By Rachel La Corte and Mike Baker Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. — When Gov. Chris Gregoire took office eight years ago, it was against a backdrop of a contested election that led to two recounts and a court challenge.
Gregoire, a Democrat, recently recalled that some Republicans turned their backs on her during her inaugural address in the House chambers in January 2005, and that occasionally people she encountered in public would say “revote” to her face.
“The traditional Cinderella period? I didn’t get one,” Gregoire said. “It was a tough beginning.”
But the outgoing governor counts that first legislative session as one of her most memorable, in part because of a large transportation package that she pushed that included a gas tax increase for road projects.
“Everybody who had helped me in my campaign were flooding me with calls: ‘This is your demise. You will never get re-elected. You cannot go for a gas tax. This is the end of you,”’ she recalled. “So, my one big accomplishment, people were questioning whether it was outstandingly stupid on my part.”
Voters not only upheld that tax package later that year, they re-elected Gregoire for a second term three years later. Gregoire said it was only after she completed that first legislative session as governor, and six months after she took office when a judge upheld her razor-thin 133-vote victory, that she said she could finally lead the state without feeling like “you have one hand tied behind your back.”
Since then, Gregoire has seen a series of years marked by budget shortfalls and cuts to state programs, she went to Iraq to visit with troops from Washington state, and changed her position on same-sex marriage, speaking out in favor of it last year and signing it into law, an action later upheld by voters. She said that in addition to that first legislative session, she was most proud of her work on early childhood education, as well as her dozen trade missions to places like China and India in her effort to position the state internationally to compete.
Sen. Mike Hewitt, a Republican from Walla Walla who was minority leader in the Senate up until this year, said that while he often disagreed with Gregoire on issues of policy and state spending, he appreciated her willingness to get involved when things stalled in the Legislature.
He specifically cited her work on workers compensation reform and transportation budgets.
“She’s a great negotiator,” he said. “She really did do a nice job of bringing us together to try and work out problems.”
Gregoire said that she hopes her legacy will be one that reflects that “we positioned the state well to succeed coming out of the recession and beyond.”
“We did it with our heads, we made the tough decisions, we did it with our heart and were compassionate and maintained our values,” she said.
Marty Brown, who was a close aide to Gregoire throughout her time in office, said he suspects that history will probably remember her final-year effort to help pass gay marriage. He said it was much harder for her to be remembered for managing the state through a recession.
Still, he admired Gregoire for how much information she gathered before making decisions. Staff would steadily brief her and then handle a variety of questions.
“She is the most prepared person I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “She knows the facts. I’ve never been around an elected official who has to know as much as she does.”
Gregoire previously served as attorney general for eight years and had a public reputation for having a lawyerly persona. Brown, however, also recalled that some of the spending reductions the governor was forced to make had an emotional impact, such as the time in 2010 they discussed cutting a state subsidy for hospice around the time a close mentor of Gregoire’s had died after spending time in hospice.
Brown said Gregoire had to excuse herself in the middle of the meeting.
“It was very emotional,” Brown said. They ultimately didn’t cut the subsidy.
Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University, said it’s a challenge for Washington state governors to build a dramatic policy legacy when the initiative process is always looming to repeal it all. Even small tax increases face resistance in Washington state, like the taxes on soda and candy approved in 2010 that was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gregoire, but shot down by voters.
Donovan said the recession made things even more difficult, since Gregoire was unable to make investments in her priorities. Gregoire bemoaned those losses while signing a cut-heavy budget in 2011, saying she had a very heavy heart while signing a bill that would undo many of the things she had worked for.
“She’s not really been in a position to do anything but play defense,” Donovan said.
While her name is one that has been mentioned for a potential job in the administration of President Barack Obama, Gregoire insists she’s not thinking about anything other than spending more time with her first grandchild, Audrey Christine Lindsay, who was born in November to her oldest daughter, Courtney Gregoire, and her husband, Scott Lindsay.
“I’m not pursuing anything right now. But I’m one of those who believe that if you’re called to serve your country you answer the call,” she said. “If the president was to call I don’t know what I would say. I’m conflicted.”
Gregoire said she has started to pack up the governor’s mansion in preparation of the handoff to Governor-elect Jay Inslee on Jan. 16. When asked what advice she will give him, she said she’ll stress that all of the issues that will land on his desk won’t be easily solvable, because “if it was, it wouldn’t be here.”
“Do what’s right and trust your own instinct,” she said. “And that’s hard, that’s hard when you’re a new governor.”