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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Gregoire's Legacy: Children's Health, Navigating Recession, Gay Marriage

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington Governor Chris Gregoire will leave office January 16th. During her eight years as governor, the Democrat often referred to herself as a “recovering lawyer.” Polls showed the former attorney general struggled to connect with voters. She could come off as a fierce technocrat. But her two-terms in office were marked by challenges that affected her on a deeply personal level.

A cloud hung over Chris Gregoire on the day she was sworn into office as Washington’s 22nd governor. Republicans tried to block her inauguration believing her 129 vote victory over Dino Rossi was illegitimate. Protestors descended on the Capitol demanding a re-vote.

“Oh, my gosh. It was a very tense, tense time,” says Marty Brown, Gregoire’s legislative liaison and later her budget director.

But Gregoire did not take office tentatively. Brown recalls on day one she made a major executive decision. A previous budget deal called for premiums on low-income families receiving children’s health insurance. It could have resulted in nearly 20,000 poor families dropping coverage. Gregoire said “no.”

Brown says the new governor came to his office after making that call. “She said ‘was that okay?’ And I said ‘you’re governor.’ And she goes ‘I have to govern. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. But I’ve got to govern.’”

Now Gregoire says, “It was a wake-up call to me about the power of a governor.”

Eight years later, Gregoire also vividly remembers that first executive decision.

“I had been Attorney General for 12 years, felt restrained in what power I had, then suddenly what we find is the ability to make a decision that will provide healthcare to so many kids with the stroke of a pen by the governor.”

Today, the program is now called Apple Health for Kids and it covers about half the children in Washington. Most of those families still pay no premiums.

“We had taken a policy decision that should stand the test of time," Gregoire says.

In Gregoire’s first term, the red hot economy allowed her and fellow Democrats to pour money into education and healthcare. Republicans decried a 33 percent increase in state spending over four years. And warned at every turn the good times wouldn’t last.

In 2007, state Representative Gary Alexander, the ranking Republican on the House budget committee said, “We’re gonna turn a $2 billion surplus into a $2 billion deficit in just a very short amount of time.”

It wasn’t long before that prediction was borne out. To this day Gregoire defends the spending during her first term as an investment in Washington’s future -– with 50-percent of that new money going to education.

“Really, we made a mistake? We did something wrong? If we did it so did 47 other states, so did Europe, so did all of America," Gregoire says. "We were all in this recession together.”

Gregoire was re-elected in 2008 in a rematch with Rossi just as the Great Recession was about to wash over the state. The governor would spend the rest of her years in office dealing with the fallout. Initially, federal stimulus dollars softened the blow. But by 2010 the task of cutting the budget to make it balance was taking an emotional toll on the lawyer-turned-governor.

She recalls one budget meeting in particular that year. It was a Saturday morning and Gregoire had a funeral to go to that afternoon for a woman who was like a second mom to her.

“She had had hospice care in the end,” Gregoire recalls.

That morning before the funeral, Gregoire’s budget staff presented a list of possible cuts to consider in social services. One of them was a proposal to eliminate state funding for hospice.

“It was an emotional day for me already ‘cause I was going to her funeral, but it was the culmination of cuts and it was like now we’re going to cut hospice care. How low are we going to go? And then the flow of tears began and I excused myself and went out for a walk.”

In the end, hospice was saved. But many other programs were not spared. Over three budget cycles, projected state revenues declined by $8.5 billion. Gregoire had run for re-election on a no-new-taxes platform.

But as the recession wore on, she would embrace taxes as part of the solution. That did not impress House Republican leader Richard DeBolt. But he does praise Gregoire’s ability to broker a deal. He believes a defining moment for the governor was in the last round of budget talks. Negotiations were melting down.

“She was able to keep everybody in the room and it was hours and hours and hours of negotiations on this," DeBolt says. "And it would get heated and she was able to bring everybody back in and say ‘okay c’mon stay with this, we’ve got to have this.’

Gregoire says there were days she asked, “why did this have to happen on my watch?” She knows one of her legacies will be that she led the state through the Great Recession.

There’s something else Gregoire will be remembered for. Same-sex marriage. She came into office a supporter of gay rights, but not marriage. "And it’s probably the biggest occasion in which my religion, something that I hold very dear, stood in the way of me doing what I thought was right,” she says.

Gregoire is Catholic. In 2011 she changed her position on marriage. As a lawyer she kept coming back to the concept of separate but equal. But it didn’t sit well with her. It was at Thanksgiving with her husband and daughters that she told her family she would not only come out in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, but she would lead the effort to pass the legislation.

“It resulted in all of us hugging each other and crying," she says. "I look back on it, it was an emotional moment for me.”

The bill passed and this fall withstood a referendum challenge. Gregoire says she is convinced Washington is on the right of history. But she has paid a personal price.

“I don’t attend Mass at my parish right now," she says. "I go other places. That’s it."

Gregoire says she’s convinced the day will come when she returns to her parish. In the meantime, “I’ve done what I thought was right. I’ve done what I think Jesus would say to me. ‘Do the right thing, love thy neighbor, respect your fellow human being.’”

After eight years in office, Gregoire says she’s looking forward to golfing with her husband and driving her own car again.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."