Inspired public servants aren’t static thinkers. They evolve. After two terms, much of it undergirded by the Great Recession, Gov. Chris Gregoire gave expression to her progressive values while exhibiting the humility to change and the courage to countenance painful, executive choices.
Gregoire was also a punching bag for the right, and Gregoire punched back. As humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote, politics ain’t beanbag.
Gregoire’s personal narrative informs her leadership style. Raised by a single working mom in Auburn, Gregoire shoe-leathered her way through the University of Washington and Gonzaga Law School. She married an Everett Seagull and Vietnam veteran. She distinguished herself as an assistant attorney general under Republican Slade Gorton and served as a thirtysomething director of the Washington Department of Ecology under Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner. She played a key role in Judge Jack Tanner’s 1983 comparable worth decision and was instrumental in shepherding an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up Hanford.
The zenith of her three terms as Washington’s attorney general was leading the charge in the multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement. She was the Northwest’s undisputed political phenom until the 2004 wing-clipping by Dino Rossi. That knife-thin win cast a pall, but Gregoire continued with her policy goals, grace (if not steel) under pressure. Gregoire’s signature accomplishment, establishing a Department of Early Learning and emphasizing early learning as part of the seamless fabric of education, won’t be fully appreciated for decades. Her greatest disappointment, a full-sale clean up of Puget Sound, will come to fruition but it, too, will take time.
An anemic economy undercut much of Gregoire’s second term. Idealistic enough to push her programs, she was also clear-eyed enough to say no. In hindsight, she might have flagged the revenue question before this, her final budget. Here lies leadership’s rub, alienating sometime allies and all-the-time opponents. Opponents derisively called her “Mrs. Gregoire,” too incensed to employ her proper title. And make no mistake: Implicit as well as overt sexism is a crucible for women in public life. It’s bipartisan, and it stings.
Gregoire’s willingness to change her position on marriage equality is the salient example of her political evolution. It may rise justifiably to the top of her legacy list.
The popularity thermostat tracks with the economic climate. History will judge Gregoire’s tenure unmarred by political bias. There is also time to build on an exemplary legacy. Gregoire would make an ideal pick to be the next director of the EPA. The governor has miles to go and much to give.