Tiger Lady

Christine Gregoire has stared down big tobacco and the feds who run Hanford. Can she lead the state?

Sitting outside an Olympia coffee shop tucked among state capitol buildings last week, Christine Gregoire breaks into laughter as she considers the political and media feeding frenzy she set off by indicating that she intended to run for governor now that Gary Locke is stepping aside. "Everybody's allegedly vying for my job now, as I understand it," says the three-term state attorney general. "I mean, I'm sitting here thinking, you know, 'I'm gone, they're in, and I haven't even announced my candidacy yet.'"

Intending to do so formally this week, Gregoire says the immediacy of last week's whirlwind was unexpected. She also might not have expected to hear knives sharpening quite so soon. But her as-yet-only declared opponent, Democrat and former state Supreme Court Judge Phil Talmadge, didn't waste a second before going on the attack. Painting her as a striver who's been able to distance herself from the hard work of politics through a job that doesn't allow her to be overtly partisan, Talmadge says that Gregoire is now "going to have to explain exactly what her positions are. She's going to have to think seriously about being a candidate instead of just wishing to be governor." And that's one of the kinder things he says.

It all presages the year and a half of intense politicking that lies ahead. It was Locke's announcement last week that he wouldn't seek another term that began the furious political jostling, of course. While Gregoire tipped her hand and Talmadge stood ready to bite it off, fellow Democrat and King County Executive Ron Sims got ready to announce his bid for governor, and yet another Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee of Bainbridge Island, was said to be mulling the race. It is Gregoire, though, that the media immediately anointed as the front-runner and whom the Democrats have for years been trying to lure into a race for higher office. Politically enigmatic perhaps, Gregoire's image as a smart, strong, and charismatic woman has tremendous appeal. Mike Moore, the Mississippi attorney general who was the first to initiate proceedings against the tobacco industry in a nationwide lawsuit that Gregoire joined and helped lead, says her colleagues affectionately called her "Tiger Lady."

MEANWHILE, REPUBLICANS, eager to avoid a bruising primary, were trying to get onebut only oneof at least three potential candidates to come forward: former Microsoft executive Bob Herbold, King County Council member Rob McKenna, and state Sen. Dino Rossi. Of those three, Herbold seems the favored choice, a figure who, even more than Gregoire, is a political unknown but whose tenure at Microsoft has left him with enormous cachet and riches. A 2001 Microsoft proxy statement shows that Herbold cashed in $67 million worth of stock options before he left and had options remaining then valued at $46 million. "Remember the Cantwell campaign?" asks state Republican Party Chair Chris Vance, alluding to the personal millions spent by Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who made her fortune in the technology business. "Now we're going to have one of those."

All the while, candidates began lining up to replace Gregoire as attorney general. Likely contenders include former state Health Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn and McKenna, if he chooses not to run for governor.

In the state capital last week, Gregoire began to reveal what kind of candidate she is going to be. Fifty-six years old, she seems in person a little less glamorous and more real than suggested by the posed, well-coifed image that appears in the ubiquitous photo of her. She is purposeful rather than regal, with a directness that can veer toward abruptness but makes her seem unusually genuine for a politician.

Like most Democrats her age, perhaps, she says John F. Kennedy inspired her. She calls herself "passionate about social issues" and also, following a more modern and electable version of Democrats, "fiscally conservative." She says she understands the appeal of anti-tax-initiative king Tim Eyman. Citizens, she says, are frustrated by government's lack of transparency in spending taxpayer money. "They're also frustrated that when an initiative to cut taxes is on the ballot, there's this hue and cry that the world as we know it will stop. And the initiative passes, and the world doesn't stop. So it's fostered mistrust. That's why I'm saying it's time for straight talk about what we have by way of revenue in the state, what it pays for, and what should it pay for. It's time that government stood up to the charge of its citizens."

She also says that she thinks the state should fight with the federal government for an exemption on residents' federal income taxes for state taxes paid. Though we don't pay state income taxes, which would allow us to qualify for an exemption, we do pay plenty in state sales tax, she points out.

GREGOIRE IS RELUCTANT to criticize Locke and the controversial decisions he made in the last session of the Legislature. But, turning to the governor's program-slashing, no-new-taxes budget, she worries about "damaging the infrastructure" for short-term cost savingsparticularly the education infrastructure. She is on record as opposing Locke's decision to set aside funding for two education initiatives that called for smaller classes and bigger teacher salaries, and Gregoire says the state "has got to find a way" to put more money into a higher-education system that is in danger of losing its national competitiveness. She credits Locke and the Legislature for "fighting like crazy" to keep Boeing's 7E7 program here, but she refrains from endorsing the accompanying huge package of tax breaks for the company. Rather than cut a deal for every business that runs into trouble or threatens to leave town, Gregoire says, we should be creating a climate that attracts good businesses.

Gregoire seems, then, on her way to becoming the kind of pro-business, but not too pro-business, moderate Democrat that the state favors. More revealing than her platform, though, is her record. She is open to the charge of being politically untested, someone who has never had to deal with the warring factions of a legislature. She has been through a war of sorts, though, in the landmark tobacco case that, against all odds, won billions of dollars from the tobacco industry in reimbursements to states for smoking-related health expenditures. Gregoire was one of five lawyers on the states' initial negotiating team and led subsequent negotiations in a later phase of the case. "All this negotiating we had to do was like herding cats," says Mississippi Attorney General Moore, who recalls a ferocious Gregoire standing her ground against the opposition's $600-an-hour lawyers. "Being governor will be a piece of cake compared to that."

IN THE END, however, what happened to the hard-won money from the case? That's what Talmadge asks, calling attention to the state's borrowing against that money to deal with last year's budget crisis. As a result, about a third of that money is not being used the way it is supposed to befor anti-smoking and health programs. Talmadge holds Gregoire accountable. "Did you lay your body across the railroad tracks to stop this from happening?" he says she should be asked.

"I stood up," Gregoire counters, and she did. She outlined the case against it in a six-page statement that labeled it "a bad deal." But she concedes that the outcome in the case disturbs her. "We treated the tobacco settlement as though it was free money, as opposed to what it wasrestitution to right a wrong." Other states, she says, did the same, often frittering away the entire settlement on budget holes or pet programs having nothing to do with smoking. "It's been the single biggest disappointment in my career," she says. "The single greatest achievement and single greatest disappointment."

LIKEWISE, YOU COULD look at the other big milestone in her careerthe agreement she negotiated with the federal government to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservationand question whether the results have lived up to the initial rhetoric. Gregoire signed that agreement when she was the director of the state Department of Ecology a dozen years ago. All this time later, cleanup at the site is going slowly, at best. Yet the largest activist group fighting for the cleanup, Heart of America Northwest, is adamant that Gregoire is not to blame for the federal government's recalcitrance. Indeed, says its executive director, Gerry Pollet, "the only reason there's been any progress is that we've had an attorney general who's been dead serious about enforcing agreements."

Pollet says he criticized her agreement at first. He has changed his mind, as he has seen her aggressively act to hold the feds accountable. Unlike other states with similar agreements, Washington, under Gregoire's direction, has gone to court several times to force the feds to comply rather than settling for new agreements and new timetables. Pollet says her attitude has been, "I will get a judicial court order and we can throw Hanford officials and the secretary of energy in jail for violating it."

A tenacious crusader with a middle-of-the-road platform and gender appeal, Gregoire is a formidable candidate. But if she thinks it's a whirlwind now, just wait. It's only the first real week of her campaign.

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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