Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is taking steps toward a presidential bid, forming a federal political action committee and soliciting money he could use to travel to early 2020 primary and caucus states, the Seattle Times and the public radio Northwest News Network have learned.
The committee, Vision PAC, was quietly registered in early October by Inslee’s campaign treasurer, Philip Lloyd. Its first and only reported donation so far is $5,000 from Blaine Tamaki, a longtime Yakima attorney and major Inslee political contributor who was appointed by the governor to the University of Washington Board of Regents last year.
Over the past year, Inslee has boosted his national profile and traveled the country as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, furthering speculation about his 2020 ambitions. His DGA term ends this week, cutting off that travel budget.
Jamal Raad, an Inslee campaign spokesman, confirmed on Friday that Vision PAC was formed as Inslee’s DGA role wound down, “to house his political activities that aren’t directly related to his re-election [as governor].”
While Inslee has talked previously about keeping his 2020 options open, the newly revealed federal fundraising is the most concrete evidence to date that the two-term governor is serious about possibly entering what will be a crowded Democratic presidential field.
Janet Pauli, a longtime Inslee supporter who lives on Bainbridge Island, said she and her husband pledged $10,000 to Inslee’s exploratory effort after she received a personal phone call from the governor Thursday.
Pauli said Inslee discussed the donations paying for expenses including travel to the first four Democratic primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
“He said they’re raising money so he can travel, as a first step to see if this is a possibility,” Pauli told the Seattle Times and Northwest News Network. “He talked about the first four states … He is doing the first steps that you do, to see if you can raise money and see if people think you are a good fit for the country.”
Raad said Inslee “has no current plans to travel at this time” to those states. Inslee was scheduled to be in New Orleans this weekend for an annual DGA meeting at which his successor as chair will be chosen.
He was in San Francisco last week on a political trip, about which Raad declined to provide details.
While in California, Inslee visited the site of devastating fires in Paradise and recorded a video standing in front of a medical center that had burned to the ground. In it, Inslee sounded very much like a presidential candidate, as he challenged President Donald Trump on climate change.
“We can’t allow climate deniers in the White House,” Inslee said in the nighttime video posted to Twitter. “The president has said he doesn’t believe. You can’t stand here and say you don’t believe in climate change.”
Although Inslee has been talking with past political supporters about his 2020 options, Raad said “he has not made up his mind.”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, another Western Democrat considering a presidential run, recently created a similar PAC, according to the Colorado Sun.
Federal law allows potential presidential hopefuls to “test the waters,” raising money to pay for expenses including travel and polling, without formally registering as a candidate, said Adav Noti, a former Federal Election Commission attorney and senior director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that advocates for enforcement of campaign-finance laws.
If he does decide to run, Inslee likely would have daunting competition from better-known and better-funded Democratic primary candidates, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Even Pauli said she’s been a fan of another possible 2020 candidate, Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. But, she said she thinks Inslee has a lot to offer.
“I think one thing that Jay could do is really appeal to the centrists, to the independents,” she said. “He is a blue jeans kind of guy.”
Inslee’s ambitions have been rumored for months, with some political insiders suggesting he could position himself for a Cabinet post in a Democratic administration even if his campaign fails to gain traction.
“I think for sure he has been exploring it. It just seems obvious based on what we know about his public schedule,” said Democratic political consultant Lisa MacLean, who stressed she had no inside knowledge. “I think if he is ready to not be governor any more, running for president is an excellent way to multiply your opportunities moving forward on the national stage.”
Another Democratic consultant, who requested anonymity, said “he’s very serious about the presidential thing, I think they’re gearing up. Every signal I’m getting right now is he’s going to do it.”
At a recent fundraiser in Olympia for Inslee’s gubernatorial campaign, the governor made comments some interpreted as evidence of his national ambitions.
“He intimated that he was leaning toward a run for a different office,” said former state Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt, who attended the event. “And I don’t think it was anything but president.”
Former Department of Ecology director Jay Manning, who also attended, had a different impression of Inslee’s comments, saying the governor “made a joke about it that was really inconclusive.”
Still, Manning, a former president of the Washington Environmental Council who shares Inslee’s passion for fighting climate change, said an Inslee candidacy would be beneficial to the cause of climate action.
“The national dialogue on climate is so pathetic,” he said. To have a credible presidential candidate speaking on the subject “would be a welcome antidote to one of the things that keeps me up at night.”
Role as DGA chair
Even an exploratory run for president may prove complicated for Inslee, who faces a 105-day legislative session that will convene in January. Inslee is expected to release his proposed budget in December, tackling issues including climate change, education and mental health.
The last serious presidential candidate from Washington state was U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who competed for the Democratic nomination in 1976, dropping out after losing the Pennsylvania primary.
As DGA chair this year, Inslee has crisscrossed the country meeting donors and political insiders in many states, including visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. In the end, Inslee had some bragging rights as Democrats picked up seven governors’ seats previously held by Republicans.
Inslee’s DGA role garnered him increasing national media attention and made him a semiregular guest on cable news shows as a fierce critic of Trump on issues including gun control and refugees. In interviews and on social media, Inslee has increasingly stressed that Democrats must nominate a challenger in 2020 who – like him – regards climate change as a top political issue.
The governor’s frequent out-of-state trips have helped bust the budget of the taxpayer-funded State Patrol detail that travels with him for protection. The patrol is asking for a $1.3 million increase for the unit, predicting Inslee’s out-of-state travel will only increase over the next two years.
As he teases out a possible presidential run, Inslee separately has continued raising money for his gubernatorial re-election in case he decides to seek a third term. His campaign account reported about $280,000 cash on hand as of the end of October.
A prelegislative session fundraising freeze on soliciting or accepting donations for state campaigns, including Inslee’s gubernatorial committee, begins Dec. 15.
However, state law allows Inslee to continue to raise money for the federal PAC even during the freeze, according to a spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission.
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