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BJORK: The Greenest Governor: Jay Inslee Emphasized Climate Proposals

Although he ended his presidential bid on August 21, Jay Inslee’s singular focus on climate change elevated a topic that has become central to many young voters. Inslee frequently referred to climate change as a pivotal issue that must be addressed during the next administration, and he made green energy a focus of his economic development and foreign policy platforms. 

Background

Inslee was born and raised in Seattle, as the eldest of three brothers and a fifth-generation Washingtonian. His mother worked at Sears as a sales clerk, and his father was a high school teacher and basketball coach. Inslee graduated high school in 1969 and enrolled at the University of Washington, thus avoiding the draft through a student deferment. Although Inslee studied economics, he ended up attending Stanford to pursue medicine but soon returned to Washington and went to law school instead. 

After graduating from Willamette University School of Law, Inslee worked as a prosecutor in the small town of Selah. He then ran successfully for the Washington House of Representatives in 1988, appealing to more conservative voters in central Washington by stressing his legal background and advocating for a middle-class tax cut. Four years later, Inslee ran for the U.S. House of Representatives; by winning in Washington’s Fourth District, Inslee became just the second Democrat to hold the seat since World War II. Once in Congress, Inslee voted for the assault weapons ban and then lost his seat in the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, in which Republicans picked up 52 seats in the House of Representatives.

After running unsuccessfully for the governorship in 1996, Inslee became a regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Clinton Administration, like fellow presidential candidate Julián Castro (who served as HUD Secretary during the Obama Administration). After moving into a more liberal district in the Seattle suburbs, Inslee again ran for Congress in 1998, unseating a Republican incumbent and serving until 2012. While in Congress, Inslee became one of the strongest advocates for addressing climate change through federal policy. In 2005, he introduced the New Apollo Energy Act, legislation that would have provided $50 million in federal loan guarantees for green energy products. In 2007, he co-authored a book, Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, that called for massive green energy investment as a way to combat climate change while creating jobs. 

He won the election for Washington governor in 2012 and became known for pragmatism, passing progressive policies like a minimum wage increase and paid family and medical leave. He also increased environmental regulations and strengthened the state’s investment in green energy, though he twice failed to enact a modest carbon tax. This past year, the Washington legislature passed legislation that will take the state’s utilities entirely off of coal power by 2025. Additionally, Inslee co-founded the United States Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors committed to reducing greenhouse gases. As governor, however, Inslee was not uniquely focused on climate change, instead carving out this niche after witnessing recent catastrophes. Seeing the destruction caused by extreme weather events like the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, Inslee was further convinced that climate change poses a significant threat to humanity. 

Key Issues 

Climate Change:

Inslee largely structured his campaign around a single issue: climate change. Six of the ten issues outlined on his website related to climate change in some way, and his proposals to address climate change are easily more expansive than any of his rivals. While calls for the United States to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 have become mainstream across the platforms of most presidential candidates, Inslee’s plan was slightly more ambitious, calling for carbon neutrality by 2045. Reaching either target would require a massive effort from the U.S., with a sharp pivot away from coal and oil and rapid investment in cleaner technologies. During the second round of debates, Inslee said that the U.S. needs to cease using coal within ten years and to cease using fossil fuels within 15. The most radical parts of his climate change agenda include banning the sale of internal combustion engines by 2030, taking the U.S. off of coal by 2030, and banning fracking across the nation. He has also praised the activists who have advocated for the Green New Deal, commending their emphasis on climate justice and agreeing that addressing climate change should be an urgent priority. Inslee’s platform does not include carbon pricing through cap-and-trade or through a federal tax. Although California has a cap-and trade program, through which the largest energy companies must buy the opportunity to pollute beyond their allowed emissions, Inslee failed to pass similar legislation in Washington despite two ballot proposals and a legislative push. 

Eliminating the filibuster:

Inslee has stressed the fact that in order to enact policies, the Democratic Party must capture not only the presidency but also both chambers of Congress. Even if Democrats keep the House and take control of the Senate, Republicans within the Senate still hold significant power to impair the president’s agenda. For this reason, Inslee has advocated abolishing the filibuster, a Senate procedure through which the minority can stall legislation if the majority does not have the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and force a final vote on the bill. 

Welcoming refugees:

Inslee claims to be the first governor to stand up to President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants. Under Inslee’s tenure, Washington has emerged as the state that takes in the second highest number of refugees, despite being the thirteenth largest state. Along with Minnesota, Washington filed the original challenge to Trump’s Muslim ban, which Inslee cited as proof that Democratic governors have the power to combat Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. On his campaign website, Inslee said that America’s success “depends on our ability to welcome and include immigrants,” and he supports extending refugee admissions beyond the annual 110,000 person target set by the Obama administration. 

Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Reform:

As governor, Inslee signed a comprehensive Access to Democracy package that includes automatic voter registration and pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds. He also enacted a ban on conversion therapy and made it possible for non-binary individuals to change their gender on their birth certificate. Additionally, Inslee halted executions for convicts who awaited the death penalty. He also enacted Washington’s recreational marijuana market and announced plans to pardon 3,500 individuals for marajiuana-related crimes. This effort comes as part of the Marijuana Justice Initiative, which is intended to correct some of the disparities within the criminal justice system while recognizing the newly legal status of marijuana. 

Controversies

As governor, Inslee championed the largest corporate tax break in American history, awarding Boeing $8.7 billion in 2013 to build a manufacturing center for one of its largest planes, the 777X. Although tax breaks have become a relatively common legislative tool to lure corporations, they are not usually effective in creating jobs. Additionally, a tax break as large as this one contributes to a notable decrease in state revenue, especially in Washington, where there is no income tax. Critics say this tax break has benefitted Boeing shareholders at the expense of Washington residents. 

Worse still, the deal stopped short of including a guarantee that the 777X aircraft would be built in the Puget Sound region, instead qualifying that wings and final assembly would happen in Washington. Boeing ended up relocating 20,000 jobs in the years since, prompting the Labor Council to disinvite Inslee from their 2015 convention, which he had agreed to headline. Although he initially heralded the deal as a great success for Washington’s democracy and economy, Inslee has since changed his tone, especially during his presidential campaign. In an interview with Trevor Noah, Inslee compared signing the deal to being mugged, claiming Boeing had demanded the tax break by threatening to outsource jobs. Inslee used his experience with Boeing as evidence to suggest the federal government should prevent corporations from pitting states against each other in an effort to offer the best tax incentives. 

An emblematic anecdote

One of Inslee’s recent campaign trips included a stop at Iowa businesses that had been damaged in a recent flood, where Inslee turned, once again, to the issue of climate change. He called Trump’s claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax “total baloney” and then struggled to find the appropriate words to express his evident frustration. After a pause, he went with “hopping mad,” in an attempt to seem folksy rather than enraged. The Onion later wrote that we need someone like Inslee, who is “going to prioritize the planet over getting elected.”

Fiercest competitor

For their similarities as accomplished governors of relatively progressive states, Inslee seems to have the most in common with former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who has also dropped out of the presidential election prior to publication. As for climate policies, while Hickenlooper has a substantive climate plan on his website, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), outpaces most of the field when it comes to climate related issues. She is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and has a 96 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters. Similarly, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has also emerged as a fierce advocate for the Green New Deal, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) also has a substantive climate change plan that has drawn accolades

State of the race

Inslee dropped out of the presidential election on August 21, soon announcing he would seek a third term as Washington governor. Inslee said his campaign accomplished a lot, despite struggling to gain traction with voters. In the second quarter of 2019, Inslee raised a little over $3 million while South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised $24.8 million and former vice president Joe Biden raised $21.5 million. After the first round of debates in June, Inslee lost support in the polls as several of his rivals made a bigger impact on viewers. According to some observers, however, Inslee was extremely successful in his ability to elevate climate change in the campaign, weaving it into his economic, immigration, and foreign policy platforms and pressuring other candidates to adopt more aggressive measures. Inslee also wrote a letter requesting the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to hold a debate specifically on climate change, which activist groups like Sunrise and MoveOn have also pushed for. 

Fun facts

When Inslee ran for the House in Washington’s liberal First District, he was one of the first Democrats to spin the Lewinsky Scandal into his campaign, arguing that impeachment proceedings were taking too long and blaming Republicans.

Inslee met his wife, Trudi, while both of them were still in high school. He used to let his younger brother tag along on their dates to the zoo, which convinced her that his heart was in the right place.