SPOKANE — Almost nine years, more than two terms and one global public health crisis after he was first elected, Gov. Jay Inslee says he doesn’t have time to think about his legacy.
As the pandemic rages, he tries not to think about the past.
“I don’t drive with the rear-view mirror,” Inslee told The Spokesman-Review. “I’ve got seven million lives that I have a stewardship responsibility for.”
His focus now in his third term: getting the state through the pandemic.
Inslee took office as governor in January 2013, becoming the fifth Democrat in a row to hold the position. He became the first governor to win a third term in more than 40 years when he beat Republican Loren Culp during the 2020 election. Washington does not have a term limit, but most previous governors only served for two.
Before becoming governor, Inslee, 70, was a congressman for seven terms. His signature issue has remained climate change, even running for president on the issue briefly in 2019.
In Washington, Inslee has consistently pushed for climate proposals, such as a low carbon fuels standard and a cap-and-trade program. Both of those proposals passed the Legislature last session, but the fight against climate change is not over for Inslee. He proposed $626 million in his 2022 legislative proposals to do just that.
But what he might be remembered for most is leading the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, something that has brought him both praise and criticism.
Just months before the election for his third term, Washington saw the first known COVID-19 case in the U.S. in March 2020. The state quickly went into a state of emergency and has been in one ever since.
During the past year and a half of the pandemic, Inslee’s opponents pushed for emergency powers reform, claiming Inslee has overstepped with his emergency proclamations and refusal to call the Legislature into special session to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The governor’s use of extended emergency powers to enact sweeping orders has caused more resistance and division in our state, as the majority party in the Legislature stands down and avoids responsibility,” Republican leaders Rep. J.T. Wilcox and Sen. John Braun said in a joint statement last month.
Inslee said he has needed to be able to act quickly to make emergency decisions, something the Legislature doesn’t have the ability to do.
Emergency powers reform will likely come up in the Legislature again this session, despite a failed effort from Republicans last session.
When vaccines became more readily available this summer, Inslee ordered all educators, health care workers and state employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their job. The decision brought protests across the state, including ones that drew more than 1,000 people to the Washington Capitol in Olympia.
After Inslee’s announcement, Spokane Valley Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican, criticized the move.
“(Workers) don’t deserve to be bullied and threatened into putting something into their body that they don’t want,” Padden said. “This is not only unnecessary and likely to result in greater rejection of the vaccine, but it’s a violation of basic civil liberties.”
Eventually, 96 percent of state workers were in compliance with the mandate, according to the most recent data. Still, more than 2,000 state employees — or just over 3 percent of the workforce — lost their jobs or left because of the mandate.
But Inslee stands by the measures he’s taken.
“Because our state followed science, because people care for one another, because people are willing to be responsible, we have been able to avoid thousands of needless deaths and thousands of needless hospitalizations,” Inslee said.
With three years left in his term, Inslee said his priorities will remain similar to the past two terms. In his budget proposal to the 2022 Legislature, Inslee outlined his top policy goals this upcoming session, including dealing with the homelessness crisis, fighting climate change and aiding in salmon recovery.
His supplemental budget proposal would spend about $62 billion and additional federal COVID-19 relief funds. It would also spend about $626 million to fight a changing climate with a clean building standard and rebates for those who purchase electric cars. It would spend about $187 million for salmon recovery, including a continued mitigation study for the lower Snake River dams. It would spend about $800 million to fight the state’s homelessness crisis by building supportive housing and bolstering behavioral health services.
For now, Inslee’s top priority remains fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the new omicron variant spreads quickly across the country, the state of emergency likely won’t be lifted anytime soon.
“Obviously, we’re not through with this saga,” he said. “We can’t write the end of the movie until we get there. We’re obviously not.”