Here’s the top advice three Washington governors have for Jay Inslee: Burn your political capital quickly.
The Seattle Times interviewed Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, former Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry and former Republican Gov. Dan Evans about their transitions to the governor’s office and the lessons they learned. Collectively, they have 24 years of experience as governor.
While they have plenty of tips for the Democratic governor-elect, including thoughts on which positions to fill first and advice on not getting trapped in the Olympia bubble, all three stressed the need for Inslee to push big pieces of his agenda as soon as he’s sworn into office Jan. 16.
Inslee actually assumes office two days after the state Legislature goes into session. He’ll have a proposed budget drafted by Gregoire to use as a blueprint, but Inslee’s staff said he plans to write his own proposal.
“There’s not much time for vacation between election and inauguration,” said Evans, who served three terms, from 1965 to 1977. “You’ve got to build a team, and you’ve got to be prepared with what you want. You are at the peak of your popularity and ability to make things happen at the beginning. This is the time for dramatic proposals.”
Lowry agreed, noting that there’s a honeymoon period for governors at the start of their administrations because they haven’t been around long enough to tick anybody off.
“You come in with that momentum. You did win and everybody is excited about that. People are going to want to get along with you,” he said. “And the legislative leadership is going to want to work with you. That includes Republicans.”
That changes quickly, Lowry said.
“You run into the natural problems that are there,” he said. “Some legislators don’t like the decisions you’re making. They are going to be unhappy with not (getting) some of the things they wanted. That goes onto their chip pile, and pretty soon that chip pile gets up to where they say ‘to heck with him, I’m not going along.’”
Inslee announced the co-chairs of his transition committee Nov. 14, has met with Gregoire and has moved into temporary office space on the Capitol campus, but he has remained mum on the people he might hire for key positions in state government. No announcements were expected until this week at the earliest.
It’s also not clear how Inslee may want to spend political capital in the coming year.
He has not outlined an agenda yet, except to say his first move will be to implement a jobs plan that will include giving tax breaks to small businesses, creating an Office of Economic Competitiveness and Development, and increasing the number of students graduating with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.
The hard part will be translating those ideas into policy proposals he can push through the Legislature.
Gregoire, Evans and Lowry said the key to a quick start is to fill critical positions as soon as possible. Those hires include the chief of staff, the budget director and a legislative director, as well as someone to deal with the media.
They advised a slower pace, and thorough searches, to hire competent heads of state agencies such as the Department of Social and Health Services.
In terms of the governor’s inner circle, the chief of staff is key because that person manages the governor’s office, runs interference and acts as a gatekeeper. The legislative director is the governor’s point person in dealing with state lawmakers.
The budget director, typically a veteran government worker with deep knowledge of state expenditures and how to scrape together money to pay for programs, is crucial to help set the governor’s agenda and make it work.
“The day you walk in that door you’ve got to have that front office ready to go,” Gregoire said.
She said it was an uphill climb for her when she won office in 2004 because of the close race with Republican Dino Rossi, which resulted in multiple recounts and a lawsuit. Her election wasn’t certified until Dec. 30.
“No one will ever understand what a disadvantage it puts you in. My big goal was, would I have someone to answer the phones and turn on the lights?” she said.
In Inslee’s case, his Republican challenger, Rob McKenna, conceded Nov. 9.
Gregoire said she was determined from the start to show her face often in the House and Senate chambers and get to know the leaders of both parties.
“I was very aggressive on the floor. I thought, I’m going to get to know you and you’re going to get to know me and you’re going to find that I’m here to govern,” she said.
Lowry also said reaching out early to political leaders and getting them on board with your agenda is critical to success.
Inslee said he’s already called most state lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, to ask for their help. “I’ve had some really productive conversations and gotten some good ideas,” he said.
Evans also advised Inslee and his staff to take advantage of the hundreds of pages of briefing papers that Gregoire’s office has prepared for the new governor, covering topics such as transportation and Medicaid.
“When I became governor (after beating Democratic Gov. Al Rosellini) they had prepared nothing and gave us nothing,” Evans said. “When I walked into the office on the first day, every shelf was bare. There were no records. Nothing was left. We had to start from scratch.”
Gregoire said she used to do orientations for new governors at the National Governor’s Association.
She always told them, “Get ready for anything and everything. You think you’re coming in and you’ve got an agenda and you’re going to do X, and things will pull you away,” she said. “Eventually you get accustomed to the surprises. When you first take office, you’re just not ready.”