OLYMPIA — A light rain greeted Gov. Chris Gregoire as she arrived at the Department of Labor and Industries headquarters in Tumwater earlier this month, one of the last stops on her farewell tour of state agencies.
She’d come to take a bow and thank them, the hundreds of employees seated in the room and watching on closed-circuit television, for their efforts in her eight years in office.
Before departing, an employee asked the question on everyone’s mind: What’s next? Are you going to work for President Barack Obama?
“I do find it fascinating,” she began as her lips formed a smile, “that the coverage so far is that I’m on the short list for U.S. trade representative, ambassador to Canada, head of the Department of Commerce, the (U.S.) attorney general and head of the (Department of) Interior. Somehow that strikes me as saying I’m not well qualified for any one thing.”
Laughter filled the room as Gregoire, never much for joke telling, successfully delivered this punch line.
Gregoire said beforehand she’s not out looking for a job and hasn’t been contacted by anyone in the Obama Administration. Right now, she anticipates getting a few improvement projects done on her Olympia home and doting over her first grandchild, a girl, born last month.
If the president did phone with an employment offer, the lifelong public servant figures it will be hard to turn down.
“Would you say, ‘No, I’m busy’?”
Gregoire, Washington’s 22nd governor and its second woman at the post, will leave behind a complicated legacy.
Historic events — a 2004 election victory many residents thought she stole and the signing this year of a law legalizing gay marriage many voters tried to repeal — serve as bookends for her tenure.
In between, there were a rash of special sessions to deal with budget deficits and a lack of serious administration scandals save the departure of a philandering Department of Corrections secretary. On her watch, four failing Steel Electric-class state ferries were yanked from service days before Thanksgiving in 2007 and Washington came up empty in the “Race to the Top” competition for federal aid for public schools in 2010.
There were natural disasters like the 2007 flooding of I-5 in Chehalis and a trove of human tragedy, including the slaying of four Lakewood police officers and the murder of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl. And there were the military funerals of Washington residents killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
She will be credited for brokering deals many thought improbable if not impossible. Her first came in 2005 with a last-ditch rescue of the multi-billion dollar transportation improvement package and its 9.5-cent gas tax increase when it appeared all but dead in the state House.
In the ensuing years, her tenacity and talent in negotiating helped end decades of fighting over use of water from the Columbia River, averted a longshoremen strike at ports throughout the state, powered down the TransAlta coal plant, reformed the state’s workers compensation system and, earlier this year, secured and preserved a budget deal between weary lawmakers in the midst of an all-night session.
“She’s a great negotiator,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. “History will show her to be a person who could bring the different sides together to get a deal done.”
What most may recall of Gregoire’s two terms is how the economy’s boom and bust forced her onto a political course she never envisioned.
Soon after settling in, state tax collections soared to a record high, driven by an unprecedented surge in home sales.
Gregoire invested in public schools, colleges, health care, social services and environmental programs.
She teamed with majority Democrats in the House and Senate to fund voter-approved initiatives for teacher pay increases and shrinking class sizes. She pushed through a new Department of Early Learning and the Puget Sound Partnership. She seemed to be trying to check everything off the wish list of Democratic lawmakers.
In 2008, the economy ground to a halt. In the fall, the stock market crashed and the housing bubble burst. She won re-election then spent much of the second term undoing what she did in her first.
She proposed budgets she said she hated because they required her to pare programs, cut spending and lay off workers in nearly every corner of state government. She broke her pledge not to raise taxes to generate revenue for safety net programs. While she said they would be temporary, she is now suggesting lawmakers continue some of them to pay for underfunded public schools.
Along the way, Gregoire became just about the most conservative Democrat in the Capitol, to the pleasure of Republicans and frustration of her allies in education, health care and social services.
Critics who blasted her for overspending in the good times, didn’t relent much when the cuts began.
“Go ahead and criticize,” she said. “Over 50 percent of the money was spent on education. They were some of the best budgets higher ed had ever seen. We started the Department of Early Learning. The rest of the money was spent on corrections, all kids having health care and (fighting) child abuse neglect. Do I regret that? No.”
That’s not to say Gregoire is leaving office with a sense of accomplishment. She’s not.
“It wasn’t my agenda. I got totally distracted from what I set out to do,” she said. “I hope history will reflect that I saw us through the worst times — the worst recession since the Great Depression — and that I did it with my head and my heart and I kept my values intact.”
A rough beginning
Gregoire had little time to fashion an agenda before getting the keys to the governor’s mansion.
The Nov. 2, 2004 election for Washington’s governor was one for the history books involving three ballot counts and a court case. Republican Dino Rossi, a former state senator, won the initial two counts only to watch Gregoire, the state’s three-term attorney general, emerge as the victor Dec. 30 following a hand count of nearly 3 million ballots.
She arrived to find a caustic environment enveloping the Capitol. Signs reading “Not my governor” could be seen in offices and talks of a re-vote persisted.
On the second day of the 2005 session, Republicans in the state House and Senate tried unsuccessfully to delay Gregoire’s seating until a court could consider a legal challenge of the election.
The next day, Jan. 12, Gregoire delivered her inaugural address to a joint session of the two chambers. Some GOP members wouldn’t go on the floor. Others did but then turned their backs on her as she spoke.
“Applauding today would be like a cow celebrating the good chow at the feed lot — you know the slaughter’s coming,” Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said then. Ericksen, who was House Republican floor leader, now serves in the state Senate.
Gregoire called it a grueling experience but she determined not to let the tension make her tentative.
“It’s a mind thing. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” she said. “I figured if I’m here for four months or four years I’m going to do what I think is right, and went for it.”
Republicans who didn’t welcome her in 2005 came to respect her as one they could trust to be straightforward and fair.
“While I don’t agree politically with everything Gov. Gregoire did, personally she is a very nice person,” said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, who worked closely with her on transportation issues. “She worked hard for the state. I think Gregoire can leave office with her head held high.”
A call to serve
Chris O’Grady was born in 1947 in Auburn and raised by a single mom who worked as a short-order cook.
A product of public schools, she earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington, attended law school at Gonzaga University then, inspired by the words of President John F. Kennedy, chose government service as a vocation.
“She believed in public service. It became part of her marrow,” said Victor Moore, her first budget director and now executive director of the Washington State Investment Board. “She made me feel like what I was doing had value.”
She worked for Republican Attorney General Slade Gorton then accepted an appointment as director of the Department of Ecology under Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner.
In 1992, she won the first of her three elections as the state’s attorney general.
Midway through her second term, in 1997, she made her mark by taking a lead role in negotiating the $206 billion settlement between 46 states and major tobacco companies.
In 2003, she launched her campaign for governor. Soon after she learned she had breast cancer. She underwent surgery and remained in the race, which she won.
Gregoire, who often referred to herself as a “recovering lawyer,” entered office with a pile of policy initiatives she wanted to pursue.
She proved intense and indefatigable in doing so the next eight years, according to her closest aides.
“I don’t know any person that I’ve worked with who was more prepared for virtually everything. She did more homework than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Marty Brown, a senior adviser and now executive director of the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges.
Staff couldn’t come unprepared to a meeting. To do so put them at risk of a stern glare they deemed the “The Look.”
“I don’t yell. Apparently I have some way with how I look at you with my eyebrows. They tell me when I do this they know, ‘Uh oh,’” Gregoire said.
One thing Gregoire needed to learn — and never quite mastered — was how to meld her directness with the nuanced politics going on inside each of the four caucuses.
DeBolt came to appreciate Gregoire’s style.
“She was the kind of governor that didn’t stand on formality. She’d come to my office, sit down and say we need to talk,” he said. “It took a long time to build a relationship. She’s a friend. I’m going to miss her.”
Solution-oriented by design, she could become flummoxed when lawmakers locked up on a subject and wouldn’t move.
It happened in the push for a University of Washington branch campus in Snohomish County. She felt momentum growing behind a campus until the area’s lawmakers and civic leaders couldn’t agree where to build it and even hired consultants to undermine each other.
“I learned a lesson there. If the community can’t unite, this place won’t move,” Gregoire said.
While Gregoire rarely shed her lawyerly demeanor in public, she loved a practical joke.
In a softball game pitting the governor’s staff against those in the budget office, Gregoire began arguing with Moore, then head-butted him in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
Players on both sides gaped in horror until Gregoire and Moore couldn’t keep a straight face at their prank.
“She really has a hilarious sense of humor,” said retiring state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. “She doesn’t come across to the public that way. They never got to really know her.”
An incomplete legacy
In her inaugural address in 2005, Gregoire said elected officials “have a special obligation to leave an even larger legacy of opportunity, prosperity and optimism” when they’re done serving.
Nearly eight years later, she’s unsure she’s going to live up to those words.
“I could have said that at the end of the first term. I don’t know if I can say that at the end of the second term,” she said. “I feel there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic but, boy, it’s hard after you’ve been through the worst recession in history to say this is a more optimistic time. We’ve seen ourselves through it and if Congress doesn’t screw up, we’re on our way.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.
Recounting her way to victory
The Nov. 2, 2004 election for Washington’s governor was one for the history books, involving three ballot counts and a court case. Republican Dino Rossi, a former state senator, won the initial two counts over Gregoire, a Democrat, and Ruth Bennett, a Libertarian. But Gregoire, the state’s three-term attorney general, emerged as the victor Dec. 30 following a hand count of nearly 3 million ballots.
Here’s a reminder of how the leader board changed with each count.
Nov. 2, 2004 — initial tally of ballots
•Dino Rossi 1,371,414
•Christine Gregoire 1,371,153
•Ruth Bennett 63,346
Nov. 29 — results from machine recount
•Dino Rossi 1,372,484
•Christine Gregoire 1,372,442
•Ruth Bennett 63,415
Dec. 30 — official certified results following hand recount
•Christine Gregoire 1,373,361
•Dino Rossi 1,373,232
•Ruth Bennett 63,465
June 6, 2005 — final results following actions by Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges.
•Christine Gregoire 1,373,361
•Dino Rossi 1,373,228
•Ruth Bennett 63,464
Source: Secretary of State’s office
The journey to gay marriage
Gov. Chris Gregoire says signing the law allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry is one of her proudest moments. It didn’t come easy for her nor did it come quickly to her desk. Rather, Washington enacted a series of laws regarding gays and lesbians preceding this year’s historic change in policy.
Here is what happened in Gregoire’s tenure:
Jan. 31, 2006 — Law signed banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
April 21, 2007 — Law signed legalizing and recognizing same-sex domestic partnerships registered with the state.
March 12, 2008 — Law signed expanding rights of registered domestic partnerships.
May 18, 2009 — Law signed granting domestic partnerships same rights and privileges under state law as married heterosexual couples with the exception of marriage.
Nov. 3, 2009 — Voters approve Referendum 71, upholding the so-called “everything but marriage” law.
Feb. 13, 2012 — Gregoire signs law legalizing marriage for same-sex couples.
Nov. 6 — Voters approve Referendum 74 upholding the law.
Dec. 9 — Gay and lesbian couples marry in ceremonies around the state.