Gov.-elect says the voters never got to know her
Times chief political Reporter
OLYMPIA — After 12 years as attorney general, Christine Gregoire spent more than a year and $6 million to tell voters why she should be their next governor.
There was a constant stream of television commercials showing everything from her as a tot on a pony to her position on stem-cell research.
But even before the race ended in a dead heat with Republican Dino Rossi, it was clear an important message had been lost.
"I don't think in the end voters ever really got to know Chris Gregoire."
That's what Gregoire says about herself today as she readies to be sworn in Wednesday as the state's 22nd governor.
It's a more introspective explanation of the near-loss than she has given previously.
"People want to know that they can have a governor who is good on policy and is competent. But they also want to know that they can have a governor that they can relate to," Gregoire said.
"I'm a mom. I'm a spouse. I'm a breast-cancer survivor. I came from very humble beginnings. I'm the first in my family to have gone to college. And I'll bet most people don't know much of any of that today."
And that means Gregoire is set to take office with the twin burdens of a campaign that didn't adequately define her and a contentious two months post-election that have voters questioning whether her election was legitimate.
"It doesn't look like they have faith in anybody right now," said David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Visions, an Atlanta-based Republican firm that polled Washington voters last month. That poll showed high negatives for Gregoire, Rossi and their respective political parties.
And there is no mandate. Mandates don't come packaged with low-watt campaigns and 129-vote victory margins.
So in her truncated transition, Gregoire has been trying to figure out how to stave off the effects of her tenuous victory.
From a small office in a drab state office building in sight of the Capitol, she has been meeting with legislators, her small staff and a much longer list of advisers.
Won't soften approach"I'm not going to say I haven't been advised, 'In light of all this maybe you should be a little more low-key and softer in your approach.' I have rejected that," Gregoire said.
Actually, it's hard to find anyone who suggests Gregoire turn to her softer side. Soft is not an easy fit for her. She's built much of her reputation on being tough and can appear stern. (In a Gregoire speech, even "my friends" can at times sound like a reprimand.)
There's wide agreement that Gregoire needs to act decisively and not like someone who barely won.
But should she do that by firming up the left edge of the Democratic base that was cool to her? Or by reaching out to Rossi backers?
Perhaps she should emerge as a government reformer or take on the herald of a New Democrat. Or she could do something against type, maybe across the mountains in Rossi country, as former Gov. Dan Evans said, "Like Nixon went to China"?
Gregoire has a strategy that sounds like a contradiction on first hearing.
She's going to be bold. And she's going to be a centrist.
"You know you can get elected by 1, 100, 1,000, 100,000 votes," she said her friend, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, told her. "The nameplate on the front of the governor's desk says 'Governor,' not 'Governor by 129 votes.' "
Her message to Washington residents of all political persuasions is, "Join me in the middle."
Staying a centristShe smiled broadly as she recalled a recent newspaper story about liberals who think she should lean more their way since they raised a lot of money to pay for the recount that got her elected.
"There's no one cashing in any debt," she said.
"Everyone has to come to the realization that the voters have sent a message, which is we are more in the center. Of course there are voters on the left and voters on the right. But the decision was made in the center."
This sounds a lot like a raging moderate in the Gary Locke model. Through the campaign, while she talked about how the state needed leadership and vision, Gregoire never clearly delineated herself from Locke, the two-term Democratic governor who leaves office as she enters. Until now, she avoided direct comparisons.
"Let's be honest," she said, using one of her frequent rejoinders. "I'm a more direct, decisive individual. I'm one who is willing to take risks."
As an example, she said that when she decided to sue tobacco companies as attorney general, she used all the money budgeted to her antitrust division rather than asking the Legislature for a special appropriation.
"If I had lost that case, there'd have been no antitrust division, and I'd be out of public office today," she said.
But whatever those financial risks, suing tobacco companies hardly presented much political risk, nor did another of her major accomplishments as attorney general, suing the federal government for more money to clean up the Hanford nuclear site.
"You know, Christine has had great success on issues where there is 100 percent political support, suing the federal government, suing tobacco companies," said former Democratic House Speaker Joe King.
"There aren't a lot of issues like that as governor."
Part of the work Gregoire needs to do is geographic. She says that in the campaign she didn't spend enough time in Pierce and Snohomish counties. Instead, she focused on Eastern Washington, making a bad bet that she could eat into traditional Republican strongholds.
Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, said Gregoire needs to spend more time in those counties, as well as Kitsap and other places where Democrats like he and Sen. Patty Murray did so much better than Gregoire.
King agrees Gregoire needs to "do some base-building for a while."
President's strategyGeorge W. Bush's name comes up often in talking about how to govern on a slim mandate, and King says that Bush first worked to build support among Republicans after taking office following his own disputed election.
Tim Ceis, a top aide to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and a former aide to Locke, knows from Nickels' close election in 2001 that there are things that can make people forget the size of the victory margin.
"We made a conscious decision ... we would come out of the gate with a strong agenda and a deliberate strategy to reassert the power of the office and to govern as if he had a mandate," Ceis said. "And it worked for us.
"If you're strong and successful, the electorate comes right to you."
Gregoire says she'll do that in part by narrowing her agenda. If she had won Nov. 2, she would have introduced 25 pieces of legislation her first year. Instead, she says the number will be no more than a dozen.
"There's no question that expectations have got to be reduced in light of what has happened here," she said.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said he hopes Gregoire will back legislation allowing performance audits of state agencies and back a bill requiring her — and not just her agency heads — to sign every new regulation the state imposes. Those proposals didn't find much support from Locke.
Changing the subjectRep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said he told Gregoire recently that embracing those sorts of populist government-reform moves could "help change the subject" from the fight over the governor's election.
Gregoire is moving that way on her own. She touts a program called ComStat. Started in New York City and embraced by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, it is a data-heavy government accountability program.
"I know full well that we have far too many of these state agencies now that are shuffling papers, turning in reports, reporting on this and reporting on that, dutifully doing it seeing no value and not invested in it," Gregoire says.
Gregoire's natural allies and political opponents both see potential opportunity in the political problems that will greet her this week.
"Quite frankly, we have high expectations on Chris on the environmental issue," said Bruce Gryniewski, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, the state's most politically active environmental group.
He said that the group's issues will require compromise in the Legislature and working with business interests. That, he says, would give Gregoire the chance to show leadership and find the middle ground she seeks.
Leaders of a more conservative group thinks they could get rare access to a Democratic governor if Gregoire is serious about that middle. Everyone wants to join the new governor there.
The National Federation of Independent Business backed Rossi in the campaign and has members and allies in the business community agitating their leaders to help fight Gregoire's election.
But Carolyn Logue, the group's state director, says she wants to work with Gregoire, even if that angers Rossi backers.
"The reality is she's our governor. Right now, she's governor," Logue said. "She hasn't done anything against us yet. Do we alienate the person who is the head of the executive branch from get-go, or do we work with them?"
It doesn't take a political scientist to know Gregoire faces a tough road. But one who studied 300 20th-century governors for a book and watched this race closely says that most who came into power on a disputed election remained unpopular, and few held office again.
"Gregoire will not only be deprived of a honeymoon, she will have about half the state questioning the very legality of the marriage from day one," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"To be blunt, most people who didn't vote for her are not exactly rooting for her to succeed; rather, they may secretly hope for some revenge, wishing that she gets her just desserts, as they see it.
"This is age-old, political human nature."
Gregoire wants to prove it wrong.
"A lot of people have won in the past by very slim margins. There are those who won by landslides and have been terrible at their jobs.
"So my response to the public is, you have a right to grade me in a year, in two years. But not in a week."
There's more introspection to come, too. Gregoire says she resisted any sort of postmortem with her staff and advisers to talk about shortcomings and disappointments.
"If I had lost in the end, we never would have had the discussion," she said. "I might have walked away and had my own thoughts. But we're going to have to have a discussion now. We need to learn from it."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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