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Originally published Sunday, November 23, 2014 at 4:04 PM

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Is Gov. Jay Inslee an absentee governor or a patient strategist?

The state’s chief executive is busy making public appearances highlighting climate change, but appears absent on nuts-and-bolts issues facing Washington.


Times editorial columnist

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In politics, like music, it’s hard to follow a killer performance.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards famously said that taking the stage after James Brown at a 1964 concert was the worst decision the legendary rock band ever made.

That same “next act” syndrome still persists 22 months after Jay Inslee assumed the mantle of Washington governor.

In rose-colored retrospect, the bipartisan, deal-making productivity of Inslee’s predecessor, fellow Democrat Chris Gregoire, is now nostalgically romanticized by Republican lawmakers.

That’s been a heavy burden for Inslee. But looking at him, you wouldn’t know it.

The former eight-term congressman maintains a kinetic daily public schedule, touring, speaking and ground-breaking all over the state. A recent itinerary listed seven public appearances over two days.

But to some critics, he’s been busy doing nothing. Worse, he’s been silent on some of the most pressing issues facing the state.

As the Rev. Thomas Murphy, a Seattle University political historian, puts it: “He’s content to leave a number of things to the Legislature, and in particular to the referendum process.”

Inslee epitomized that perception earlier this month when he equivocated on Initiative 1351 — the unfunded ballot item to limit school class sizes. After he avoided taking a stand on what arguably was the most consequential measure facing state voters this year, the initiative narrowly passed.

“I didn’t know how I was going to vote until literally the last day of this,” Inslee told me in a recent conversation.

Still, by not taking a position, Inslee abdicated his responsibility to the everyday residents who elected him to lead.

“Telling KUOW you haven’t made up your mind, that’s not leadership,” state Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said before the vote. “ ... Every significant newspaper in the state has come out against it, why can’t Jay?”

After the state Supreme Court controversially held the Legislature in contempt for not fully funding public education quickly enough, Inslee was largely ignored by lawmakers when he proposed closing tax loopholes to fund the $4 billion education shortfall.

The governor has also been an intermittent warrior in repairing, replacing and upgrading the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.

Last year, he pushed the Democrat-controlled House to approve up to $12 billion for traffic congestion, structurally deficient bridges, transit needs and port capacity, while improving delivery standards.

After convincing reluctant Democrats to vote for a tax increase to fund the package that possibly left many vulnerable in November’s general election, Inslee said Senate Republicans were not as brave. He’s largely been silent on the matter since.

“The governor was very active in advocating for a package,” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. “But in the end, it wasn’t his fault. The Senate majority caucus refused to even have a vote on it.”

Inslee has not kept all of his political powder dry. He’s advocated for raising the state minimum wage, parted ways with the state teachers union on failed legislation that would have saved the state’s federal education waiver, urged the Yakima City Council to accept a federal ruling to comply with the Voting Rights Act, and imposed a moratorium on the death penalty.

However, despite adroitly picking and choosing his battles, critics believe Inslee remains dedicated — almost singularly — to radically reducing the state’s carbon emissions.

Former Washington Secretary of State Sam Reedaccused Inslee of working in cahoots with Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, to elect state senators “more sympathetic” to the governor’s “ambitious climate-change agenda.”

But Steyer’s $1 million political action committee gambit didn’t pay off. The Senate remains in reticent Republican hands.

When Inslee’s carbon-emissions plan is unveiled, it faces a tough road in both chambers.

Even Gregoire — Inslee’s personal James Brown — failed to get a carbon cap-and-trade bill through a Democrat-controlled state House in 2009.

Meanwhile, opponents have bashed the governor’s plan before he’s even put it out. And they’ve offered no alternative.

Inslee hopes to win some critics over after detailing his intention to use revenues from the plan to fund education, transportation and other dizzying budget obligations that have left most legislators dumbstruck.

“I think it would be an elegant way to address all the problems that we have,” he said, promising the proposals as part of his December budget.

All that’s left is for Inslee to show his hand, and avoid being just another act following what’s now recalled as a killer performance.

Robert J. Vickers' column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is rvickers@seattletimes.com



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