Jay Inslee is six feet three, a little taller when he wears a pair of brown leather cowboy boots he likes to call his "ropers." (That's a reference to roping cattle, city people; Inslee used to do some farming in Eastern Washington.) He's a rock-solid Democrat in a state that tends to elect Democrats. He's pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-light rail, pro- just about everything else on the liberal wish list. And at 61, he has the sort of craggy features, strong jawline, and lean, athletic build that make him come off as a winning type before he even opens his mouth.
Inslee's opponent in the governor's race, state attorney general Rob McKenna, is a career conservative who opposes gay marriage, says he would personally encourage a woman considering an abortion to "choose the baby," and launched his life in politics campaigning against light rail. In person, McKenna, 49, is way more Revenge of the Nerds than dude in boots. He's slightly shorter than Inslee—six feet even—and a rather wan fellow, especially for an aspiring Republican executive type.
As a politician, McKenna can be slitheringly hard to pin down and exceedingly crafty. And lately he's done a lot more dodging than leading: declining to take a position on a recent bill in the state legislature that would have required insurers covering maternity care to cover abortions as well, ducking questions about which Republican he supports for president (and declining to attend the state Republican caucuses so as not to have to tip his hand), and remaining silent while his fellow Republicans in the state senate staged a recent coup that rammed through a budget with $74 million in cuts to education (despite McKenna styling himself as the education candidate in the race).
Inslee called those proposed Republican cuts to education "totally unacceptable," which is exactly the kind of thing you'd think people would love to hear from a Democrat in a Democratic state.
Yet over the last 10 months, polls have consistently shown McKenna winning the race for governor by an average of six points.
Whose fault is that?
"My fault," Inslee seemed to be implicitly saying to reporters who were summoned, rather suddenly, to his downtown Seattle campaign headquarters on Saturday, March 10, for a "major announcement."
For the last 13 years, Inslee has been the US House member representing Washington's 1st Congressional District, which covers Bainbridge Island, where he lives, plus the northern Kitsap Peninsula and a large area around Edmonds. Before that, back in his alfalfa farming days, Inslee represented Washington's 4th District (a wide swath of Eastern Washington with Yakima at its center). The major announcement on March 10: Inslee is stepping down from Congress so that he can go "all in" on a race that plainly needs more of his attention.
"I need to get out there," Inslee admitted, wearing his ropers, jeans, and a white dress shirt under a black blazer. "I am going everywhere, I am going to explore everything, and I am going to listen to everybody. If you have an idea, I want to hear it. If you have a problem, I want to know it."
He was so intent on staring directly into the cameras as he said this that he didn't notice the podium's microphone was literally pressed against the center of his chest—probably not what his advisers had recommended, but certainly one way to lean into the problem and speak from the heart.
A few hours later, Inslee was at Marjorie, a Capitol Hill restaurant owned by the Jamaican-born Donna Moodie. The mission: meet—and, hopefully, collect money from—leaders in Seattle's African American community. Former King County executive Ron Sims, back from a post in the Obama administration, introduced Inslee as, first, "a Democrat," and, second, "a person who we can believe in, as he believes in us."
There were about 20 people in the room, all standing as they listened. Inslee, pointing out he'd once worked as a waiter, immediately asked them to sit so that he and his wife of 39 years, Trudi, could serve them wine and bring out plates of fancy cheeses.
Inslee is good at raising money—so far, he's brought in $4.25 million to McKenna's $3.74 million—and he knows how to work a room, pouring wine, dropping names, making sure his gray-blue eyes meet, at some point, with the eyes of every single person who's come to see him. He said a lot of the right things at Marjorie, talking about "this scandalous achievement gap that has not been closed in our state," decrying the "just unacceptable" Republican plan to cut millions from education, and reminding everyone that in the current national brawl over contraception, he's on the pro-choice, pro-women's-reproductive-rights side of things.
The problem was just how much Inslee needed to be at this event.
Ideally, a Democratic candidate for governor shouldn't have to be working so hard to introduce himself to core Democratic constituencies in the most liberal city in the most liberal county in the state. Polls, however, keep on revealing a situation that's decidedly not ideal for Inslee. Take the SurveyUSA poll that was released on February 16 and showed McKenna beating Inslee in the Seattle metropolitan area—in the Seattle metropolitan area—46 percent to 38 percent. The main reason Inslee is trailing here? A lot of voters in King County, where McKenna served for years on the county council before rising to the post of attorney general, simply know McKenna's name better.
"A lot of people say, 'Where's Jay been?'" said Dwight Pelz, head of the state Democratic Party. "Well, Rob McKenna's been a full-time candidate for governor for seven years now." (During which time, Inslee has been in DC, with only the people in his district really knowing who he is and what he's been up to—voting against the Iraq war, voting for health-care reform, and, at every possible opportunity, voting for clean energy.)
King County Council chair Larry Gossett, who introduced Sims at the Marjorie event, said this dynamic makes it "a very good move" for Inslee to ditch Congress and start camping out in King County, the most populous county in the state and the key to outgoing governor Chris Gregoire winning her two terms in office. In 2004, when King County gave Gregoire just under 58 percent of its vote, she had an endless recount and barely won. In 2008, when it gave her 64 percent of its vote, she won a lot more easily.
In fact, a strong vote in King County has been the essential ingredient in keeping the Washington State governor's desk in Democratic hands for a remarkable 27 straight years. Inslee simply can't keep that streak going without winning big here. But, Gossett pointed out, "McKenna goes to all kinds of health and human services dinners, and to events for progressive, well-known, community-based organizations. He really reaches out." That doesn't mean McKenna's politics are in line with the aims of those progressive groups, but there is something very effective—and politically sly—about simply showing up and letting people make their own assumptions.
"I think Inslee would make the better candidate for governor," Gossett said, "for minorities, for the poor, for working and middle class people. This does not mean that because Larry Gossett thinks that, that Jay Inslee is going to win. Rob McKenna is a very effective campaigner, and a very smart person, and very comfortable with all kinds of communities—and all of that makes him very formidable."
Something else that makes McKenna formidable: a granular knowledge of Washington State politics and policy, something Inslee—more steeped in federal policy—has struggled to convincingly display.
For example: At the Marjorie event, when it was time for questions, Gossett tossed Inslee the softest of softballs. Something like 25 percent of all African Americans over the age of 24 in Washington State can't vote, Gossett said, often because they've been caught up in an unjust drug-arrest-obsessed system. He then noted that McKenna strongly supports the state's current ban on felon voting. Gossett's question: What's your position on restoring felon voting rights?
Inslee, who talks a lot on the stump about having served as a prosecutor in Eastern Washington, didn't answer the question.
Instead, he talked about early childhood education as the key to preventing people from ending up in jail in the first place. Which is a fair enough point. But the question Gossett asked was about restoring voting rights for convicted felons, something that's been a huge point of debate in Washington State for years, and in fact went all the way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010, with the court—at McKenna's urging—upholding Washington's ban on felon voting. (McKenna's webpage brags that it was his first victory ever before that court.)
"I really doubt if Inlsee or his people know that much about the issue," Gossett told me later.
The day after the Marjorie event, I asked Inslee's campaign staff for Inslee's position on felon voting rights. As of press time—10 days after the Marjorie event—they still hadn't gotten me an answer.
It's an accretion of anecdotes like this that has led to some Democratic political consultants anonymously whispering things like "I wish Jay had put together an A-team." At the top of the Inslee high command: Joby Shimomura, his campaign manager, who has worked for Inslee on and off since 1996, including as his chief of staff in DC. This particular consultant likened going with familiar faces like Shimomura to "putting on an old pair of slippers."
If you ask Inslee—or his team, or his supporters—to explain why his candidacy isn't taking off, or why the airwaves aren't currently flooded with commercials touting Inslee and tearing down McKenna, or why he doesn't even seem to have as many web ads as McKenna, or why his stack of policy papers on state issues isn't as thick as McKenna's, or why people aren't talking passionately about Inslee at cocktail parties and dinners, they'll inevitably tell you: Wait.
"All that carping that you've been hearing is hugely overstated and premature," said a different Democratic consultant who thinks Inslee is doing just fine for being eight months out from Election Day. "Your typical voter has not even begun to pay attention. This race is still totally fluid... All these people running around acting like the sky is falling need to chill for a bit and let Inslee make his case."
Right now, Inslee is making his case by rolling out a serious jobs plan and referring back to it as often as possible, plus starkly differentiating himself from McKenna on social issues like gay marriage and women's health—and, whenever he can, pointing out where McKenna's rhetoric on education either doesn't add up or doesn't match his party's plans in Olympia. It could be an effective one-two-three combination of punches, but first, people need to see (or hear) those punches being thrown. So to try to amplify these messages, Inslee's campaign has gone "all in" on playing for what's called earned media—aka free media—all over King County. In whatever time is left over, he'll also be vacuuming up as much cash as possible for big ad buys later in the season, when a lot more people will be tuning in.
On Tuesday, March 13, as part of the grueling work of chasing earned media opportunities all over King County, Inslee's campaign found itself at a bland industrial park in Kent. To be exact, Inslee was standing inside the front office of a company called World CNG, where he was to take a tour of a small factory out back that rips the gas-powered entrails out of vehicles and replaces them with new entrails that power the vehicle using compressed natural gas or propane. If you've seen clean-energy taxis running to and from Sea-Tac Airport, this is where a lot of them come from, and they come from here in part because of $3.5 million in Obama stimulus funds that Inslee helped direct toward this purpose. Twenty-six direct jobs (and about 200 indirect jobs) have been created as a consequence of this clean-energy effort. Exactly three reporters, including myself, showed up to cover this news. (Plus one young, nervous, camera-holding "tracker" from the state Republican Party, who was quickly sent back to his car, a messy Nissan Pathfinder with a University of Washington alumni sticker on the back.)
In the middle of the tour, some governor's-race-related news broke. A judge in Thurston County had just struck down the controversial "redefine marriage" ballot language that McKenna had proposed for November's statewide vote on Washington's new gay marriage law, replacing it with more neutral language. Inslee asked for a nearby ratchet to be silenced and, standing in front of an American flag and a clean-vehicle-in-the-making, told the one television camera that had shown up: "It's very disappointing that it took a court to force our attorney general to follow the law—and to stop, frankly, playing politics on this matter."
A solid differentiation between the candidates on a huge social issue. A potentially winning earned media moment. And what happened? Steve Hunter of the Kent Reporter filed a story on the tour and Inslee's marriage statement. I called in a blog post about it. The television footage turned up five days later on KING 5's very non-prime-time politics show Up Front with Robert Mak (which airs at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. on Sundays). And that was it for earned media from this event.
As we left, 12 bottles of water sat at the office entry, neatly lined up, all unopened, still waiting for press people who never arrived. Inslee, a pro at these things, departed smiling, riding in a blue Prius driven by a staffer and showing no outward signs of a soul crushed by low media attendance.
The next day, Wednesday, March 14, brought another attempt to get King County press for Inslee's clean-energy efforts. This time, it was a morning walking tour of the offices of Shuttle Express, which these days delivers some of its passengers to the airport in propane-powered vehicles retrofitted by World CNG.
I was the only reporter who showed.
Again, we were in a bland industrial office park, this time in Renton. Our tour guide: Jimy Sherrell, 68, CEO of Shuttle Express. I noticed he was wearing a red tie with rows of elephants marching across it, and it soon turned out he'd been a Dino Rossi supporter in the 2008 governor's race. His opening effort at describing his conservative politics: "I don't like people helping other people."
Inslee made the best of it, bonding with Sherrell over their shared passion for ranching (and their different techniques for birthing cows). Inslee listened politely as Shuttle Express president John Rowley told him that training good workers is "no different than raising children." And then, a short while later, we were leaving Shuttle Express.
"We're gonna go find some votes," Inslee said cheerfully, probably knowing that this would be a far better use of his time than chatting any longer with me and Sherrell.
There is certainly no shame in grinding it out, happy warrior style, all over King County—even through press events that don't quite draw a crowd. It's also not a bad idea to be a candidate on a listening tour. Lots of politicians introduce and even reintroduce themselves to voters in the "Give me your best ideas!" manner that Inslee is employing right now. But in the end, voters will want a candidate for governor to run around offering a lot more answers than questions, especially in an economy like this one.
On the way home from Shuttle Express, I stopped to fill up my empty gas tank. It cost more than $60.
The next evening, Thursday, March 15, I was in West Seattle at the High Point Community Center, where about 50 people had shown up during the dinner hour to hear Inslee make his case. This was classic retail politics—a working-class room filled with lots of different ethnicities and featuring parents holding squirming kids, pregnant moms taking notes, and elderly men and women interrupting to tell everyone to speak up. Inslee shook all the hands he could, including the hand of the familiar Republican tracker (who'd just told me that normally in his line of work, "you get treated like shit everywhere you go").
Then Inslee talked about how he spent some of his childhood not far away, in White Center, where he was a fixture at a similar neighborhood community center. He talked about how he's "the only candidate in the race—the only person—who says that every single person in America should have health insurance." He pointed out that the health-care-reform law he voted for as a congressman now says that women who develop breast cancer can't be denied health care because some insurance company deems their cancer to be a "preexisting condition" (at this, female heads around the room nodded in vigorous approval).
This kind of ground level, community center politicking is one very effective way to turn around a problem like the one Inslee's facing—one room at a time, one policy differentiation at a time, one nodding head at a time. The problem is, it's a really, really slow way to turn things around. And the faster way—television ads—is very, very expensive.
Question time came. "Just out of strong curiosity," said Darlene Wright, 32, of High Point North, "which candidate is it that is against women with breast cancer having health insurance?"
"Well, it's my opponent," Inslee said, "Rob McKenna."
He talked about the federal lawsuit McKenna filed to overturn health-care reform, the one that's now at the US Supreme Court, and concluded: "That's one of the reasons I hope I can win your vote for governor."
Wright, showing how effective this line of attack could be in future TV commercials, mouthed at Inslee: "You have it."
Others aren't so convinced. Earlier that week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat had slammed Inslee for leaving Congress to focus on the governor's race, calling Inslee "the quitter who would be governor" (this after Seattlepi.com columnist Joel Connelly had already written a piece headlined "Quitting on your constituents: Jay Inslee does a Sarah Palin").
Just before Inslee dashed off from the High Point Community Center—so he could be introduced and loudly applauded at a big NARAL Pro-Choice Washington fundraiser later that evening—I asked Inslee what he thought of people calling him a quitter. He immediately brought up Connelly's attempt to link him to Palin, which had obviously irked him.
"It's Rob McKenna who's connected to Sarah Palin," Inslee fumed, noting that Mc- Kenna endorsed the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008. "He thought she was fit to be vice president of the United States."
So what's the problem? What's keeping you behind in the polls?
"One candidate is much, much better known than the other candidate," Inslee answered. But, he quickly added, "We're not daunted. We're actually pleased with where we are. This is going to be a competitive race. This was always going to be a competitive race."
Would you be surprised to see your current "all in" strategy result in a poll next week that shows you pulling ahead?
"Yeah, I'd be a little surprised by that, actually," Inslee said.
Hearing this, his handlers got a little twitchy ("We really have to go," one said). But Inslee continued on, saying he doesn't live by polls—while at the same time cautioning not to expect any big change in his poll numbers until he shifts from his current ground game (this exhausting scouring of the land for hands to shake, earned media moments to create, and advice to gamely absorb) to an air attack that will involve millions of dollars in TV commercials and help make this one of the most expensive governor's races in the nation.
Inslee currently has about $2.4 million cash on hand to McKenna's $2 million on hand. That's going to change when the prohibition against McKenna fundraising during the current legislative session (because he's a state officer) is lifted, and when outside groups get into the game. But even then, Inslee will still have the better looks and the tougher boots—which matters a lot on TV—plus the political platform that's more in line with Washington voters.
So I asked Inslee the question a lot of people are currently asking him: When is this bigger assault on McKenna's so-far-winning candidacy going to arrive?
Inslee replied: "State secret."