The differences and disparities in the race between incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee and chief Republican challenger Bill Bryant were crystal clear over a 24-hour period on the last weekend of June, when each held a major campaign event at a convention center in Western Washington.
In downtown Seattle on the evening of June 24, streets were blocked, parking was challenging and traffic was worse than usual, as some 3,000 people made their way to a fundraising dinner that featured President Barack Obama and Inslee. Their images were projected on giant monitors for well-dressed donors at tables far enough from the stage to be almost in the next ZIP code.
Obama’s tightly scheduled comings and goings were covered by a phalanx of national and local reporters. Inslee and the state Democratic Party will split the take from tickets, which started at $250.
Bryant was hardly mentioned as Obama and Inslee shared the stage, joked, embraced and mugged for photos.
The next afternoon, Bryant – a businessman and Port of Seattle commissioner – was joined by Republican elected officials from inside and outside Washington at the Tacoma Convention Center. The streets were open, parking was easy and traffic sparse. The casually dressed crowd, estimated at 1,000 by the campaign, included babies in strollers and carriers, small children and teens. There was no admission price, only a registration of contact information with the campaign, although donations were accepted.
After a salute to veterans and recognition of other GOP candidates in the crowd, a series of legislators and other Republicans hammered at Inslee as the chief or possibly sole cause of Washington’s woes and a mere bystander to any progress it has made in the last four years.
The event’s featured guest, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, was hardly a household name, but she heads the Republican Governors Association. Washington currently has the longest stretch of any state without a member in that group, but 2016 is “a winnable race” she insisted, and Obama’s appearance was a sign the incumbent is nervous.
“I wouldn’t be here if Bill Bryant had no chance of winning,” Martinez said.
Clearly aligned with the current president, Inslee also supports his party’s presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, and would like to tie Bryant to his “fellow Republican” Donald Trump. Bryant will make no statement about support or opposition to Trump, and other Republicans at his rally urged the crowd to consider Bryant as “the top of the ticket.” Martinez’s appearance could be seen as a sign of Bryant’s leanings – she has criticized Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and said she wouldn’t accept the vice presidential nomination if offered.
Inslee sees a state that has added jobs in the last four years, and Employment Security data shows the state has about 280,000 more people working than when he took office in 2013. But the state’s current unemployment rate of 5.8 percent is a full percentage point behind the national average, and most of the job growth has been confined to the Snohomish-King-Pierce counties area, Bryant and Republicans say.
“There are a lot of people who think they have been left behind,” Bryant said.
Inslee concedes that many people in the state still struggle, promising to “redouble our efforts to build an economy that works for everyone.”
Part of the solution to the economy’s problems, both say, is a better education system. Bryant would “reinvent” the last two years of high school so that students would be on track to continue education after getting their diploma, whether in college, apprenticeship programs or public service. He sees the fact that the state Supreme Court had to fine the state for not meeting its top constitutional duty of adequately providing for public schools as a major failure. But while the court laid that failure on the Legislature, Bryant insists it means “Inslee’s a failed governor.”
Inslee cites increases in early learning, the expansion of all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes in lower grades as the progress that’s been made on education. Teachers got a modest raise in the current budget, but will need other incentives in the coming years to overcome the state’s teacher shortage, he said.
“To address the crushing debt our college students are facing, we made sure that every student in our public colleges is getting a tuition cut,” he told the crowd at the fundraiser.
That particularly rankles Republican legislators, who point out they were the ones who pushed a tuition freeze through the Senate they controlled in the first two years of Inslee’s term, and the tuition cut in the last two. But Inslee and Democrats made sure that community college students also got the cuts.
While Inslee promises a Washington that will “lead the world in fighting climate change,” Bryant warns of new environmental taxes that could cost the state jobs.
As a former congressman, first for Central Washington and later for a Puget Sound district, Inslee enjoys wide recognition among voters. In his first run for statewide office, Bryant must work for name recognition and so far is doing it with about a third of the campaign money that Inslee has amassed.
The incumbent Democrat and the Republican Party’s preferred candidate are at the bottom of the primary ballot, below nine other wannabe chief executives, some from their own party and others from minor parties.
Also on the ballot:
James Deal, Lynnwood, a real estate broker and attorney who has run unsuccessfully for city council, county executive and lieutenant governor, believes Inslee should fight to keep oil and coal trains out of the state, opposes fluoridated water and boosts “Uber technology” to reduce traffic.
Johnathan Dodds, Mercer Island, a former professional wrestler who owns an online office supply website, wants to fight corruption in the state’s schools and its fiscal policies. He said he’s traveled extensively and has his finger on the pulse of the state.
Patrick O’Rourke, Yacolt, did not return calls requesting an interview, but in his statement to the secretary of state’s office he said he’s worked for 35 years for Clark Public Utilities and believes everyday people can still get involved in state government and make a difference.
Goodspaceguy, the former Michael Nelson who changed his name to signify his passion for colonizing space, is a perennial candidate who believes competition and the free market solve most problems. He’s a retiree who lives off investments and continues to run because “problems continue and people who are elected never solve the problems.”
Bill Hirt, Bellevue, a retiree who admits he has no expectation or desire to win, is a staunch opponent of Sound Transit’s East Lake project and is running to attract people to his website about those concerns.
David Blomstrom, Seattle, lists the Fifth Republic Party, which he created. He declined a request for an interview but in his filing for the state Voter’s Guide he said he was opposed to federal money going to Israel and called Seattle “little more than a cancer cell, a playpen for corporate tycoons and yuppies.”
Christian Joubert, Edmonds, a naturopath and former law professor, lists the Holistic Party, which he created. He considers running a good civic act and wants to promote “a holistic governance rationale,” which he explains on a website and an e-book.
Mary Martin, Seattle, a Wal-Mart worker who is the Socialist Workers Party candidate, is running as that party’s effort to raise issues about workers’ rights. She believes the economy is pushing down the working class while capitalists profit.
Steve Rubenstein, Bothell, a program consultant, is running as an independent seeking the centrist vote. A former Democrat, he left that party because of its failure to change the state’s regressive tax system. The only way to make change happen, he said, “is you’ve got to have somebody at the top.”