Jay Inslee, Washington Governor and Environmentalist, Enters 2020 Race
SEATTLE — Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington and former member of Congress who has made climate change and the environment his signature issues, jumped into the crowded field of 2020 Democratic contenders for president on Friday.
Mr. Inslee, 68, has led the state during a powerful economic expansion since taking office as governor in 2013, especially in the Seattle area. Amazon and other tech companies have hired tens of thousands of workers, and export-driven manufacturers like Boeing have boomed.
But he has had mixed success in getting some of his ideas put into practice, especially those on renewable, low-carbon energy. He failed twice with voters, and once in the Legislature, to enact the nation’s first carbon tax, aimed at reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Many residents, elected officials and business leaders balked, concerned that energy costs would rise.
In a video released by his campaign titled “Our Moment,” Mr. Inslee spares no time getting to his core environmental message, with the word “climate,” mentioned at least 10 times in just over 80 seconds.
Shown chatting up farmers and factory workers and surveying fire disasters, Mr. Inslee says he is the only candidate for president who would make the issue the nation’s No. 1 priority, but he combines that thought with an economic development message — that a moonshot like focus on climate and a push toward “100 percent clean energy,” would also create millions of jobs. But he says the clock is ticking.
“We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we’re the last that can do something about it,” Mr. Inslee says.
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In speeches around the nation leading up to his announcement, Mr. Inslee has framed his candidacy around themes that are deeply familiar to residents of his home state. Biting attacks on President Trump and Republicans in Congress — popular in the strongly Democratic counties in and around Seattle — are combined with sometimes lofty, sometimes dire, rhetoric that the nation and the world are at a pivot point, where delay on energy and climate will be disastrous for future generations.
“This is the 11th hour, but it is Washington’s hour to shine. It’s a time of great peril, but also of great promise,” Governor Inslee said in his State of the State speech earlier this year. “I don’t know of any other issue that touches the heart of things so many of us care about: our jobs, our health, our safety and our children’s future,” he added, referring to climate change.
Mr. Inslee has said in recent speeches that he would push the nation to global leadership in research and development of lower-carbon energy policies, likening the effort to the mass mobilizations and deployment of resources during World War II. But his base of support in his home state is also narrow.
In his election to the governor’s office in 2012, he carried only eight of the state’s 39 counties, all of them along the heavily populated liberal western slope of the Cascade Range. He trailed his Republican challenger in more rural and conservative agricultural communities. In his second campaign four years later, he carried nine counties.
Many Washington residents, even those who admire Mr. Inslee and have voted for him, are prone to sometimes mock him for his sunny, boyish enthusiasm in talking about passions like ocean acidification and carbon.
“He’s a true believer,” said Travis N. Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University and longtime observer of Mr. Inslee. “He’s identified with climate change. Other than that, it’s hard to — at least in my mind — come up with signature policy focuses. The positive of that is that it’s hard to think of the big scandals he’s been involved in either. He’s fairly low drama. He’s not a firebrand.”
Mr. Inslee announced his campaign at a solar energy company warehouse south of downtown Seattle.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times
Mr. Inslee, a lawyer and former prosecutor, is a fifth-generation Washingtonian who grew up in the Seattle area and has credited part of his appreciation for the natural world to his father, Frank Inslee, a high school science teacher who often led the family on volunteer expeditions to replant alpine meadows on the slopes of Mount Rainier, the glacier-clad volcano south of Seattle.
One Democratic political consultant, Rebecca Katz, said that climate has risen in importance in the 2020 race with the introduction of the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution calling for an aggressive mobilization to move the United States to renewable energy and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Inslee has praised the Green New Deal, as have a number of senators who are also running for president — Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“The benefit of Inslee is that he actually has a record here,” Ms. Katz said. “There’s a lot of candidates who have kind of seen the light and are now for a Green New Deal, but Inslee has been talking about this issue for a long time.”
In a 23-minute speech on Friday to supporters who had crowded into a solar energy company warehouse south of downtown Seattle, Mr. Inslee spoke almost as much about optimism and hope as climate.
The belief that the nation can rise to the challenge of climate threats and push toward a zero-carbon energy system, he said — and do it with social justice and fairness — is crucial to the effort.
”We are an optimistic America that can do great things,” he said. “We know we can do hard things.” And under his presidency, he added, one of the first hard things would be ending special treatment for the fossil fuel industry.
“I have a message for the oil, coal and gas special interests — that gravy train is over,” he said.
Mr. Inslee is the first major-party politician from Washington State to run for president since Senator Henry M. Jackson, who was also a Democrat. Mr. Jackson was briefly a contender in 1976 before ultimately losing the nomination to Jimmy Carter, who won the general election that fall.
In a statement to the crowd about climate — though it seemed to be about Mr. Inslee’s candidacy as well — he said that timing was everything. “We have one chance to defeat climate change and it is right now,” he said. “And it is my belief that if you have one chance in life, you take it.”