Some in Olympia are happy with new Gov. Jay Inslee, and some aren’t.
But one thing seems clear: Inslee will be a different kind of governor and will march to his own drummer.
For Inslee, it won’t be business, or politics, as usual. He is clearly planning to bring a different way of thinking to Olympia. With his casual yet comfortable manner, he brings a rugged western quality more reflective of his time in Eastern Washington rather than his time on the eastern seaboard as a member of Congress. His style is one of a person you can talk to, rather than just listen to.
From the beginning, Inslee has approached his office in a different manner. He chose Mary Alice Heuschel — the Renton superintendent of schools — as his chief of staff, even though she had no state capital job experience. Most expected him to pick an Olympia insider to balance his own lack of recent state experience.
Some felt that with his time spent mostly in the nation’s capital, and not the state capital, Inslee would need an insider to help him tackle the Republican-controlled Senate and deal with powerful Democratic Speaker of the House Frank Chopp.
In most administrations, the chief of staff has state management and state budget experience along with lobbying connections, and runs the daily operations of state government.
Inslee also generated criticism for being slow to announce cabinet-level appointments and not submitting a full budget of his own.
But Inslee’s choice of chief of staff did send a strong message that K-12 would be big priority for him, and that he wanted a knowledgeable person with real-life experience leading his efforts.
Inslee did balance his administration by keeping several members of former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s cabinet and adding several new faces, including high-profile outsiders as Secretary of Transportation and the Department of Social and Health Services. Due to the short time frame between getting sworn in and the start of the session, he submitted several new ideas rather than a budget when Greqoire’s was already up for debate. And Inslee didn’t bend to satisfy others’ timetables, which may have also helped him avoid some possible traps.
Inslee is passionate about his views and priorities and hasn’t been afraid to wade into difficult issues on the environment and energy, contacting legislators directly. Learning how and when to push the levers of power is something all governors must learn.
Inslee’s most recent move may have been the most surprising of all. That he chose to replace four of Gregoire’s appointments to the Washington State Achievement Council was not a big surprise. But the selections were shocking to Olympia and some of Inslee’s own party.
He replaced former congressional and Democratic colleague Brian Baird; former Seattle Community College Chairwomen Constance Rice; Jay Reich, who was Deputy Chief of Staff to Gary Locke when he was Commerce Secretary; and Jose Gaitan, who was State Academic Achievement and Accountability Chairman. Big hitters in any league, but particularly in Democratic politics.
Inslee has expressed his belief that college can be a gamechanger in the lives of many young people. He apparently views the new Achievement Council as an avenue to establish an imprint on the future of higher education and wants to send his own message with his own appointees. He seems willing to challenge the normal way of doing business to meet that goal.
Inslee’s new approach has been a shock to many. Can he really make a significant difference in the environment, K-12 and higher education? Can he obtain the cooperation of all the special interest groups and get everyone headed in the same direction? Will there be pushback from fellow Democrats?
The halls of Olympia have seen many well-intended people and ideas sidetracked by special interests and party politics that dominate policy fabric. Many people didn’t expect Inslee to be here, but he is, and he is making his presence known.
If Inslee can truly set the state on a new course in education that prepares our children for the next century, it would be a monumental achievement.