Inslee needs a stiff challenge, not a free ride, in 2020

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to members of the news media inside CNN’s Spin Room on July 31 after the second Democratic primary debate held at The Fox Theatre in Detroit.McClatchy Newspapers

This editorial was published in the (Tacoma) News Tribune.

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Jay Inslee’s announcement last week that he wants another go-round as Washington governor shouldn’t be treated as a fait accompli, as if he were owed a consolation prize after his failed bid for president. Running for a third term as governor is a rare occurrence — the last time it happened was 1972 — that calls for a measure of skepticism from politicians and voters of both parties.

Washingtonians deserve a robust gubernatorial election in 2020, every bit as much as Americans deserve a real choice for the White House next year.

Unfortunately, Washington Republicans have a similar problem as the Seattle Mariners: They’ve done a lousy job developing a farm team of talent ready for the biggest stage, resulting in a 40-year drought since the last GOP governor.

The Republican names being bandied about so far this year don’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Meantime, a handful of high-profile Democrats who had an eye on Inslee’s job while waiting for his next move rallied behind the incumbent last week, like good soldiers lining up in formation. Among them: Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz and King County Executive Dow Constantine.

“Of course I was looking forward to the opportunity to get out there and debate Washington’s future with my colleagues,” Constantine acknowledged.

Except now he won’t. The question is: Who will?

Inslee is a capable state leader, and his nearly six-month presidential run elevated the national climate-change dialogue in an admirable way. But it also diverted his attention from pressing state issues such as education, affordable housing and health care access, all of which need a thorough election-campaign examination.

A true governor’s race would also zero in on trade, taxation and the economy at a time when forecasts point to a downturn. Rather than just offer familiar sound bites about Washington being No. 1 for business, Inslee should have to answer how he’d handle a reversal of the growing state budgets he’s enjoyed since taking office.

Ideally, state Republicans would field a competitive opponent. But early signs don’t offer much hope, and the Trump factor may cause some to hold off until 2024.

The two declared GOP candidates are Loren Culp, a police chief largely unknown outside the tiny eastern Washington town of Republic, and Phil Fortunato, a state senator largely unknown outside the 31st Legislative District.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a moderate Republican on the short list of names with intriguing potential, is out; he confirmed to us this week he will run for a second term in his current post.

What about a quality Democratic foil engaging Inslee in a primary campaign? Is it too much to hope that new ideas and contrarian views might bubble up through an intra-party challenge? Apparently so, in today’s tightly controlled, wait-your-turn political environment.

But it wasn’t so far-fetched once upon a time. Even Republican Gov. Dan Evans, Washington’s last three-term governor (1965-1976), widely respected as one of the finest to hold the office, had to fend off a veteran state senator from his own party during his second reelection bid.

It was Evans, ironically, who blocked Tacoma’s Al Rosellini from winning a third term. Rosellini was the last Democrat to attempt the trifecta, but he failed despite his party’s 1964 landslide victory nationally with LBJ atop the ticket.

Perhaps Rosellini’s loss stuck in the minds of later Democratic governors Booth Gardner, Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire, who left on their own terms after two terms.

Inslee has chosen a different path, but Washingtonians don’t have to accept his reelection as a leadpipe cinch.

Voters are certainly ready for a competitive election in 2020, even if the political establishment isn’t.

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