Whether he’s touting Washington’s red-hot economy or hawking Tacoma-made Roca products overseas, Gov. Jay Inslee radiates enthusiasm. If there’s any activity that excites the first-term Democratic governor more than cheerleading, it’s getting on the court for a game of pickup basketball.
Inslee understands from experience that politics, like hoops, is a contact sport. “No blood, no foul,” the former 15-year congressman has been known to say. The basketball cliche is apt; it acknowledges the necessity of subtle pushing and shoving on both offense and defense. Even the team captain has to throw the occasional elbow to set a tone or establish position.
What’s ironic about Inslee is that he hasn’t put on the full-court press much in the past four years, especially when it comes to the state’s paramount duty to provide a public education.
Meeting the constitutional obligation to fully and fairly fund K-12 schools remains the most important job for all three branches of state government, as it was when Inslee took office. He and the Legislature have had enough time to satisfy the Supreme Court’s 2012 landmark McCleary decision, and while they have made progress, they’ve failed to finish the job.
The News Tribune Editorial Board endorses Inslee’s reelection bid while calling for him to use a stronger hand in the next four years, including immediate leadership for the sake of Washington’s school children.
His opponent, Republican Bill Bryant, is overmatched in campaign fundraising ($3.3 million to Inslee’s $8.7 million so far) and voter recognition (judging by his 11-percentage-point deficit in the primary election). But the two men aren’t so far apart when presenting arguments as viable governor candidates.
There’s no question Inslee has raised his game since defeating Republican Rob McKenna in 2012.
The governor points to the economy as a top achievement. People can argue about whether the Inslee administration helped spur the post-recession recovery or merely enjoyed good timing, but Washington is booming under his watch by several measures. Business Insider magazine ranks the state as having America’s No. 1 economy; Forbes puts it at No. 2.
Of course, supercharged King County skews those statistics, while income inequality and high unemployment persist elsewhere.
“It’s not uniform,” Inslee conceded about the economic rebound in an interview with our Editorial Board. “But it’s all upward.”
During his term, lawmakers plowed $4.5 billion into schools, ramped up all-day kindergarten and reduced class sizes. They agreed to a $16 billion package for transportation infrastructure; local projects include the desperately needed completion of state Route 167 and expanding Interstate 5 near JBLM.
Capital budgets signed by Inslee have been generous to Pierce County, spreading millions of dollars to new wards at Western State Hospital, new buildings at UW Tacoma and ongoing cleanup of Asarco pollution. His administration has also shown foresight addressing downsizing at JBLM and coordinating transition services for service members leaving uniform.
But if the 65-year-old Inslee wants to take credit for positive change that was under way when he arrived, he also must share blame for endemic problems that have worsened during his tenure.
Two bureaucracies have had scandalous meltdowns. At the Department of Corrections, the premature release of more than 3,000 prisoners went unnoticed for three years after a software-coding error was detected. In the mental health system, federal officials have had to intervene to stop a cycle of security breaches at Western State, and a steady stream of psychiatric patients languishing without timely assessment or treatment.
Inslee fired Western State’s administrator and helped secure money for more inpatient beds and staff payroll. But he also vetoed a bipartisan bill this year that contained smart reforms.
Fixing old problems at the hospital “is taking longer than we would have liked,” he told us.
Translation: It’s taking too long.
The same is true of adequately funding schools, a political minuet that’s dragged on for 4 ½ years (and counting). Inslee hasn’t leaned on legislators, the teachers union and others with the efficacy that his predecessor, Gov. Chris Gregoire, was known for.
Bryant, 56, promises to turn things around with his skills as an international trade businessman and former Seattle port commissioner. He would be the first Republican governor since John Spellman (1981-84), for whom Bryant served as a trade adviser.
We like Bryant’s mixed private and public background, including working with Democrat Gregoire on transportation policy. He’s well-versed on traffic congestion and freight immobility plaguing the I-5 corridor. He’s also impressively committed to Puget Sound health and salmon recovery.
But in the final analysis, Bryant is a little-known figure trying to skip a couple steps on the public service ladder and vault directly to the Governor’s Mansion. He makes big promises but has little core competency on issues such as education, mental health and homelessness.
So we will double down on Jay Inslee and ask more of him. He can have a strong second term, but only if he exerts closer oversight of beleaguered agencies, shows urgency in his leadership and uses the weight of his office like a tough power forward.