OLYMPIA – The faces in the governor’s race may be the same, but 2004 this isn’t.
Millions of dollars are pouring into the contest that will presumably pit Gov. Chris Gregoire against Republican Dino Rossi in November. Political allies on both sides are already running heated attack ads and accusing each other of lying. The jabs and accusations sometimes bounce back and forth several times a day.
And it’s only July.
Judging by fundraising so far, it’s also likely to be significantly more expensive than Gregoire and Rossi’s 2004 face-off. Four years ago, the candidates raised and spent $14 million. This year – with 3 1/2 months to go until Election Day – they’ve already raised $12 million.
There are actually 10 candidates for governor on the Aug. 19 primary ballot. But given their name recognition and support from the two dominant parties, Gregoire and Rossi are all but certain to be the “top two” who face off in November.
Both sides still have strong memories of Gregoire’s 133-vote victory over Rossi after three counts and a months-long court battle over allegations of illegal voting. The razor-thin margin and the repeated voting problems in King County left a bad taste in the mouths of many Rossi supporters – a sentiment that a conservative builders group is trying to capitalize on with its dozens of “Don’t let Seattle steal this election” billboards in Eastern Washington.
Says Gregoire: “Shame on him. He had his day in court and couldn’t prove anything.”
Some of the issues are echoes from 2004. Rossi calls Gregoire a “tax-and-spend liberal” and career government bureaucrat, while Democrats call Rossi a George Bush clone and a stealth social conservative who’s a threat to abortion rights.
Here are some of the key campaign issues the two sides have been wrestling over so far:
•Spending: The main state two-year budget has risen 31 percent in four years, according to Gregoire’s budget office, from $25.6 billion to $33.65 billion.
Gregoire calls the spending key investments. She and the Legislature’s Democratic leaders have put more money into schools, health care, foster care, tracking sex offenders and other programs with long-term benefits.
Rossi says it’s more about rewarding Gregoire supporters like the state teachers union. If it’s an investment, he asks, where’s the payoff?
“Can anybody really with a straight face say that our children, when it comes to math, are able to compete with India and China?” he said.
Gregoire also says her budgeting helped dig the state out of a $2.2 billion shortfall to a healthy surplus and high bond ratings. Rossi points to next year, when state projections predict a $2.7 billion shortfall again.
•Tribal gambling: Gregoire has drawn heavy fire over signing gambling agreements that allowed the maximum number of slot-style machines at Indian casinos to increase from 18,225 to 27,300. At the same time, Rossi and other critics say, she shouldn’t have spurned the Spokane Tribe’s offer to share gambling revenue with the state.
Gregoire says – as she did at the time – that she was bound by a previous promise Gov. Gary Locke made to tribal leaders, an agreement that would have allowed far more machines.
“They came in and said, ‘We want all the rest of the machines,’ ” she said, “to which I said, ‘There’s no reason to negotiate. That isn’t going to happen. Not on my watch.’ ”
And no one, she said, supported the state sharing in casino profits. States that do, she said, tend to have “unfettered” gambling.
Rossi also says it’s akin to money laundering for the state Democratic Party to accept large cash contributions from the tribes, then use the money to help Gregoire.
“It’s unethical at best,” he said.
Gregoire counters that the money is used for broad get-out-the-vote efforts instead of directly helping her.
“That money can’t go to any campaigns,” she said. (Contributions by individual tribal members or employees, however, can be used for specific campaigns.)
“They are U.S. citizens. They vote,” she said. “They have a right to participate in the democratic process.”
•Abortion: Rossi, a Catholic, opposes abortion, which could be a significant liability in a strongly pro-choice state. (Gregoire is also Catholic.)
Rossi maintains that abortion rights are not relevant to the race, since Washington voters have already voted to incorporate the landmark Roe v. Wade language into state law.
“I’m not running on that issue; I never have,” he said. “People have voted on that, and I don’t think it’s going to change.”
As for birth control, which Rossi’s critics are trying to raise as an issue, people are free to use it “and it’s going to remain that way,” he said.
•Economy: Rossi says he wants to restore a sense of customer service to state government and to see that the state helps, not hinders, small businesses. He talks about a vibrant “entrepreneurial state.”
“I want to make this the best state in America to start a business and the worst state in which to be a criminal,” he frequently says on the campaign trail.
Gregoire touts her own record on the economy, including more money for local economic development agencies and a reservoir drawdown deal that will eventually provide billions of gallons in “new water” for struggling farmers and cities. She and lawmakers have invested heavily in higher education, including new medical, dental and nursing programs in Spokane.
•Taxes: With a potential $2.7 billion state budget shortfall looming over the next two years, Rossi predicts that Gregoire will boost taxes instead of cutting the budget. A former Senate budget writer, Rossi says he would instead go line by line through the budget, looking for efficiencies and savings.
In 2004, Gregoire said on the campaign trail that she wouldn’t raise taxes, although she later clarified that she meant major general taxes. In the first budget she signed, she agreed to $500 million in taxes, including liquor, cigarette and estate taxes.
“Why would we believe her now?” said Rossi.
Gregoire last week said that tax increases would be a last resort and would have to go before voters for approval.
“I said it four years ago, I’ll say it again now,” said Gregoire. “The last thing you want to do is go for taxes when you’ve got an economic downturn.”