Just last month, incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee led Republican challenger Bill Bryant 39 percent to 30, according to an Elway poll, with 31 percent of voters undecided. Inslee’s number needs to be stronger. The poll also showed some vulnerability, with 58 percent rating the governor doing a “poor” or “fair” job.
Republicans saw the opening and wanted to shake up the election and put Inslee on the defensive. They had the Department of Corrections issue, where hundreds of inmates had been let out early from their sentences and two had committed murders. But Inslee had an investigation in place and had outflanked the Republicans’ senate hearing on corrections with a headline-grabbing announcement on Big Bertha and the Seattle tunnel.
The corrections issue was losing steam outside of Olympia.
The attack was swift, silent and secret. It came on a Friday afternoon when most of Olympia was on its cell phone arranging for meetings over drinks after daily adjournment. The Republican-controlled state Senate voted to not confirm Lynn Peterson as Secretary of Transportation despite her having been in the job for three years and with many of their own members having previously been supportive of her. There wasn’t even a “heads up” to the governor’s staff, which was caught by surprise.
It was a shocking power play and signaled that Washington, D.C. politics had officially arrived here.
The two parties have been headed toward less compromise and more hard-line views for several years. A recent study said Washington is in the top five of most polarized state legislatures in the country.
Old-timers called the attack brutal. Inslee expressed his outrage, calling it “a political ambush.” The Republicans denied the allegation and said they were unhappy with Peterson’s management of the department on issues including tolling, which is controversial on the east side of the county. That reinforced their new line of messaging: the “poor management” of state government. It also came up when Kevin Quigley stepped down as Secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services. While the rhetoric was more muted, his resignation followed reports of problems at the state hospitals. Inslee and the Republicans have put significant money into the hospitals, but more is still needed. Both sides share the issue, and by shifting the message to “management” Republicans hope to shift more blame to Inslee.
If possible, it got worse as acting corrections secretary, Dan Pacholke, announced his resignation in the hopes of stopping the “blood letting” Republicans were thought to be planning in corrections and other departments. The resignation brought additional attention to the hardball tactics, but it will not stay the clamor for more blood. Pacholke had only been on the job a few months and, with thirty years of experience, seemed well-placed to help resolve the problems. But before state workers could regain their footing from Pacholke’s announcement, Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) tweeted, “Shape up, Do your job. Serve the people w accountability. Or more heads are going to roll.” If Baumgartner was trying to scare away current or future talent, he may well succeed. Budget Chair Sen. Andy Hill (R-Kirkland) has already mentioned the Health Care Authority as an agency of concern.
As cold as Olympia can be when politics are in play, Pacholke should have waited. Inslee can still control the situation as the report on the Department of Corrections is due this week. The media has already reported on what happened and the apparent lack of urgency that allowed the problem to drag on for several years. We have also been told that the computer error that caused the problem has been fixed. We are waiting for a more detailed set of facts and a plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
But this is a long game that isn’t over until November. The session will go on for another month, and both executive and legislative power awaits the winner.
The former assistant attorney general who authored the email discouraging fixing the sentencing errors by hand has resigned, as has the assistant director of corrections, along with Pacholke. But Inslee may need a couple more “resignations” closer to the end of the session. Pacholke made his point by calling out the Republican behavior, but he could have served the department and Inslee better by waiting just a few more weeks and potentially limiting the departures.
The Republicans are putting $125,000 into their own investigation of the Department of Corrections. They will maximize the publicity for two reasons: first, they will want to demonstrate that they are fulfilling their legislative oversight role with checks and balances on the executive branch, and second, they will want to embarrass Inslee as much as possible.
Republicans want to make Inslee’s management of state government the issue, and Inslee needs to get the Corrections issue behind him and focus voter attention on the improvements he has made in state government.
The next set of polling numbers will likely show the race with Bryant even closer due to publicity surrounding corrections, transportation, tolling and DSHS. The old-timers might be right; the last month of the legislative session could be brutal.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: email@example.com