new AG is a chess champion who plots out his moves and has all the angles figured. Ferguson has been indispensable in holding the U.S. Energy Department’s feet to the fire on the endlessly delayed Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup.
The AG was also a key player in winning breathing room from the U.S. Justice Department to let Washington implement its new marijuana law.
– Inslee delivers the reassurance while others deliver the goods. He was at the I-5 bridge the noon after its collapse, promising that Washington would get on the horn for resources from the U.S. Department of Transportation to restore ASAP the vital link.
Two others who joined his news conference had already done just that. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene roused USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood. A night of backstage work identified a pot of money for which the I-5 bridge qualified. LaHood came through with an initial $1 million to deal with the emergency.
– Inslee selectively picks fights. The governor deeply believes in transitioning away from the fossil fuel economy, and recently named a Carbon Emission Reductions Task Force. But he has not chosen to take on an obvious target — Puget Sound Energy — which gets a big chunk of its power from the aging, polluting Colstrip plants in Montana.
Inslee has ordered the Department of Ecology to produce a full, statewide picture of impacts — pollution, transportation, congestion, climate — in locating giant coal export terminals at Longview and Cherry Point. He has displayed greater guts than the Obama administration.
– Inslee has yet to fully engage in the state’s biggest fights. The state is burdened with a creaky, unjust tax system. Its transportation infrastructure is not adequate to support a growing state. Olympia faces a state Supreme Court order to fully pay for K-12 education.
Inslee does poke at the Republican-run state Senate. He has made good scripted arguments about science and math education as keys to a technology-driven economy that will carry Washington forward.
Still, he won’t touch the state’s tax structure with a 10-foot pole. Instead, he has ordered state departments to map out possible cuts for the next biennium, including public colleges that have already been bled dry.
The prospects for a statewide transportation plan are at an impasse. Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city — whose votes elected Inslee — is desperately trying to fend off cuts to already inadequate bus service.
Being an effective governor means not just being a comforting presence at unexpected disasters, but in preventing other kinds of disasters.
Gov. Chris Gregoire passed a gas tax/transportation plan through the Legislature in 2005 and saw it through a November vote — just after a rancorous 139-vote victory in a gubernatorial election ultimately decided in a Chelan County courtroom.
Years ago, Republican Gov. Dan Evans put it on the line, going over legislators’ heads in a TV appeal for the public’s help in passing the state’s basic environmental laws. He got it.
We should demand more out of Inslee.