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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."

Why Washington's 'Green' Governor Is Chauffeured In A Suburban

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington State Patrol Troopers transport Governor Jay Inslee and his wife Trudi in Chevy Suburbans like this one.

The Washington State Patrol is responsible for guarding the governor and his wife. But audio recordings obtained through public records reveal the Patrol’s Executive Protection Unit is also concerned about protecting the governor politically -- at least when it comes to driving him in a gas-guzzling SUV.

Governor Jay Inslee is known as a “green” governor. But he and first lady Trudi Inslee are transported in Chevy Suburbans -- large SUVs rated at just over 20 miles per gallon on the highway.

Officially, the State Patrol says it’s a matter of safety and the governor doesn’t have a choice in the matter. But internally, the Patrol is aware the Suburban is not in line with Inslee’s green image.

Sgt. David Putnam, who oversees the governor’s security, discussed the topic in an interview earlier this year with State Patrol investigators on an unrelated matter.

“Because of the political sensitivity to the mileage and all that we want to keep that hard line on ‘you’re safer in the Suburban, we need to use the Suburban,’” Putnam said. “As long as we keep that that provides them with political cover to say they don’t get to choose which car they’re in that way they don’t get on the hook for where they’re at.”

David Postman, a spokesman for Inslee, said the Democratic governor “would be in a Prius all day, every day if he were allowed to.”

The Suburban is popular for executive protection. But government crash test data gives the 2015 model only a three star rating (out of five) for rollover potential.

And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety includes the Suburban on a list of vehicles with the highest rates of driver deaths

“We don’t know why some large vehicles end up on the highest death rates list,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the IIHS. But he added that he would not hesitate to buy a Suburban himself. “It’s just physics that larger heavier vehicles are more protective in crashes than smaller lighter ones.”

News accounts show that at least two governors have been injured in crashes involving Suburbans: Maine governor John Baldacci in 2004 and New Jersey governor Jon Corzine in 2007. Speed was a factor in both accidents.

In 2011, the Suburban that then-Washington governor Chris Gregoire was riding in was sideswiped on Interstate 5. She was not injured, nor was the state trooper driving her.

The 2015 Suburban does earn a four-star rating for frontal crashes and five stars side impact collisions. Inslee is chauffeured in a slightly older model.

Postman said other considerations besides crash safety are also taken into consideration, including the ability for the Suburban to jump a curb in an emergency.

Postman added that the governor’s staff recently asked the State Patrol again if there was another more fuel efficient option, but the answer back was “no.”

The Executive Protection Unit has taken other steps to protect Washington’s governors from the potential political fallout presented by the Suburbans. In order to increase the unit’s overall gas mileage, the troopers in that unit are assigned hybrid cars to drive when they’re not transporting the governor or first lady. This dates back to when Gregoire was governor.

According to Sgt. Putnam, driving hybrids has increased the unit’s “weighted mile-per-gallon average” from 18 mpg to 33 mpg.

“I mean, we’re less … of a political liability or embarrassment to the Governor … it’s all about efficiency,” Putnam told WSP investigators.

The State Patrol has transported Inslee in smaller vehicles on “rare” occasions, like after the Oso landslide in 2014 when he needed to get to the airport and the Suburbans were unavailable.

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."