Advertisement

Archive for Thursday, May 12, 2005

Governor weathers slim win

May 12, 2005

Advertisement

— As a loyal Democrat, Gov. Christine Gregoire would never name President Bush as her role model. But in an odd way, she is demonstrating in her state of Washington the same leadership traits that Bush has put on display in Washington, D.C.

When Bush came to office in 2001, after an election in which he had lost the popular vote to Al Gore and been certified as the winner of the Electoral College by the narrowest of margins in the Supreme Court, many observers expected him to pick his way with caution.

Instead, Bush set out a bold agenda of domestic and foreign policy changes and exercised the full powers of the presidency to make his will felt on Capitol Hill and in world affairs. His boldness continues to this day, as he fights a determined battle to change the Social Security system and install his chosen conservative judges in the courts.

It is hard to imagine someone coming to office with a shakier mandate than the one Bush claimed from the 2000 election, but Gregoire, the former state attorney general, is in that position.

The 2004 gubernatorial election was the closest in Washington history. Gregoire apparently lost the race to Dino Rossi, a Republican former legislator, by 261 votes. A machine recount cut Rossi's margin to 42 votes, but a hand recount swung the verdict to Gregoire by 129 votes, so she took office.

But her election remains under challenge. Republicans filed a lawsuit charging that felons and other ineligible voters had cast ballots. They are asking that she be unseated or a new election ordered. The case will be heard beginning May 23.

While all this has been going on, Gregoire has gone through her first legislative session. Just as Bush had the advantage of working with a Republican Congress, she has had a Legislature with Democratic majorities in both houses.

But when I saw her last week, she was basking in bipartisan accolades for her success. "This session passed more bills than any other in history," she said, including notable measures in health care, education and the environment. A package of election reforms endorsed by the governor won approval -- except for a measure she favored to move up the primary date from September to allow more time for intraparty wounds to heal.

The biggest victory -- and the one for which Gregoire was given the greatest personal credit -- was the last-minute rescue of a massive transportation improvement program to be financed by a 9.5-cent increase in gasoline taxes.

"It was dead at 9 a.m.," she told me, "but we had a series of meetings to break the deadlock and it was passed at 2:30 in the afternoon." The Republican minority leader of the state Senate, who opposed the measure, nonetheless saluted Gregoire's skill in negotiating the deal.

However, nothing is ever final these days in Washington politics, so the likelihood is that an initiative to repeal the transportation package and the gasoline tax will be placed on the ballot by opponents. A signature drive is under way, promoted by John Carlson, a Seattle talk show host and one-time candidate for governor, and by Tim Eyman, a personable young man who has made a cottage industry of organizing tax-limitation initiatives.

Meantime, lawyers for the Republican and Democratic parties are preparing to fight uncharted legal ground over Gregoire's tenure. When Republicans submitted a list of 946 felons and 389 other questionable voters they found on the rolls, mainly in heavily Democratic Seattle, Democrats countered with a list of 743 suspect voters in predominantly Republican eastern Washington counties.

Judge John Bridges, who is hearing the Rossi suit, ruled that Republicans could use a statistical argument to buttress their case, that if Gregoire, for example, received 60 percent of the votes in a precinct where 10 illegal ballots were cast, six votes should be deducted from her total.

But the judge said he would allow Democrats to rebut that argument, and they are prepared to argue that male felons are unlikely to have supported a female candidate who had been the state's chief law enforcement officer.

Gregoire told me, "I am confident in the end I will prevail," and pointed to recent polls suggesting that a majority of voters now want her to serve out her term.

Meantime, she said, she is going to be busy thinning out middle-management jobs in the state bureaucracy and convening an education summit to cut the state's dropout rate.

"I have a lot on my agenda," she said, sounding very much like President Bush.

-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.