Gov. Christine Gregoire is leaving the state of Washington a substantial legacy after more than 40 years of public service. When the state’s 22nd governor steps down at the end of her second term, she’ll leave with no regrets and a remarkable body of work, partly accomplished during the worst recession in history.
Gregoire told The Olympian’s editorial board this week that she answered President John F. Kennedy’s call to service in his 1961 inaugural address – “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
She hasn’t regretted a minute of a lifelong public service career that began right after college. She hopes to encourage young people to recognize public service as a noble calling.
“You don’t get rich in your pocket, but you’re richer than anybody who has a lot of money because you feel good about what you get to do, and what you do every day,” she said.
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During the first week of her first term in 2005, Gregoire learned that being governor was different from her 12 years as the state’s attorney general. Faced with the potential to end premiums for children’s health care – an issue she hadn’t confronted before that week – she discovered the power of executive privilege.
“I signed it (the executive order). I said, wow, I’m governor, this is cool. With a stroke of a pen, you can give health care to thousands of kids ... that was a great day. It was a real adjustment. It was an immediate wake-up call that you’re not as restrained as you were as attorney general,” she said.
During her eight years, Gregoire said she learned a lot about state government, and state legislators learned a few things about her, too.
In her previous posts as director of the Department of Ecology and as attorney general, she hadn’t served in the Legislature, but had worked with it. That didn’t prepare her for the games it plays, “and they abound.” A governor needs to respect the institution and the people as well as the leadership roles, but success demands learning how to work them.
Her greatest success in the Legislature was working one-on-one. There wasn’t a major reform during the past four years that she could recall was not done around her conference table.
Legislative leaders quickly learned Gregoire wouldn’t play their games of trading support for various issues. They learned you could take her word to the bank. Former Budget Director Marty Brown once advised a legislative leader, “She’s a different person; you’ll have to adjust. She thinks her word is more powerful than a piece of paper.”
Gregoire used her word and her governorship in powerful ways. She created the Department of Early Learning, passed the largest transportation package in the history of the state, overhauled education with the Washington Learns program, initiated many environmental projects including cleaning up Puget Sound and in ensuring federal compliance on the Hanford nuclear waste site agreement that she co-authored in Ecology. She started a blue ribbon commission on health care reform long before Obamacare became a household word, and precipitously prepared Washington for the changes it will bring starting in 2014.
But perhaps her greatest accomplishment has been reforming state government, something she didn’t necessarily set out to do. Her critics will say she didn’t do enough or act soon enough, but she got it done without labor unrest.
Gregoire came into office with a grand and aggressive agenda that got overwritten by the Great Recession. History should reflect that she saw our state through the worst of times, resetting state government for the future.
Her administration permanently recalibrated the number of state employees back to 1996 levels, folded five agencies into one Department of Enterprise Services and closed six corrections institutions – the first time since Northern State was closed in former Gov. Dan Evans’ term.
She convinced the state’s powerful teacher’s union to accept more meaningful teacher evaluations by working from the ground up. She worked with the state employee’s union to accept a 3 percent pay cut, furloughs, pay an increased share of their health care and reform their pension programs.
All that was accomplished without employees taking over the Capitol or strikes.
“Tell me a state where state employees have sacrificed more than in this state. I was able to accomplish what other governors have not because we did it at the table and I respected them,” she said. Gregoire has been going around to state agencies thanking employees for embracing change and reform.
There’s no doubt Gregoire couldn’t have accomplished these reforms without the recession because the institution of the Legislature and state government itself fundamentally rebuffs change.
She regards the establishment of marriage equality as her single greatest triumph and her favorite memory of the past eight years.
“I looked out at that crowd (on election night) just screaming ... and I thought to myself, how as a nation could we have denied equality, how could we have done that, and I felt bad that it took me so long to get myself to the right decision. To see what it meant to those folks ... I won’t forget that picture in my head,” she said.
The rumor mill suggests Gregoire is headed for a post in the Obama administration, which she neither confirms or denies.
“If the president of the United States calls you to service, what are you going to say? No, I want to spend more time on my hobbies?” she said.