Governing by phone: Inside Inslee’s hectic first months on 2020 trail

Even before the launch of Governor Jay Inslee’s 2020 presidential campaign, concerns swirled about the amount of time he was spending out of state and the growing demands on his taxpayer-funded security detail.

“We’ve got a governor that’s distracted,” Washington State Republican Party Chair Caleb Heimlich said the day Inslee made his bid official. “He likes to pontificate, but he doesn’t actually like to govern.”

Inslee was quick to brush the criticism aside.

“I can prove that I’ve done this job and will continue to do so,” he told reporters outside the South Seattle solar company where he made his bid official.

But three months later, Washington state is frequently without its elected leader.

From March 1 to June 1, Governor Inslee spent at least 60 days campaigning. Most of those days – 47 – were spent out of state.

“It’s a lot compared to what it was prior, but we haven’t had people here running for president at the level he has,” Inslee’s chief of staff, David Postman, told Q13 News on Thursday. “We all in this business are in a political world, so people run. And now he’s running across the country. I don’t know how to judge whether that’s a lot or a little, but it’s obviously different. It’s unusual in Washington state.”

Postman pointed to other current elected leaders who’ve entered the 2020 race – including Montana Governor Steve Bullock.

“I’m sure they’re facing some of the very same issues," he said.

(See editor’s note at bottom of page for more on how Q13 News calculated Inslee’s time out of state.)

From California to New York, Iowa to New Hampshire, Chicago to Texas, Inslee has crisscrossed the country hoping to bring his climate agenda to the White House. A review of his official calendar gives a glimpse inside efforts to balance a presidential campaign with the demands of a sitting governor.

Red-eye flights, working lunches, fundraising, debate prep, cable news interviews, photo ops, and campaign stops are peppered with calls to check in with his staff in Olympia.

“Almost every day, sometimes more than once a day,” Postman said of the phone calls. “If not me personally then he’s in touch with others on the team as well. I try to have at least one scheduled check-in once as day, and then the in-betweens if need be.”

Postman said the routine is no different than when Inslee is in state, but away from his office in Olympia.

“We all have to find ways to ensure that job one continues to get done, and I think we’ve been able to do that,” he said.

While Inslee’s campaign declined to comment on how official state business is being done in his absence, Inslee for America Press Secretary Katie Rodihan did offer this insight into how the governor is managing double duty.

“Governor Inslee understands that we are at a tipping point in the climate crisis. If we don’t take immediate, bold action, climate change will have a devastating and potentially insurmountable impact on our planet. He understands that this is an all-hands-on-deck mission and is energized by the stories of Democrats across the country who are joining his effort. Here in Washington state, Governor Inslee has passed landmark climate policy, implemented a progressive agenda, and grown our economy at nearly twice the national average. That’s the leadership we need in the White House, and that knowledge – along with a significantly higher caffeine intake – keeps the governor energized.”

Mounting costs

Inslee’s presidential ambitions were known well before his campaign officially kicked off on March 1. The governor was appearing on cable news shows with growing frequency, his attacks on the Trump administration grabbed headlines, and his previous post as head of the Democratic Governors Association all set the stage for a 2020 bid.

Some Washington state Republicans urged Inslee to resign from his post should he choose to run, while others asked only that he reimburse taxpayers for the cost of his Washington State Patrol security detail.

“Those who say that the taxpayers should not be subsidizing parts of his presidential campaign, especially the security, are absolutely right,” House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, told Q13 News in May. “I think he’d be doing a better job as a candidate and as a governor if he would let his campaign take over those costs.”

Inslee told Q13 in March that state law mandates the protection.

“We’re just following the law,” he said. “We’re following what has been the law and the tradition both for Democrats and Republican governors for 100 plus years in the state of Washington. We’re just going to continue that policy."

To meet the growing demands of Inslee’s security, the Washington State Patrol this year doubled the size of Inslee’s detail.

Chris Loftis, a WSP spokesperson, said the cost over two years – approximately $4 million – is contingent on the governor taking his campaign all the way to Election Day 2020.

Should Inslee drop out or lose the nomination, the unit would be scaled back, "which would be far less expensive,” Loftis said.

In the governor’s absence, other elected leaders have stepped in.

Most often, as dictated by law, Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib fills the role of acting governor. He, too, receives WSP security during that time – and a sizable pay bump.

From March 1 to June 3, Habib has served as acting governor 49 times, according to his office.

On occasion, other elected leaders fill the post as well.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman has served as acting governor for 11 days since March 1. Her office said she does not receive a pay bump for those days.

Treasurer Duane Davidson and Auditor Pat McCarthy have also stepped in as governor in acting capacities.

Governor Inlsee’s state salary remains the same regardless of the amount of time spent campaigning, his office said.

Editor’s notes:

Q13 News used calendars provided by the governor’s staff as well as press releases announcing campaign events to determine Inslee’s travel schedule. Days when the governor was out of state entirely, or when his travel in or out of the state accounted for half the day or more, were tallied as a day absent from the state. Two half days were tallied as a whole day. 

Q13 did not count days when the governor arrived back in the state early in the morning or departed late at night, although those hours still required an acting governor to be put into place.

On days the governor spent half the day or more working on campaign activities, Q13 News counted those days toward campaign days spent in the state, even if the days fell on a weekend.