Washington Gov. Jay Inslee campaigning in Los Angeles in May. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee campaigning in Los Angeles in May. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Inslee steps onto the biggest stage of his political career

Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Miami could be a turning point for the governor.

By Jim Brunner / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — On the 7:05 a.m. ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle recently, Gov. Jay Inslee stepped out onto the windy upper deck.

He was battling a nagging cough but denied he was getting over a cold.

“No, no. I don’t admit any — show no weakness,” he said, a seemingly joking statement belied by the hoarseness of his voice.

As Inslee heads for the biggest stage of his political career Wednesday night at the first Democratic presidential debate, he projects similar optimism about his presidential campaign, despite polls that suggest his nearly four-month-old candidacy is ailing.

The governor’s ambitious climate agenda has earned him plenty of national press, regular cable news appearances and accolades from Green New Deal advocates, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who calls it the “gold standard.” He’s frequently jetting across the country to mingle with early-state voters and political donors, taking substantial chunks of time away from his official job.

Yet so far, Inslee remains near the bottom of the 20-plus pack of candidates, according to early polls that consistently show him with less than 1% support among Democratic primary voters.

Inslee and his political aides say they’re not surprised or discouraged, viewing those early poll rankings, which have former Vice President Joe Biden on top, as largely a function of name recognition. Most voters across the country are simply not familiar with the governor of Washington, or his message that fighting climate change should be the top priority of the next president.

“I’m still the new candidate on the block here … Less than one-third of Americans can identify me out of a police lineup at the moment,” Inslee said. “That’s why you have campaigns — campaigns are about opening up the possible.”

In Miami on Wednesday night, Inslee will have a chance to introduce himself to perhaps 20 million viewers as one of 10 candidates on the stage in the first of back-to-back debates opening the 2020 Democratic primary.

He’ll be positioned between Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, near the right end of the stage. In the center will be higher-polling candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

With so many candidates, Inslee estimates he’ll get about eight minutes total during the two-hour debate. In that brief window, he wants viewers to come away with two impressions:

First, that he is unique in prioritizing the climate crisis, and he has detailed plans to tackle it.

Second, he has a successful “Washington story” to tell, about a top-ranked economy occurring alongside progressive policies like the first public-option health insurance plan and a generous paid family-leave law.

A top-tier issue

While he’s widely seen as a longshot, experts say Inslee has a point about reading too much into polls more than seven months out from the Iowa caucuses. At this point in the 2016 presidential race, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker led the pack of Republicans vying for the GOP nomination, while Donald Trump scored just 1% in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington and author of a book on presidential elections, said primary contests are unpredictable, especially with this many contenders.

“What we have seen in previous races is, people who are blips on the screen surge forward and front-runners get derailed,” she said.

Dennis J. Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University and an expert on the Iowa caucuses, agreed the race is too volatile at this point to put much stock in early polling. He pointed to the 2012 GOP caucuses, when Rick Santorum was at low-single digits before soaring into a virtual tie with Mitt Romney.

However, Goldford doubts the upcoming debate will have a big impact one way or the other. “I can’t remember almost any debate that made a huge difference,” Goldford said.

While Inslee may not be registering big support among potential 2020 Democratic voters, his climate plans and focus have had an impact, some activists say. Virtually ignored four years ago, defeating climate change has become a top-tier issue for Democrats, and candidates have responded with climate platforms, though none as detailed as Inslee’s proposals, which run to hundreds of pages.

Ed Fallon, a former Iowa state lawmaker and climate activist, said all the candidates seem to be talking about climate now, potentially diluting support for Inslee.

Fallon said Inslee’s track record and detailed proposals could help him stand out in the coming months. “He is hands down the strongest champion of the concern that is the highest on Iowa caucus voters’ mind,” he said. “That will start counting for something more and more.”

Grateful climate activists

Inslee’s version of a Green New Deal, called the Evergreen Economy Plan, calls for $9 trillion in public and private spending to hasten a national transformation from coal and gasoline to clean power sources and U.S.-made electric cars. He wants to wield federal regulatory powers to ban coal-fired power plants and sales of new gasoline-fueled cars by 2030.

“I actually think people are responding to his climate plan,” said Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and author who cofounded the climate-action group 350.org. “If it’s not translating into votes, it’s probably because everyone is at least partially focused on beating Trump, and so the more prominent names are so far at the top … But meanwhile, if there was a betting line for secretary of Energy, I have no doubt he’d be at the pinnacle.”

McKibben added that every climate activist he knows is grateful for Inslee’s detailed focus on the issue as a candidate.

The notion that Inslee is really just positioning himself for a cabinet post has been bandied about by political consultants and pundits since even before he entered the race in March. Inslee rejects that suggestion, saying he’d rather run for a third term as governor if his presidential candidacy fails.

“It would take a whole heck a lot of something, that I don’t know what it would be, to get me out of being governor in the state of Washington,” he said.

Inslee, who has lived on Bainbridge Island since 1995, splits his time between his home a half-mile from the ferry terminal and the governor’s mansion in Olympia. These days, he’s also spending many nights in hotel rooms in Iowa, New Hampshire, California and New York.

In the first three months since launching his campaign March 1, Inslee has spent all or parts of 48 days traveling out of state on political trips, according to a review of his official calendars. Even on days while in the state, he frequently splits time between official duties and working on his campaign, making fundraising phone calls and meeting with strategists.

Inslee’s hotels, flights and other costs on political trips are covered by his campaign. However, taxpayers continue to foot the bill for the State Patrol’s Executive Protection Unit, whose troopers accompany him on all travel. He has resisted calls to have his campaign reimburse those expenses, saying all governors are entitled by law to protection.

The State Patrol this year boosted the number of troopers assigned to the plainclothes security detail due to the governor’s frequent out-of-state trips, estimating the added cost at $4 million over two years, according to records obtained in March by The Seattle Times and Northwest News Network.

The bill to taxpayers has drawn mockery and criticism from Republicans as well as some newspaper editorial boards. The state Republican Party, meanwhile, has posted an online map charting some of Inslee’s travel on what the GOP calls a “vanity run.”

“Part-time governor. Full-time failing candidate. #AskGovInslee why he thinks less than 1% in the polls is worth millions of Washington taxpayer dollars?” the Republican Governors Association tweeted last week.

Eastlake base

Inslee’s comparatively small campaign is run from a second-floor office suite in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood, with a staff long on longtime loyalists and climate activists but short on major experience in a presidential race. That’s perhaps not surprising since Inslee is the first Washington politician to make a bid for the White House since Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson’s 1976 campaign.

Aisling Kerins, Inslee’s campaign manager, managed his 2016 reelection campaign and was his deputy campaign manager in 2012. She also worked for Inslee in the governor’s office for two years as director of external relations. The campaign has about 28 paid staffers in all. Bigger-name candidates have already hired dozens of organizers in early states, including Iowa. Inslee’s campaign has two paid staffers there.

Inslee also has the support of a super PAC — a political committee that can raise unlimited amounts of money but cannot coordinate directly with a candidate. Act Now on Climate, formed by Inslee allies, made a splash by announcing $1 million in advertising after Inslee entered the race. By the end of March, the group had spent $1.5 million.

But since then it has gone largely quiet, other than spamming thousands of Twitter messages. The group’s last reported spending was on May 3, when it bought about $30,000 in digital ads. The PAC’s donors will not be disclosed until mid-July. Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for the group, said it remains active but provided no details on its plans.

Without some kind of breakthrough, Inslee may not make it to the Iowa caucuses in February — or even the next round of debates in the fall, because the Democratic National Committee has boosted its requirements for donors and polling in order to qualify.

Still, as the ferry pulled into Elliott Bay, Inslee said he’s determined to make his climate mission succeed.

“You’ve got to understand this,” he said. “I’m running because I want to be able to look at my kids and my grandkids on my last days on Earth and say, ‘Look, I did everything I could for you here. I didn’t lay down and let this beast ruin your life.’”

How to watch

The Democratic presidential debates in Miami are Wednesday and Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. PDT. Ten candidates will participate each night, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday. The events will be broadcast by NBC (KING-TV in Seattle), MSNBC and Telemundo.

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