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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Inslee misses the point – and the opportunity

UPDATED: Thu., April 23, 2020

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It was a swing and a missed opportunity to bring Washingtonians into the same ballpark.

Billed as not just another press briefing, Gov. Jay Inslee spoke directly to Washingtonians on Tuesday night with what was supposed to be “a plan for Washington state recovery.”

But it didn’t sound like a plan. He described the beginning of a planning process that should have started months ago, with a promise to let us know more in the next couple of weeks.

“We hope it will” and “we also hope we can” are aspirational statements, not plans.

Despite tossing in the “nothing to fear but fear itself” quote, Tuesday night’s speech sounded more like Jimmy Carter in 1977 than Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. Maybe that’s a good thing. Carter’s gloomy predictions of imminent collapse were soon proved wrong by a long economic boom while the Great Depression dragged on for eight painful years.

Making decisions for a sustainable future requires balancing physical, financial and social health. The data is still out on the magnitude of the physical threat posed by COVID-19. It’s not zero, but it’s not Ebola.

More testing will obviously give us more data, and reasonable people disagree on how much data is necessary to make informed decisions protecting physical health.

Meanwhile, the financial impacts on individuals, businesses and the health care system are nearing critical and the social fabric is beginning to tear.

Announcing months into the emergency that he will “soon be appointing three leadership groups of key community leaders to advise my office” sounds like an action not taken soon enough. Inslee is losing the affirmative consent of the governed when elected county commissioners, mayors and sheriffs are making moves to ignore his orders, reflecting pressure from their constituents.

The Policy Brief issued by the governor’s office promises “we will use an equity lens for recovery efforts.” That’s not what people see when they observe the local retail paint store forbidden to sell paint while an “essential” big box retail store absorbs its customers.

In the context of sustainability, the term equity is about fairness – whether all people have similar rights and opportunities. Treating individuals and businesses with equity does not mean treating them all the same.

Decisions about who or what is essential regardless of ability to operate safely are an exercise in power. It’s government picking winners and losers, not government applying data and science to set standards for safe operation, giving all people similar rights and opportunities.

Residents in small towns and low-density counties chafe at statewide data ignoring their different circumstances. Small business owners resent the power of major chains.

A self-employed hairdresser ready to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe operation sure doesn’t feel like she’s being treated with equity as Boeing goes back to work while she flounders.

Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck initially voted with his fellow commissioners on Tuesday to approve a resolution defying the governor’s emergency orders, in part driven by frustration over the Boeing decision.

On Wednesday, after further legal review, he sent out a revised resolution. It read, in part, “I have benefited from a flood of input from citizens across the state in the past 48 hours. Of the many calls, texts and emails, some were openly hostile and threatening; others equally vocal in their support. Obviously, our present condition has us strongly divided.

“What is also clear is that arguing with our Governor or taking bold, albeit well-intended Board actions, only furthers the divide and does not advance the interests of our citizens … which must be our first priority. Let us not forget that defending the Constitutional rights of our citizens is advancing citizen interests. However let’s be civil, responsible and thorough in doing so. Open discussion, public input and debate are more necessary than ever.”

Inslee’s speech on Tuesday was not the speech the governor needed to give to maintain the good will of the people. Saying Washingtonian eight times in 10 minutes is not enough to coach Washingtonians into playing as a team.

The divide reaches into friends, families and communities. All it took was one social media post expressing frustration with the speech and a friend of many decades replied with ugly, angry words. It was heartbreaking. In addition to the feel-good stories of our communities pulling together, the stress is also revealing our dark side.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on April 23, 2020 to correct the date that the Franklin County Commission voted to approve a resolution defying the governor’s emergency orders. That vote occurred on Tuesday.

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