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2020 talk includes Washington’s Gov. Inslee, a key Trump foe

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a two-term Democratic governor and former congressman, is best known outside the state for his focus on climate issues and renewable energy, but lately he’s getting notice for a different role: adversary to President Donald Trump.

In a televised moment during a meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, Inslee told Trump: “We need a little less tweeting here and a little more listening” on guns. The state also launched a court fight against the president’s travel ban, one of dozens of lawsuits against actions by the Trump administration that Washington state has either led or joined.

Inslee’s vocal opposition to Trump has increased as a trade war with China — Washington’s top trade market — heats up and the process of reuniting immigrant families separated at the border — including some detained in the state — continues.

“These attacks on our state continue on multiple fronts, both economic and personal,” Inslee said.

And while he's aware of the 2020 presidential chatter that includes his name, Inslee steers conversations on that topic to other elections, namely three dozen gubernatorial races. As head of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee would like to see the number of governors from his party — now 16 — increase in November.

"If I can help elect Democratic governors, I have more partners to assist Washington state in this battle against the chaos coming out of the White House," Inslee said.

Even though he won't talk about his 2020 ambitions — other than not ruling out a potential run for a third term as governor — many others are, fueled by TV appearances, speeches in Iowa and Florida and an upcoming trip in August to New Orleans that features Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, two others mentioned in Democratic presidential rumblings.

"He's certainly trying to build a national profile, what that translates into would be anyone's guess," said Caleb Heimlich, state GOP chairman.

On social media, state Republicans have criticized Inslee for the state's troubled mental health system — Washington's largest psychiatric hospital recently lost its federal certification — and have commented on his travels. In May, the party tweeted that Inslee was "spotted promoting himself 1,762 miles away in Iowa ... still missing from Washington State."

Inslee visited Maine in July to join the Democratic gubernatorial candidate there at a news conference in support of Medicaid expansion. The trip sparked a state GOP tweet referring to the Inslee "road show."

Inslee disputes criticism of his national travel, noting a recent tour throughout the state focusing on improving broadband services. A look at his schedule over the past several months shows a steady mix of state business and Democratic Governors Association-related travel.

Inslee's political career started with a seat in the state House before heading to what he calls "the other Washington" as a congressman in the 4th Congressional District, representing east-central Washington. He served one two-year term in Congress before being knocked out in the GOP sweep of 1994. Inslee said he sees similarities between then and the current political cycle.

"There was a huge energy against a sitting president," Inslee said of President Bill Clinton and how support swung to Republicans. Now, "I think that there's a similar level of energy or more intense in exactly the opposite direction."

After moving his family west to Bainbridge Island, Inslee ran for governor in 1996 but didn't make it past eventual Gov. Gary Locke in the primary. He later won the 1st Congressional District seat, ousting GOP Rep. Rick White. Inslee held the seat for more than a decade before his 2012 gubernatorial election.

Inslee was a champion for the clean energy industry in Congress and wrote a book on the topic. Washington state has been on the forefront of policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming. But carbon-pricing and low-carbon fuel standard efforts backed by Inslee and other lawmakers haven't gained much traction.

Democratic state Sen. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, a supporter of those measures, notes that while Democrats have long controlled the state House, the party has just recently regained a one-seat advantage in the Senate after five years of Republican control.

"So I think it's a natural frustration and it's an issue that people should analyze, but his credibility on this after decades of work is rock solid," he said.

Carlyle said he believes climate issues will be a priority for Democrats heading into 2020, and Inslee's resume would help him if he decides to run.

"His strength in the environmental arena is a hook that is incredibly powerful," Carlyle said. "It resonates deeply with younger voters."

Voter Dick Scafati, a 38-year-old account manager in Renton, said he doesn't see Inslee as a presidential contender.

"To me, he seems like a one-issue politician and that's global warming," he said.

Scafati, who said he has voted for Republican, Democratic and third-party candidates, didn't vote for Inslee and doesn't think he should run for a third term. But he's not surprised that the governor hasn't yet indicated his political aspirations.

"It doesn't really cost him anything to keep that chatter out there," he said.

Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, said a governor from a small Western state would have an uphill battle in what could be a crowded Democratic field.

But he said Inslee's public challenges of Trump have elevated his profile. Inslee's embrace of issues like gay rights, defense of states' legal marijuana markets and addressing climate change "put him on the map as a possible serious candidate," he said.

Clayton said he ran into Inslee at a dinner in Spokane and asked him if he was running.

"He said no, but then he got up and gave a campaign-style speech," he said.

Doyle Fanning, a 72-year-old artist from Olympia, said she's a Democrat who has voted for Inslee twice and wants him to run for another term. Fanning said Inslee, 67, has done a good job leading Washington, and she loves that he paints in his spare time.

Several of Inslee's art pieces decorate his office and the governor's mansion, and at a meeting of the National Governor's Association in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in July, he debuted a painting of a bear walking in the woods, which will be auctioned off to benefit a nonprofit children's arts education group.

"It means he has a creative side, which I think is sometimes missing in government and politics," Fanning said.