"It's not a doom-and-gloom message. We are capable of defeating climate change. This can be a positive economic message." Lester Black

Governor Jay Inslee's presidential campaign platform has one plank: We must defeat climate change. The only way we're going to get that done is if a president makes it their number-one priority, he says.

The pitch makes a certain kind of sense. Climate change is the greatest existential threat to the planet. Iowa and Nebraska and Mozambique are underwater. The West Coast is becoming a burn pile. And have you seen the new David Attenborough documentary on Netflix? Wild-eyed walruses are hurling their bodies off of cliffs due to the lack of habitat. Horrific, creepy jellyfish are overtaking the seas. There are like 14 orangutans left. And the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change "describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040," according to the New York Times. That's in 20 years.

Given this reality, it's astounding that every Democrat running for president isn't running on climate change. The candidates should be duking it out over who has the best strategy to address our acidic oceans and our smoked-out skies.

But that isn't happening. Because a lot of people don't care. In polls, only an average of 35 percent of Americans say global warming is "very important" to their voting decisions. In another poll, climate change ranked as the 15th most important issue on a list of 28 issues in the 2020 race.

These surveys show us how dumb our priorities are. They also show us the challenge Inslee's campaign faces. He's got to make us care about climate change—although he's probably betting that floods and wildfires are going to do some of that work for him—and then he's got to convince us that he's the guy who can do something about it.

That last point is proving troublesome. While other little-known candidates have successfully made names for themselves (hello, Pete Buttigieg), Inslee is currently wallowing at 1 percent in national polls. And this is after a successful rollout, some soft-focus profiles in national magazines, and a warm welcome on the morning shows.

In the last few weeks, he's been stepping up his efforts to build momentum. He didn't completely embarrass himself at the CNN town hall, he spoke movingly about immigrant protections on Pod Save America, and he's been touring solar facilities and flooded plains in Iowa. He also announced that he raised $2.25 million during his first month of campaigning, which is slightly better than Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (who pulled in $2 million during the same time period).

So far, though, Inslee is still flying under the radar. And that's a problem. So I tracked him down to talk about it.



The country might not yet know Jay Inslee, but the people traveling on the 5:35 p.m. ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island certainly do. During the course of a 25-minute interview with the two-term governor, three people interrupted us with requests for photos and autographs.

"Excuse me, Governor, but you gave me my Life Ring Award," said a mustachioed ferry worker as he reached to shake Inslee's hand.

"I remember that! That's fun," Inslee said.

Every year, the Washington Department of Transportation presents Life Ring Awards to ferry workers who save lives. "We gave him an award because he was involved in a rescue," Inslee said.

"It was a great experience. My wife was just thrilled. I still have the hat—don't want to wear it because I want my grandkids to have it," the worker said.

The worker pulled out a brochure he'd snagged from one of the ferry's racks and explained that he was here to ask for an autograph on behalf of the ship's mate. The mate wanted to ask for one himself, but he was "too chicken" to do it.

"Make it out to Tim," the worker said. "He's such a chicken."

As Inslee signed the flyer, the worker casually complimented our beers and tater tots—"I see you got the breakfast of champions going on here"—before taking the conversation in a much darker direction.

"You heard about the last trip on the Seattle ferry? Horrible accident," he said. "Bike rider came off the boat and got hit by a car on the bridge there."

"Oh no!" Inslee said.

"Got him back to Harborview for emergency surgery..." the worker said.

Inslee cut him off: "When was this?"

"They removed the whole left side of his body. He's all right now," the worker deadpanned.

Inslee let out a big laugh. We'd been had.

"You get this for free!" Inslee said to me, referring to the worker's sense of humor. "You don't have to pay extra for this on Washington ferries," he added, shaking the guy's hand.



Inslee has been a good retail politician for a very long time. After representing Southwest Washington for four years in the state legislature, Central Washingtonians in the Republican-leaning 4th Congressional District elected Inslee to the US House of Representatives in 1992. He worked hard for both seats, spending "many mornings holding a campaign sign on a street corner" and knocking on doors, according to an overview of his career in the Seattle Times.

Republicans swept him out in the red wave of 1994, largely for his vote to ban assault weapons, Inslee likes to say. But then he moved west to Bainbridge Island, where he ran for Congress again. He won and served six terms.

In Congress, he developed a reputation as a champion for the environment. About halfway through his tenure, he wrote a book called Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy, in which he and policy researcher Bracken Hendricks laid out a plan to transform the United States' carbon-based economy into a green energy economy. In 2012, Inslee stepped down from his seat in the House to run for governor, a big bet that paid off after he beat former attorney general Rob McKenna by 3 points. He clobbered Bill Bryant by 9 points to secure a second term.

While he's had a long local history of electoral success, as I mentioned earlier, Inslee is still at 1 percent in the national polls. That's enough to get on the Democratic debate stage in June, but not enough to inspire confidence that his call to defeat climate change is resonating with voters.

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The ever-ebullient Inslee seemed merely content with the state of his campaign so far. "The reception has been good," he said, popping a tater tot in his mouth. "We got adequate groups of people meeting us in New Hampshire and Iowa, so that's been good." A member of his communications staff interjected, "150 people in Exeter [New Hampshire] is more than adequate!"

"We've got a lot of interest around this fundamental message," Inslee added quickly. "People really care, they really understand the threat that Trump poses, and they really want to kick the tires and look at candidates. It's an open field."

The field has grown to 20 contenders, and Inslee's low poll numbers so far don't bother him. "I'm where I've always been, which is an underdog," he said. "Almost every race I've ever been in, I start somewhere between 60 and 30 points behind. So this is a common position for me to start a race."

He sees a precedent for victory in the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, two other relatively unknown governors from small states. And as he tours regions devastated by fire and flood, Inslee says he's overwhelmed by a "thirst for hope" on climate change, echoing President Barack Obama.

Recently, a woman in Seminole Springs, a mobile-home park near Los Angeles, threw his campaign off schedule for a few hours when she asked the governor to come look at her property. Though her home had been burned out by the Woolsey Fire, she proudly displayed her driveway, which she'd poured herself and decorated with rocks. She wanted to show him her driveway as evidence of her community's resilience, but also as a way of thanking him for bringing her hope that a President Jay Inslee might be able to keep future flames at bay.

"I've believed this for a long time," Inslee said. "It's not a doom-and-gloom message. We are capable of defeating climate change. This can be a positive economic message. It's got to be a can-do moment."

Though climate change ranks low on the list of pressing issues for most Americans, Inslee points to recent Iowa polls showing the issue tying with heath care in terms of importance among Democrats there.

"And we know this is a very motivating thing for young voters," he added.

As if on cue, two Bainbridge High School students—Wyatt, 14, and Henry, 16—butted in on our conversation. "Are you Governor Inslee?" one asked. "Can we get a picture, please?" Inslee agreed to take the selfie with the students, but he made sure to stay on message. "What do you think of climate change? Do you think we should do something about it?" Inslee asked them.

Wyatt and Henry agreed that we should. Inslee asked if they were talking about climate change in school. The teens confirmed that they had been. He asked them to thank their teachers, "because we really love teachers who talk about climate change," and then implored them to register to vote. "We're going to pass a bill so you can register even before you're 18," Inslee said. "Wow, that's awesome," one of the teens said.

"What was I saying?" Inslee said when he sat back down to our beers and tater tots. "That young people are really highly motivated around climate change? I think that's what I was saying."

They didn't seem as motivated about climate change as they were about getting a selfie with a presidential candidate, but I let the governor have that one.

"Listen, I'm the only person in this race who has said this has to be the number-one priority in the United States. No one else is willing to say that," Inslee said, elaborating on his conviction that climate change is the path to the presidency. "So we have to do the blocking and tackling and the digital work and the fundraising, but that's the path."



Single-issue candidates, however, "are rare—and rarely successful," said Ed Kilgore, a political columnist for New York magazine. Remember much about Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig's bid? Or Ellen McCormack's? Pete McCloskey's? Me either.

And even if voters did send Inslee to the Oval Office with a mandate to tackle climate change, he'd have to work with a hyper-partisan, hyper-competitive Congress that hates to let presidents get their way.

Frances E. Lee, a professor in the Department of Government & Politics at the University of Maryland, argued in a recent interview with Ezra Klein that politicians that shine a big, bright light on their policy goals are ultimately making those goals harder to achieve. Only bills that have stayed in the shadows—a land conservation bill, a weak-tea criminal justice bill—have made any progress in the last few years.

But the mercurial, multifaceted nature of Inslee's issue allows him to escape some of these criticisms. After all, climate change isn't just an environmental issue—it's also a health issue, an economic issue, a social-justice issue, and so on.

Still, is Inslee the right messenger? After all, he has been fighting to create a green economy for more than two decades with minimal to moderate success, but then Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comes along and tweets out the Green New Deal resolution (with help from genius policy wonk Rhiana Gunn-Wright), and suddenly everyone's talking about it. The Sunrise Movement is mobilizing massive demonstrations in support of the legislation. And internationally, Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, skipped school to hold a climate strike on the steps of parliament, and now she's mopping the floor with billionaires at Davos. The voice of the new climate movement seems to be young, pissed-off women who would like a place to live in a few years. Hasn't Inslee already had his moment to change the conversation on a national level? What does he think he's contributing to this movement?

"Obviously, Ocasio-Cortez's success in bringing this to the fore has been great, so I don't mean to supplant that," Inslee said. "Where I think I can help—because of my intense focus on this for decades—is adding policies to that discussion."

Inslee pointed to recent environmental policy gains in Washington State. He said we have 3,000 megawatts of wind turbines spinning in this state. We're on track to meet his goal of putting 50,000 electric vehicles on the road by next year. (We currently have a little more than 42,500.) He can tick off a list of businesses that have benefited from his clean energy fund, a pot of money in the state's capital budget that lawmakers can use to invest in green energy projects and research.

He can also tick off a list of concrete ideas for making a "just transition" from a carbon economy to a green economy, so that people who work in fossil-fuel industries and those who are hit hardest by climate change aren't left high and dry.

The transition will include a program to pay utility bills for people who experience increases in gas prices, a fund to provide training for employees who will need to find new jobs after fossil-fuel plants shutter, and a plan to make electric cars more available to people with low incomes. And that's just three of the policies that will make up a much larger "Climate Mission," the details of which Inslee told me he'd release "soon—sooner than Bernie Sanders will release his tax returns."

On Tax Day, April 15, Sanders released the last 10 years of his tax returns, showing that he made more than $1 million in the last couple of years. As of press time, Inslee had yet to release his full list of climate policy proposals.

Incidentally, random shots at Sanders punctuated our conversation. When asked if his campaign had purchased carbon offsets, as Sanders's campaign had, Inslee scoffed. "My carbon offset is to create a decarbonation mission statement for the United States to totally eliminate carbon emissions. That's a hell of an offset," he said, laughing.

I asked how much money the campaign would have to raise before considering buying the offsets. "Minimal," he said. "It's not very much. It's a symbolic thing. But I think it's important to realize we're not going to beat change with symbolism."

Though Republicans in the Washington State Legislature and big oil companies have stymied Inslee's major environmental legislative proposals, including 2016's carbon tax (Initiative 732) and last year's carbon fee (Initiative 1631), the governor expects big wins out of the Democrat-controlled legislature this year.

A bill requiring Washington State to run its energy grid on 100 percent renewables is sailing through, as is a bill that would institute stricter energy efficiency standards on buildings.

"Those are all very big deals," said Nick Abraham of the Washington Environmental Council. Despite Inslee's high-profile losses on the carbon tax and carbon fee, Abraham said "no one has ever questioned Inslee's commitment on the issue of climate change."

Abraham also applauded Inslee's actions during the massive, complex fights surrounding proposals to build fossil-fuel infrastructure in the region. In the face of resistance from unions, Inslee rejected a permit for the Savage Companies and Andeavor oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, Washington, last year. He, along with Maia Bellon at the state Department of Ecology, also denied crucial permits for a coal-export terminal in Longview.

"That was one of the biggest environmental victories in the last five years," Abraham said. "Those two projects alone were larger than the Keystone Pipeline. If we'd had a different decision maker in there, someone who'd been in the pocket of oil and coal companies, those might have turned out really differently."

Praise for Inslee's environmental record is not universal, however. Stacy Oaks, of the grassroots environmental group 350 Seattle, appreciates Inslee's emphasis on climate change, as well as his stance against oil and coal, but she thinks he's too ready to incorporate fracked methane gas (aka natural gas) into his green energy proposals.

"Now that we're seeing more science, we know that gas is as bad if not worse for the climate as coal," Oaks said. "When you include all the methane—a potent greenhouse gas—that leaks from extraction and that leaks during transportation, it's just as bad."

The big fight here involves the construction of Puget Sound Energy's Tacoma liquid natural gas refinery, which is an eight-million-gallon fracked-gas storage tank located on the edge of the Puyallup Tribe's reservation. Puyallup chairman Bill Sterud said in a recent statement that the project is sited "on our homeland in an area we have inhabited since time immemorial," and that the utility did not conduct "a meaningful consultation with the Tribe" beforehand. He is calling on Inslee to initiate a supplemental environmental review of the refinery, which is already being built.

Another issue is the methanol refinery that Northwest Innovation Works is proposing in Kalama. If built, it would be the world's largest methanol refinery, Oaks said. Inslee initially supported the proposal back in 2014, and he now supports "'thorough and objective' reviews of all major energy projects in Washington," according to the Daily News.

Though 350 Seattle acknowledges that Inslee legally cannot oppose these projects while they're still in the permitting process, the organization would like him to make "general public statements about moving off natural gas." They also expect him to address the treaty violations alleged by the Puyallup Tribe to the extent allowed by the Centennial Accord between tribes and the state of Washington.



But then there's all the other stuff. If we put climate change aside for just one second, Jay Inslee's record on economic issues sucks.

Though he likes to say Washington's economy has "grown from the middle out" while pointing to the passage of the $15 minimum wage, that couldn't be further from the truth. Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the country. The state's poorest people pay six times more of their income in taxes than the state's wealthiest people. Inslee supports a capital gains tax to help balance Washington's upside-down tax code, but he's against an income tax, which I believe we should have in addition to a capital gains tax, not to mention a wealth tax, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

And, as many local columnists and reporters have pointed out, Inslee gave Boeing the largest corporate tax break in American history. Inslee claims that Boeing held him hostage by threatening to move jobs out of the state if they didn't get their way, but that doesn't track with Inslee's statements at the time. When he signed the deal in 2013, Inslee called it "great news for every Washingtonian," according to the Seattle Times, but Boeing "later drained away nearly 20,000 jobs" anyway.

Moreover, Inslee's proposed "public option" health care plan isn't really a public option, he pardoned only 13 people with pot convictions after offering pardons to thousands, and though he's a great doodler and a nice guy, sometimes his dad jokes are unbearable.

Plus, 2018's blue wave showed us that the country is hungry for more women leaders. "If that's your opinion, I'm probably not your candidate," he admitted. "I don't fit that mold. If people have that view, they ought to vote their convictions."

If you're looking for a woman, or even an economically progressive candidate, Inslee is not your guy. That said, there won't be much of an economy to save once the water wars begin, so what are we even saying?

Whatever the case, Inslee seems to be in this thing for the long haul. Though rumors swirl about him actually secretly running to be named the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency or the next interior secretary, Inslee and his team seem serious about the White House. Inslee isn't the best choice for either of those other positions anyway. (You want a policy wonk/scientist in those cabinet positions, not a lifetime politician.)

For Inslee, the quest for the White House is personal. "My family is very much in touch with everything that's at risk," he said. "We hike in the forests, but they're burning down. We like crabbing and digging oysters, but you can't grow baby oysters in Puget Sound now because of ocean acidification. We like fishing, but salmon are on the verge of extinction. Most of the things my family have held precious for several generations are very much at risk right now."