After brief moment of unity, Washington Republicans crank up criticism of Inslee

May 11, 2020

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee first issued his stay home order in mid-March, Deanna Martinez was supportive. A registered nurse from Moses Lake who’s active in Republican politics, Martinez thought the Democratic governor’s drastic action was necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“I felt like Inslee really did do the right thing as quickly as he possibly could,” Martinez said.

But after eight weeks and two extensions of that order, Martinez’s support for Inslee’s COVID-19 response has evaporated.

“I don’t feel like my voice is being heard … as a person living in rural Washington,” Martinez said.

Martinez isn’t alone in her swing from support to frustration. At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, Inslee appeared to enjoy strong bipartisan backing as he took emergency measures -- including limiting crowd sizes, closing schools and ordering bars and restaurants to shutter. In fact, on the day Inslee issued his first stay home order, the leaders of all four legislative caucuses -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- issued a joint statement urging cooperation with the guidance. 

But that bipartisan detente was short lived. In recent weeks, legislative Republicans have been fiercely critical of Inslee for not moving more aggressively to reopen the economy. They’ve criticized him on social media, joined protests at the Capitol and even filed a lawsuit challenging his emergency powers.

The jolt of partisanship and election year politics has shattered the state’s unity-in-the-face-of-crisis moment. It comes as Inslee seeks a rare third term and all House members and about half of state senators are up for election. It also mirrors what national polls show: that even a global pandemic can’t overcome the stark political divides that have come to define the Trump era. 

At the same time, polling last month, nationally and in Washington, revealed broad support for stay home orders. In a Crosscut/Elway Poll published shortly after the protest at the state Capitol, 61 percent of voters said they were concerned about lifting the restrictions too quickly. But a deeper look at the numbers, once again, revealed stark partisan differences. The poll found that while 82 percent of Democrats were more worried about opening things too quickly, 64 percent of Republicans thought keeping the economy shut down was the bigger threat. 

Early on in the pandemic, Martinez was worried about COVID-19 patients overwhelming hospitals. At the rural hospital in Othello, Washington where she works as a nurse, the staff made preparations to care for more critically ill patients in the event larger hospitals were full and not accepting transfers.

While that worst case scenario did not materialize, Martinez experienced the threat of the virus personally when she developed COVID-like symptoms. She was tested twice; both times the results came back negative.

Today, Martinez feels the threat has diminished and that hospitals are in a better position to handle a surge in patients in the event of a second wave of COVID-19. She said her chief concern now is the impact on businesses, especially in more rural parts of the state.

“We have a lot of small businesses that support our economy and [Inslee] needs to hear that and I don’t think that he is hearing it enough,” Martinez said.

She wants the governor to allow local public health officials and communities to make the decision on whether to reopen. Instead, the governor has identified 10 smaller counties with low infection rates that are eligible to apply for a “variance” from his recently announced phased reopening of the economy. So far, eight of those counties have been approved to advance to Phase Two, which allows retailers to resume in-store transactions and restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity. 

“I don’t think it goes far enough,” Martinez said.

An about-face

Nor does Republican state Rep. Chris Gildon of Puyallup who also said he supported Inslee at the onset of the public health crisis.

“The governor made a very difficult decision to issue that stay-at-home order and at the time, we rallied around him, we thought that was the right thing to do,” Gildon said.

But since then, Gildon, a first-term lawmaker from Puyallup, has done an about-face and become a fierce critic of Inslee. In a recent Facebook comment, the retired U.S. Army officer called Inslee “the most timid leader I’ve encountered at this level.”

“Were he in the military, he would likely have been relieved of command by now,” Gildon wrote.

In an interview, Gildon was more restrained in his criticism of the governor. But he argued that Inslee has not clearly defined success.

“I think that’s a big reason why you’re seeing people starting to choose their livelihoods over the governor’s orders,” Gildon said.

In late April, Gildon sent Inslee a letter calling on him to implement a “Decentralization and Recovery” plan that would allow each of the state’s 39 counties to chart their own path to reopening. Gildon said Inslee’s plan to allow 10 smaller counties to reopen sooner is “moving in the right direction,” but added that it left out a handful of larger counties that have recorded zero COVID-19 deaths.

For his part, Inslee has rejected the public-health-versus-the-economy debate as a false choice. He argues the only way to ensure an economic recovery is to first stamp out the virus.

“We can’t have a good economy without a healthy Washington and the measures we have taken are designed to preserve health and life itself,” Inslee said at a recent news conference. 

Inslee often frames his approach to the pandemic as a moral choice to save lives. That bothers some Republicans who feel the governor doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the economic desperation people are feeling.

The governor, in turn, responds forcefully when confronted with Republican criticism, as happened in late April after he gave a televised address and outlined a process of reopening that “will look more like the turning of the dial than the flip of a switch.”

Following that speech, House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox -- who had previously backed Inslee’s actions -- wrote a lengthy Facebook post that said Inslee had “missed a critical opportunity to explain what metrics and forecasts he’s using and to address the obvious unfair and ineffective parts of his original Stay Home order.”

Asked the following day about Wilcox’s criticisms, Inslee said he’d given the Republican leader ample access to the data and experts he was consulting and accused his Republican critics of engaging in Trumpian politics.

“Unfortunately, I’m afraid the situation is that some folks have decided to follow the siren demands of Donald Trump rather than the health of Washingtonians and that’s what’s at stake here,” Inslee said. 

In an interview, Wilcox, who has a business background, said the schism reflects a “differing sense of urgency” over the need to restart the economy.

“My goal is to continually push the governor to think about the private sector and how we can do this safely, but more quickly,” Wilcox said.

A legal gauntlet

Tensions between legislative Republicans and the governor turned explosive last week after a group of seven House GOP members filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Inslee’s emergency proclamations. Previously, Republican gubernatorial candidates Joshua Freed and Tim Eyman had filed separate legal actions against the governor’s actions.

The 28-page complaint filed by the group of House Republicans, along with four Washington residents, claimed that COVID-19 is mostly a threat to “older and sicker” residents and people in long term care facilities and that the state as a whole no longer faces a public health emergency. 

In a call with reporters hours after the filing, the governor’s chief of staff, David Postman, unleashed a verbal fusillade against the GOP lawmakers and the claims contained in their complaint, which he said read “sort of like tarted up talking points of the radical right.”

“These people should be ashamed,” Postman said. “I think they lack that gene that allows them to feel that, but they should be ashamed.”

At a later news conference, Inslee too assailed the Republican lawmakers calling their claims “biologically ignorant and humanly heartless.”

In response, one of the plaintiffs, state Rep. Drew MacEwen, called the comments “disingenuous.”

“I would expect more from the administration on this and it’s just unfortunately they’ve chosen to take that tone,” said MacEwen, who is a member of the House Republican leadership team.

MacEwen, who is a partner in two restaurants, said he and his fellow Republicans are frustrated that Inslee has “unchecked power” under his emergency authority and that the legislative branch hasn’t had more of a role in helping to craft the reopening plan.

“You’ve got a governor who’s picking winners and losers," MacEween said. "It was OK to build airplanes, but a landscaper couldn’t landscape. It was OK to go shop with a couple hundred other people at a big box store, but the mom-and-pop retailer couldn’t be open. The hypocrisy in that I think has just really gotten to people whether they’re elected or not.”

Two days after the lawsuit was filed, Inslee’s office disbanded a bipartisan Business Recovery Task Force made up of two lawmakers from each of the four legislative caucuses. One of the Republican members of that task force, state Rep. Brandon Vick, was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

In a statement, the Senate Republicans on the task force criticized the decision to dissolve the task force.

“We were encouraged that the governor seemed to be moving away from a central-planning approach and was interested in considering other opinions, but this ended almost as soon as it began,” said Republicans Lynda Wilson and John Braun in their joint statement.

Previously, Senate Republicans had put forth their own plan for restarting the economy that would put the state on a faster track and also included proposed tax holidays and a suspension of next year’s minimum wage increase. 

A Democrat on the governor’s task force, state Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah, who operates a Zeek’s Pizza and three Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shops, said he too was frustrated with the governor's decision.

“I want to go through as many sectors of our economy as humanely as possible and find where we have agreement between the governor’s office and the Legislature of things that can be done safely and we can’t do that right now because it has been disbanded,” Mullet said.

However, another Democrat on the task force, House Deputy Majority Leader Larry Springer, who owns a Kirkland wine shop, expressed confidence that discussions and coordination both with legislative Republicans and the governor’s office will continue.

“Yes, there is partisanship creeping into this,” Springer said. “[But] I’m not going to allow that to derail the work that we have to do in order to have businesses recover in this state.”

In an email, an Inslee spokesperson said the task force’s purpose was to provide input as the governor crafted his phased plan for reopening the economy, which has now been released. 

“The Republican characterization that they are not or won’t be engaged going forward is just unfounded,” wrote Mike Faulk. “The governor, chief of staff, legislative affairs director and others in this office remain engaged with legislative leaders from both parties going forward.”

A 'safe start'

Even as he dissolved the legislative task force, Inslee announced the formation of three “Safe Start” advisory groups to advise him on health system readiness, addressing social service needs and how to safely return people to work. Separately, the Washington Senate has announced a new bipartisan Special Committee on Economic Recovery

While Inslee has taken slings and arrows from Republicans -- including over his decision to release some prison inmates early -- he’s generally received praise from his fellow Democrats. Springer, the House Deputy Majority leader, credited the governor with incorporating suggestions from lawmakers as he crafted his four-phase reopening plan. 

“I think what he did is he looked at what we sent over … and I think he took that to heart,” said Springer.

Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, who works in public health, called Inslee’s plan “excellent” and said the reopening of the state’s economy should be driven by data about the virus to avoid a “one step forward and then two steps back” situation. Jinkins also defended Inslee against Republican attacks.

“I guess anybody can critique,” Jinkins said. “It’s harder when you’re making the actual decisions and trying to balance the economy and health.”