"It was a great American experience, every single year and every single day," Inslee said Monday, the last day of the Democratic lawmaker's 15-plus-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives.
There was no melancholy in his voice as he prepared to cast a final vote, collect his belongings and fly home where he'll become a full-time candidate. He is the leading Democratic contender to face state Attorney General Rob McKenna, the likely Republican candidate, this fall in the governor's race.
"I'm not looking in the rear-view mirror," he said. "I'm looking forward. I'm committed to help our state move forward. I am very well-equipped for the office of governor because of my experience in Congress."
Inslee, who served the 1st Congressional district, which includes parts of south Snohomish County, trumpeted his efforts to help the Boeing Co. snare the air tanker contract by requiring U.S. Air Force officials consider subsidies received by Airbus as part of its competition. And he spoke of his work to boost exports of Washington agriculture products, develop alternative forms of energy and cultivate biotechnology firms in Snohomish County.
And Inslee, a man known for rhetorically colorful floor speeches, spoke proudly of holding onto his convictions by voting against the war in Iraq and against bailing out Wall Street, twice.
"I am resolute in standing up and being counted," he said.
Yet in the coming days, the value of his federal experience may be overshadowed by the decision
">to quit before his seventh term expired.
"To be honest, I don't know if people of the 1st District will know he's gone," said state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur. "But he ran for Congress. He has an obligation to fulfill that commitment and not leave the residents without representation for eight months. Now the public will decide what it says about him."
Inslee announced March 10 he would resign to focus on his bid to succeed Gov. Chris Gregoire, also a Democrat, who chose not to seek a third term. McKenna aims to become the first GOP candidate elected governor since John Spellman in 1980.
McKenna entered the contest better known and better organized than Inslee for a statewide run. Strategically, it appeared the now former Democratic congressman had little choice and simply waited long enough to save the state from having to spend gobs of money on a special election.
"Inslee's decision to quit early is a recognition that his gubernatorial campaign isn't going as well as he'd hoped," emailed Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of National Journal Hotline, which tracks political campaigns. "By quitting his day job, Inslee is giving himself a chance to shake up the race, even as it opens him to charges that he's leaving his district without a voice in the House."
Inslee, 61, a former state lawmaker, won a U.S. House seat in 1992 in Eastern Washington's 4th Congressional District only to be driven from office in the 1994 avalanche of Republican victories.
He moved west to Bainbridge Island and in 1998 won a return to Congress as the 1st Congressional District representative. He's been re-elected six times in a district that stretches from Kitsap County through King County and up into south Snohomish County, ending in Monroe.
He's leaving an imprint as an unrelenting backer of environmental causes and a national policy recognizing the economic value of alternative energy.
"Jay has carved out a niche not just in Congress but nationally for investing in clean energy to create jobs," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose 2nd Congressional district covers areas of Snohomish County not served by Inslee. "Someone will have to fill that hole in Congress."
Wilson said Inslee provided a booming voice for environmental groups, a key component of the Democratic base.
"At a time when Republicans have questioned global warming and pushed for more energy exploration, Inslee has stood in their way at every opportunity," Wilson wrote.
Partisans will debate Inslee's congressional legacy throughout the campaign.
"Jay Inslee was a really pedestrian, vanilla member of Congress which gives him less to run on than previous Democratic nominees," said Chris Vance, a Republican consultant and former state party chairman.
Vance doubted Inslee's tenure as federal officeholder will matter much because, like most House members, he's not associated with any major bills nor risen high enough in the ranks of leadership to lead or be the ranking minority member of a committee.
"From the outside, Jay was one of the great faceless mass of the House of Representatives," he said.
Not so for D.J. Wilson, a Democrat, former Edmonds city councilman and no relation to Reid Wilson. Inslee's passion on health care and thought-provoking policies on energy and the environment will be sorely missed, he said.
"He's done more on environmental leadership than 99 percent of the people in Congress," he said. "He wasn't a backroom deal kind of guy. He was an advocate."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com
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