Jay Inslee is the 23rd governor of Washington State and a 2020 Democratic candidate for U.S. president. He was born in Seattle and went to Ingraham High School, where he was an honor student and standout athlete, and where he met his future wife. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Washington and a law degree from Willamette University before settling in Yakima County. He practiced law there for more than a decade before getting involved in politics. He first served in the state Legislature, and then won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After losing his bid for a second term, he and his family moved to Bainbridge Island. He made an unsuccessful bid for the governorship, and then ran again for Congress, this time in a more progressive district, and was elected to seven terms. He was elected governor in 2012 and again in 2016. The defining issue of his presidential campaign was climate change. With more than a year remaining before the election, he struggled to gain traction in a field of more than 20 candidates.
Son of Seattle
Jay Robert Inslee was born in Seattle's Swedish Hospital on February 9, 1951. He was the first of three sons of Frank E. (1926-2014) and Adele A. (nee Brown, d. 2007) Inslee. His father was a University of Washington graduate who became a high school biology teacher, counselor, coach, and athletic director. His mother, besides raising her boys, worked as a sales clerk at Sears in Seattle's Sodo District, and later as a colorist -- helping customers pick flattering clothes -- at Nordstrom in Aurora Village.
Frank Inslee started his teaching career in the small Thurston County town of Tenino. While Jay was still a toddler, the family moved to Seattle so Frank could teach and coach basketball at Garfield High School. When he took a job at Chief Sealth High School, the family moved to White Center. Jay spent grades one through nine in the Highline School District, first at Shorewood Elementary and then at Cascade Junior High. Family trips to Mount Rainier and his grandfather's Puget Sound beach cabin kindled Jay's lifelong interest in nature and the environment.
High School Highlights
The Inslees moved back to Seattle when Frank became the Metro League's athletic director. On one of Jay's first days at Ingraham High School, he had a life-changing moment. As he walked into Spanish class, the sight of another student caught his eye. The memory was still fresh more than 50 years later.
"I remember seeing this girl with blondish auburn hair. The sun was falling on her through the window. I still have an image of her next to the window. She had a white blouse on. And the rest is history" (Glenn Drosendahl interview).
The girl was his future wife, Trudi. She was the daughter of a municipal golf course pro and former University of Washington golf coach. They married in 1972 and eventually had three sons. When he was running for president nearly 47 years later, Inslee called her the person "who has had the greatest directional input in what I have done" (Drosendahl interview).
In his senior year at Ingraham, Inslee quarterbacked the Rams to a winning season and then, as a 6-foot-2 forward, helped the basketball team achieve a perfect season, winning all 23 games and the state championship. Teammates remembered him as clean-cut, hard-working, and a leader, one who rallied them with a pep talk when they were trailing late in the first game of the state tournament. He said later that sports taught him how to work effectively with others.
When he graduated in June 1969, the Vietnam War and protests against the conflict were at a peak. Inslee was granted a student deferment from the draft while starting college at Stanford University. Later, when the U.S. Selective Service System adopted a draft lottery based on birth dates, his number was 187 out of 365. He was not called to serve.
From Stanford to Selah
Inslee went to Stanford intending to become a doctor, but costs quickly burned through his savings. Unable to land financial aid, he withdrew from Stanford after one year and returned to Seattle. He lived in his parents' basement and worked as, among other things, a dishwasher, waiter, and bulldozer operator, while attending the University of Washington. Trudi, meanwhile, was studying political science and sociology at Washington State. They married on August 27, 1972, prior to his senior year. They were both 21.
He wanted to go to UW law school after graduation in 1973, but was not accepted. He went instead to Willamette University School of Law in Salem, Oregon, and in 1976 got his Doctorate in Law degree summa cum laude.
At that point his and Trudi’s lives took a major turn -- over the mountains to politically conservative Central Washington. He accepted a job offer from the law firm of Peters, Schmalz, Leadon & Fowler, and the couple moved at first to Yakima and then a few miles north to the rural community of Selah, where they lived in a 1931 farm house on four acres of hayfields surrounded by apple orchards. There they raised their sons -- Jack, Connor, and Joe -- while Jay practiced small-town law. As the firm's newest member, he initially worked as a part-time prosecutor in Selah Municipal Court, handling cases such as spousal-abuse and drunk-driving. He later drew attention for his work as a defense attorney and for winning civil suits.
Plunging into Politics
In 1985, Selah's high school was overcrowded and facing the possibility of half-day sessions to accommodate the number of students. Seven times voters had rejected bond issues to help pay for a new school. The Inslees and another couple led a campaign for an eighth try. They were successful -- their bond issue passed -- only to have the state Legislature reduce matching funds. Angered, Inslee drove to Olympia to complain in person. He didn't get the outcome he wanted, but he did get encouragement from Democratic lawmakers to run for office.
Inslee took the plunge at age 37, running for the 14th Legislative District's vacant seat in the state House of Representatives in 1988. His main opponent was Lynn Carmichael, Yakima’s mayor from 1982 to 1984. She had name recognition and was a conservative in a Republican-leaning district; he was a political newcomer and more liberal than most of the district's voters. Party leaders did not expect him to win. Inslee went to work. He raised his profile by going door to door and spending mornings waving a campaign sign at passing traffic. He stressed his small-town connections and work as a lawyer defending average local folks. (The Washington State Trial Lawyers Association was his biggest campaign contributor, giving him $6,650.) He staked out a position to the right of his opponent on a few issues, advocating a tax cut for the middle class and stiffer penalties for drug dealers. He placed second behind Carmichael in the blanket primary election, and then beat her in the general election, 52 to 48 percent.
As a freshman state legislator, Inslee passed bills regulating steroid use in high school sports and creating a system for state troopers to dispose of seized property. He also supported extending unemployment benefits to the Yakima Valley's farmworkers, most of them Hispanic. "That was one of my first votes," he said. "I know that was not a popular vote, but I know how hard people work" (Drosendahl interview). "He pushed very hard for what he wanted," former House Speaker Joe King said in 2012. "We used to say, 'Jay, you don't know your place. You haven't waited in line.' But we couldn't intimidate him like we could other freshmen" ("Democrat Inslee ...")
Inslee was re-elected in 1990 with 62 percent of the vote. And when the seat in his Central Washington district opened in 1992, he ran for U.S. Congress. Again the underdog, he scored another upset victory, albeit by a narrow margin. He was just the second Democrat to represent the 4th Congressional District since World War II.
That tenure in Congress was a short one. Inslee and four other representatives from Washington were swept out of office in 1994 as part of a nationwide Republican wave. He was beaten by Republican Doc Hastings (b. 1941), the candidate he defeated in 1992. Inslee believed he lost because he supported a federal ban on assault weapons, an unpopular stance in his district. Hastings went on to hold that seat until he retired in 2015.
After his unsuccessful election bid, the Inslees moved to Bainbridge Island. He ran for governor in 1996, but finished fifth overall in the primary and third among Democrats, trailing eventual winner Gary Locke (b. 1950) and Seattle mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943). Inslee returned briefly to private law practice after that. He was appointed regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1997 by President Bill Clinton.
In 1998 Inslee took another crack at Congress. His new home district, the 1st Congressional, was a better fit for his political views. Besides Bainbridge Island and part of the Kitsap Peninsula, it included northwest Seattle and the city's northern and eastern suburbs. Still in favor of banning assault weapons, Inslee ousted two-term incumbent Rick White (b. 1953) with 49.8 percent of the vote to White’s 41.1 percent.
Focus on Clean Energy
Inslee was re-elected to Congress six times, never with less than 54 percent of the vote and with more than 67 percent in both 2006 and 2008. As Seattle Times reporter David Gutman put it, he was "a reliable Democratic vote" ("From Part-Time ..."), notably opposing the United States' invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush and supporting the Affordable Care Act for national health coverage signed by President Barack Obama. But most of all, he became an early advocate for clean energy policies that would address growing concerns about climate change.
In a December 18, 2002 opinion piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Inslee called for "a unified and highly prioritized national program to fulfill America's destiny of leading the world to a new clean energy future." Such a program not only could boost the economy but also reduce "the risks from impending man made climate change," he wrote. Inslee likened such a focused effort to the Apollo Project launched by President John F. Kennedy's 1961 challenge for the nation to put a man on the moon within a decade, a mission accomplished in 1969. Inslee even suggested his program -- toward "a new national energy future" -- take an updated version of the space project's name ("New Apollo Project ...").
In 2007, Inslee was chief sponsor of the New Apollo Energy Act, an unsuccessful House bill that called for massive public and private investment in alternative energy sources. He elaborated on his ideas in a 2008 book, Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy, co-written with Bracken Hendricks. The book describes a clean-energy future reached by weaning the nation off of fossil fuels. President Clinton wrote in the forward:
"To anyone who says that Congress does not have a plan for combating climate change, Representative Inslee has not only an answer but a field guide for our future. ... (Inslee's and Hendricks's vision) is capitalism with conscience. It is innovation for the improvement of humanity. It is science as stewardship. This is our errand into the wilderness, and it is our obligation to our children and to the global community. Apollo’s Fire calls us to our destiny" (Inslee and Hendricks, x-xi).
The book calls for a new energy policy -- "no less a challenge than reorienting the entire U.S. economy" (Inslee and Hendricks, 261) -- with investment on a par with the Apollo space program, and with energy independence and climate protection as national goals. The authors proposed policies that would, among other things, reward renewable and carbon-free electricity, set energy efficiency standards, and cap carbon emissions. "Together these approaches start to spell out a comprehensive strategy for the nation to break our addiction to oil, roll back the threat of climate change, and remake our economy," they wrote (Inslee and Hendricks, 266). In short, the book calls for an energy revolution.
Running for Governor
Governor Chris Gregoire (b. 1947) announced in 2011 that she would not seek a third term and encouraged Inslee to run for the office. He announced his candidacy in June of that year. Trailing in the polls, he resigned from Congress in March 2012 to concentrate on campaigning.
Running against the state attorney general, Republican Rob McKenna (b. 1962), Inslee promised to spur job growth, particularly in the fields of clean energy, aerospace, and biotechnology, while opposing tax increases. He also supported a ballot measure to legalize gay marriage. To widen his appeal beyond liberal King County, he stressed his working-class and small-town connections. Speaking to voters in appearances around the state, he said:
"I'm the candidate who has driven a bulldozer in Bellevue and has painted houses in Burien and has washed dishes and waited tables in Edmonds, who has prosecuted drunk drivers in Yakima, who has taught community college in Yakima, who has grown alfalfa in Eastern Washington, who's represented the Hanford nuclear workers. I am the candidate in this race with work experience, which really acquaints me with the real working lives of working middle class people in the state of Washington" ("Jay Inslee's Uphill Battle").
Inslee beat McKenna by 94,557 votes (51.54 percent of the total), despite winning in only eight of the state’s 39 counties -- none east of the Cascades, and not even Kitsap, his home county.
The first year of his governorship was a struggle. Inslee inherited a split Legislature, with Republicans holding a majority in the Senate and not inclined to go along with his liberal priorities. Attempts to strengthen gun control, require insurance companies to cover abortions, and address climate change all stalled. He had to call two special sessions before a compromise fiscal budget passed.
One 2013 bill that sailed through the Legislature and was backed and signed into law by Inslee gave $8.7 billion in tax breaks to The Boeing Company, basically by extending previously granted lower rates and credits to 2040. The giant aerospace company had demanded such tax relief plus concessions by the machinists union in return for promising to build its new 777X jet in Washington. The deal was described as the biggest corporate tax break in history. Inslee defended it, calling it "great news for every Washingtonian" ("Inslee Talks Boeing ..."). He said it would create 54,000 jobs, and an independent study released by his office predicted that 777X contracts would produce $21 billion in tax revenue for the state.
The deal had drawbacks. It angered the machinists, who felt forced to relinquish benefits. Three years later the World Trade Organization ruled that $5.7 billion of the total $8.7 million in tax breaks amounted to illegal subsidies. And the tax breaks did not produce the hoped-for jobs. There was no significant increase until 4,000 jobs were added in 2018, and even with that bump, by April 2019 Boeing had 17,200 fewer in-state employees than it had before the 2013 bill was passed.
On the plus side of Inslee's first term as governor, the state's economy rebounded from the recession that was winding down when he took office, so much so that Business Insider magazine ranked it first in the nation and Forbes magazine ranked it second. Also, lawmakers agreed on a $16 billion package for transportation infrastructure projects, and approved $4.5 billion for public K-12 schools, a step toward constitutional obligations mandated by the state Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary decision. Inslee polished his liberal credentials by suspending the death penalty in Washington, pushing for carbon-reducing emission standards, and supporting the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community in a controversy over public bathrooms.
He also presided over some embarrassing lapses. His administration was held in contempt by a federal judge for not addressing problems at Western State Hospital, the state's largest psychiatric facility; and the Department of Corrections prematurely released more than 3,000 prisoners because of a software coding error, something that went unnoticed for three years.
In his bid for a second term, Inslee was opposed by Republican Bill Bryant (b. 1957), a former Seattle port commissioner running a small lobbying and public relations firm. Even with his short resume, Bryant won all the counties east of the Cascades, but overall Inslee topped him by 284,174 votes, garnering 54.39 percent of the total. Two counties gained by the governor, compared to 2012, were Pierce and his own, Kitsap.
Things got easier in his second term. His leadership skills were more developed and, importantly, Democrats gained control of the Legislature. A 2017 special election gave them a one-seat majority in the Senate. That advantage grew to 10 seats in 2018, creating greater opportunity for Inslee to advance his agenda. Faced with a budget shortfall, he went against a campaign promise not to seek new taxes, and proposed putting them on capital gains, carbon emissions, cigarettes, bottled water, and oil refineries. He supported raising the minimum wage to $15. He pushed for ways to mitigate climate change, and for a public-option health insurance plan. As Associated Press reporters Bill Barrow and Rachel La Corte put it, Inslee "governed Washington as an unabashed liberal, promoting clean energy, gay rights, abortion rights, environmental preservation, tighter gun restrictions and more spending for education and job training" ("Inslee Joins ...").
He denied a permit for an oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, Washington, and permits for a coal-export terminal in Longview. In a setback for his efforts to address climate change, voters in 2018 rejected Initiative 1631, which would have imposed a fee on carbon emissions.
By then, Inslee was reaching a wider audience. At the 2017 United Nations Climate Convention in Bonn, Germany, Inslee said that President Donald Trump had created a vacuum of international leadership on climate change and that U.S. governors would fill that void. He gained a national stage in 2018 when he became chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a position that got him on cable television news shows where he was bluntly critical of Trump and his policies. When the president signed an executive order banning people from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, Washington challenged the order in court and won, temporarily blocking the ban. At that point, the state was described as "the epicenter of resistance to Trump's agenda" ("How Washington State ...").
State attorney general Bob Ferguson (b. 1965), backed by Inslee, filed 21 suits against the Trump administration in the first four months of 2017 and won, at least temporarily, all 21 cases.
Running for President
Inslee's persistent criticism of Trump made it seem like only a matter of time. On March 1, 2019, he made it official: He was running for president. He was the first Washingtonian to do so since Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983), who ran unsuccessfully in 1972 and 1976.
Of the more than 20 Democratic candidates, Inslee was the only one focused on climate change. "We're the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we're the last that can do something about it," he said in a video announcing his candidacy ("Inslee Launches ..."). Both before and after the announcement, he was widely interviewed. He maintained that emphasizing clean, sustainable energy could create thousands of new jobs while also protecting the environment.
On May 2, 2019, he released a more specific plan, one that included banning by 2030 the sale of new cars, light trucks and buses powered by fossil fuels. A week later he showed he could get results, signing bills that made Washington a leader in addressing climate change, including one aiming to rid the electric grid of fossil fuels by 2045 -- a national first. The package of bills also set new energy-efficient standards for large new buildings and appliances. An article in The Atlantic magazine said "he has found this success not by trying to tax carbon pollution, but by going sector by sector, coaxing and prodding individual parts of the economy to change their ways. It is a strategy he now hopes to bring to the White House" ("Jay Inslee's Climate Plan ...").
Candidate Inslee stressed the need for quick action: "This monster is accelerating. Every few months there's a new report that all the bad signs are in the red zone and heading redder. ... I wish it weren't so, but we have found out we have less time than we thought" (Drosendahl interview).
Despite the media coverage and speaking appearances around the country, Inslee's campaign gained little traction. He qualified for the first two rounds of televised candidate debates, but polling numbers showed him the choice of 1 percent or less of potential Democratic voters, and his campaign contributions were far below the early leaders -- former Vice President Joe Biden (b. 1942), and U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (b. 1941) and Elizabeth Warren (b. 1949).
Each debate lasted two hours and featured 10 candidates. In Inslee's first appearance, he got only five minutes of airtime. He doubled that in his second appearance while dramatically expressing the urgency of his climate-change message: "Our house is on fire! Get off coal. Save this country and the planet, that’s what I’m for" ("'Our House ..."). Despite sounding the alarm, as of August he remained a longshot to make the next round of debates.