May 17, 2009 in City

Gov. Gregoire defends move to fill speechwriter job

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Practically everyone attached to state government in Washington is being forced to cut back.

Universities are canceling programs, and students are facing higher tuition. Schoolteachers are getting layoff notices. State employees are looking at lower wages or higher benefit costs or both. State government has a general hiring freeze.

In the midst of such hard times, does it seem strange to anyone else that Gov. Chris Gregoire is looking for a speechwriter with a possible salary of $63,000 a year?

Whether the job of crafting the governor’s spoken words is worth $63K is only part of the discussion. Whether that’s a reasonable rate for someone who can “shape the message” is a bit difficult to say because the law of supply and demand in the speechwriter labor market doesn’t apply as readily as it does to the market for cab drivers or plumbers or bartenders.

This isn’t a denigration of the job, which often is filled by former journalists. Goodness knows there are more former journalists in need of a new line of work with each passing week. Anything that gives them a shot at that is a good thing.

If the governor had a longtime speechwriter in the job, former journalist or not, it would be cruel to suggest he or she hit the bricks. But in this case, speechwriter Hal Spencer left, and she’s received an exemption from the hiring freeze to fill the spot.

The question was put to Gregoire late last week during an interview with The Spokesman- Review’s editorial board. During the previous hour’s give and take, she held forth on the state’s budget woes, expressed even greater concern for the next biennium that could feature low revenues but no federal stimulus money, and acknowledged that the state’s teachers – some of whom would wave pink slips at her later in the day to signal solidarity with colleagues being laid off – might be understandably unhappy about legislative decisions that increase class size and forgo cost-of-living raises.

So why fill the speechwriter job in tough economic times?

“It’s not OK for me not to go out there,” Gregoire said, adding she wrote the speech she was giving to the teachers that evening, and it took her two and a half hours. “I don’t think you want me writing speeches. But I think you want me giving speeches.”

At which point she launched into a passionate defense of her need to go around the state, talk to the residents, keep them informed and hopeful. She gets lots of requests to speak on a wide variety of topics. Commencement speeches. Business openings. Gatherings of fellow governors and other elected officials. And she wants to be able to lift people up, get them to look out for one another and help each other get through the tough times, just like people did during the Great Depression.

“I don’t think you ought to have a governor who doesn’t go out, and I don’t think you ought to have a governor who doesn’t put any thought into what they say.”

It was a good logical defense, as far as content.

So good, in fact, it actually made the point that she could go without a speechwriter and not embarrass herself, or the state, until the budget picture got better.

Flagging interests

The flag flying below the Stars and Stripes on the Spokane County Courthouse is the official Prisoner of War/Missing In Action flag.

It has a black field with a white circle in the middle, inside of which is a profile of a head in silhouette. The county flies it to honor missing military personnel from here and around the country.

Some county staff members said recently that people have called to ask why the county was flying a pirate flag. If you thought the Jolly Roger was flying from the courthouse tower, you can be forgiven if you just rented “Pirates of the Caribbean” or just had your property taxes jacked up.

Still, you probably should get your eyes checked.

Spin Control is a weekly political column written by veteran reporter Jim Camden, who can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@spokesman.com.


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