Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has been called “an example of effective crisis leadership.”
His early intervention in the coronavirus outbreak, along with other West Coast governors, is credited in having helped mitigate “the medical catastrophe that has befallen New York and parts of the Midwest and South.”
After Inslee returned 400 ventilators to the Strategic National Stockpile, Vice President Mike Pence had kind words.
“Thank you, @GovInslee,” Pence wrote on Twitter. “We’re all in this together.”
Not all Washingtonians agree that Inslee has done well — especially the people who want his job.
As the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, politics are still very evident. Not only is Inslee leading Washington’s response to the public health crisis, he’s contending with pushback from Republican opponents in this year’s race for governor.
Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic in Ferry County, and self-proclaimed “constitutionalist,” said last week that Inslee was acting like “a little North Korean dictator telling us what we can and we can’t do in our private lives.”
Earlier this month, Republican state Sen. Phil Fortunato demanded that Inslee allow residential home construction, and shared a post about the city of Lynden allowing construction despite Inslee not including it as an “essential business.” The post praised the flouting of Inslee’s order, saying “this is what rebellion looks like.”
Former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed said Inslee’s decisions were “starving families in Washington,” and called Inslee’s decision to close schools “reactionary,” “premature” and “misguided.”
And in March, anti-tax activist and professional initiative sponsor Tim Eyman invited people to “stick our finger in the eye of Jay Inslee” by holding a rally of 250 people three days after Inslee restricted gatherings of that size.
“I'm bringing a 6-pack of Corona!” Eyman wrote on Facebook.
Only 60 people showed up, but Eyman’s trying again on Sunday, April 19. His “Protesting Jay Inslee” event in Olympia is “all about” the governor, Eyman said, “who is doing things that are just really scary, acting like a dictator.”
“I wouldn’t be a dictator”
Inslee is running for a rare third term as governor of Washington, a post he’s held since being elected in 2012. Before that, he served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the last Democrat to represent central Washington in the 4th Congressional District, which includes Yakima and the Tri-Cities. In 1999, he was elected to represent the state’s 1st Congressional District in the Puget Sound region.
The governor’s spokesman, Mike Faulk, said the governor is following the guidance of public health officials, and his proclamations are within his authority.
Inslee’s authority is reined in by state law, specifically RCW 43.06.220, which says that Inslee’s orders will expire after 30 days unless the Legislature extends them. They can also be extended by the majority and minority leaders of the state Senate and House.
His opponents don’t have his elective experience, but that hasn’t stopped their criticism of his decisions. Culp has been the top lawman in the small Ferry County town of Republic, population 1,340, for more than three years.
He made news in 2018 and 2019 by refusing to enforce a statewide gun control initiative passed by nearly 60% of voters. He proposed making Republic a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City.”
“As long as I am Chief of Police, no Republic police officer will infringe on a citizens (sic) right to keep and bear arms, PERIOD!” he wrote on Facebook, according to KREM.
It was this stance on guns that pushed him into the governor’s race, Culp said in December on the Jason Rantz Show, a conservative talk show based in Seattle.
“I believe there’s corruption at the top of our state. … I’m not a politician, I’ve never ran for public office before,” he said. “What started all of this with me running and me standing up for the citizens is because of 1639 last year, when I made the statement that I would not enforce that unconstitutional law.”
Culp hasn’t given up on guns since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Washington. And the way he speaks about Inslee hasn’t changed much.
“Gov. Inslee is acting like a dictator,” Culp said in an interview with the public media Northwest News Network last week. “He’s a public servant that was elected to run the state government. Not to dictate what we do every minute of every day of our lives.”
Inslee’s public health measures are similar to the “draconian rules” in other states run by “liberal Democrats,” Culp said. But in the same interview, he couldn’t name one Republican governor who he thought is acting appropriately during the current coronavirus pandemic. He did note what he thought are inconsistencies in how businesses are deemed “essential.”
“You can go into a Walmart. I just did last week. Over 100 people are in there. But I can’t go to my local cafe where there might be three or four or five people sitting there having lunch or a cup of coffee. Why? Because Jay Inslee said so,” Culp said. “You can’t go to church because Jay Inslee said you can’t. You can’t go to a funeral or wedding because Jay Inslee said you can’t. Our rights are being violated right now.”
Asked what he would do differently, Culp had a quick answer: “I wouldn’t be a dictator.”
‘Dangerous, unconstitutional, illegal and stupid’
Tim Eyman’s career influencing politics began in 1999. At the time, he was selling watches in Mukilteo and first took aim at what he has shot at ever since: tax increases and vehicle license fees. His first car tabs initiative, I-695, got 56% of the statewide vote, but was deemed invalid by the state Supreme Court.
More than 20 years later, with regularity, he’s been doing largely the same thing. He announced his run for governor soon after the success of his most recent car tabs measure — Initiative 976, which got 53% of the vote in November 2019.
After asking voters “to consider these issues on the merits and not to divide ourselves by party,” Eyman went after members of the Democratic Party.
“They want to re-engineer our society, rewrite our history, and divide us by skin color, by gender, and by income. They want to put a tax man in your wallet and a bureaucrat on your front lawn and make your God-given individual liberty something doled out at their discretion,” he said in February to supporters in Yakima.
His way with words has continued with his reaction to the coronavirus.
“I am very concerned that during situations like this or 9/11 or other fear-intensive events that the government infringes on basic constitutional rights without sufficient questioning,” he said in a text to multiple reporters.
Those concerns have not relented.
Promoting his April 19 “rally” in Olympia, Eyman said the “Western States Pact” agreed to this week by Inslee, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom “is ridiculously unconstitutional, dangerous and we’re now exporting decision making to governors that we didn’t even elect.”
The pact is an agreement on a broad framework for reopening a larger segment of the states’ economies. Under this agreement, decisions to lift stay-home orders will be made once the spread of COVID-19 has declined, and the states have the ability to rapidly identify and address potential future outbreaks.
Eyman dismissed worries of social distancing at the planned April 19 rally.
“I think it’s totally appropriate, as long as we’re six feet apart, and everyone’s wearing rubber gloves, and we’ve got plenty of hand sanitizer,” he said.
It’s on Eyman’s Facebook page where he shares his perspective most frequently, frequently utilizing the “CAPS LOCK” key.
On April 9, Eyman called on Inslee to define all of the construction industry an essential business for the current “stay home, stay healthy” order.
“It's no surprise POLITICIANS LIKE INSLEE who have only ever known government don't understand this and think so many jobs are expendable,” Eyman wrote. “THIS IS THE TIME FOR PUSHBACK. If you work in the construction industry, CONTACT YOUR MAYOR, your city manager or your city council and demand they defy Inslee's absurd restrictions and put constructions back to work!”
On April 5 Eyman took up the case of gun store owners.
“SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL HEROIC GUN SHOP OWNER!” he wrote, calling Inslee’s order shuttering such businesses as “dangerous, unconstitutional, illegal and stupid,” and praised firearms stores that stayed open.
On April 4, Eyman questioned why Inslee got to choose what businesses remained open during the outbreak before going on the attack.
“A governor who has spent two terms ATTACKING THE ECONOMY with tax hikes and regulations, and plans to do even more damage with CARBON TAXES and PAY-PER-MILE TAXES, simply has NO BUSINESS determining who can and can't work, or what types of businesses are important, or not important. Excuse me . . . ‘essential,’” he wrote.
‘Nobody really knows what the heck to do'
The day after Inslee issued his “stay home, stay healthy” proclamation, state Sen. Phil Fortunato sent a note to his constituents saying the order was necessary because “the spread and severity of this virus is still a significant threat,” and saying this “is no time for politics.”
But the state senator from Auburn couldn’t help but delve into politics.
“I do have some concerns about the government determining what’s essential and what isn’t,” he wrote, and provided an email for people who disagreed with the government’s definition.
A day later, on March 27, Fortunato sent a letter to Inslee asking him to immediately amend his stay-home order to allow gun stores and shooting ranges to stay open.
“If breweries, wineries, and cannabis stores are considered ‘essential’ to the daily lives of Washingtonians during the COVID-19 crisis then surely firearm-related businesses and shooting ranges must rank at an even higher level of importance,” he wrote on his official state Senate letterhead. “Firearms-related businesses and shooting ranges provide critical supplies to law enforcement and security, not to mention ensuring that hard-working Washingtonians have access to products and training needed to defend themselves and their families.”
[FACT CHECK: Like restaurants, breweries and wineries can still provide pick up and other delivery services, but their in-person seating facilities are closed, like bars and restaurants.]
The same day, he went on the Jason Rantz Show.
“Shutting down construction is ridiculously expensive,” he told Rantz. “It’s going to drive up the cost of construction. If you shut it down, you’ve got to winterize your stuff, it’s open to the elements. The impact on the economy is going to be staggering, and we’re gonna have a $2 to $3 billion shortfall when you go back in January.”
[FACT CHECK: Parts of the construction industry are not on the current essential list, including most residential construction. But government-funded construction projects and critical infrastructure projects are still on. The larger list includes:
“Construction workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction) for all essential facilities, services and projects included in this document, and for residential construction related to emergency repairs and projects that ensure structural integrity.
“Workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of construction sites and construction projects (including those that support such projects to ensure the availability of needed facilities, transportation, energy and communications; and support to ensure the effective removal, storage, and disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste).” ]
Though he disagreed with Inslee’s decision-making, Fortunato again said it was not time for politics.
“This is a difficult time. Everybody’s supposed to be rallying around. We got a crisis. We don’t want to have politics involved. Everybody is in this kumbaya mode where you can’t be critical. And to be perfectly honest with you, nobody really knows what the heck to do,” Fortunato said.
‘Is this a cruel joke?’
Joshua Freed is the former mayor of Bothell and a real-estate developer. Before the coronavirus came, he was focused on drug use and homelessness.
Now, he’s joined Inslee’s other opponents in saying the governor has gone over the line in his response.
Freed shared a map of the U.S. with only Washington state highlighted in an April 12 Facebook post.
“Welcome to Inslee’s Washington,” he wrote. “As many families are not able to buy basic needs due to Inslee’s arbitrary picking of essential vs. non-essential, he has prevented people from fishing. Yes, we are the ONLY State in the nation prevented from doing so.”
[FACT CHECK: Washington is the only state with an outright ban on recreational fishing, according to the American Sportfishing Association. Others have come close, including a catch-and-release ban in Maryland and a prohibition on motorboats in Michigan.]
A few days earlier, on April 9, he shared an article from KIRO about the state’s effort to release some non-violent offenders from prison due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Is this a cruel joke?” he wrote. “Inslee called on neighbors to report friends to be arrested if they are trying to make a buck to feed their hungry families if they have been deemed ‘non-essential.’ He also is threatening to take away business licenses. Now he is letting criminals out to protect them? Washington’s Governor’s is upside down. If anyone sees him do us all a favor and turn him up right.”
[FACT CHECK: Inslee never “called on neighbors to report friends” to outright “be arrested.” The governor, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and law enforcement agencies previously said they would focus on education and outreach in responding to reported violations of “stay home, stay healthy” orders. As KUOW reported on March 30:
“The governor outlined a three-tier law enforcement response system for violations of the order, which could amount to a gross misdemeanor. A first offense would result in a warning. But consequences thereafter would become more serious.
"The second tier, if they don't come into compliance, the state is going to take action, starting with citations, suspension notices of a variety of permits, including revoking business licenses if that's what's necessary to bring these folks into compliance," Inslee said. The most severe action officials could take is issuing criminal or civil charges against violators via the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.
"Our goal is 100% voluntary compliance," said Attorney General Bob Ferguson. "We want to be very clear — I don't want to have to use the powers of my office to hold accountable those who intentionally violate the governor's orders. I want to be very clear — if necessary, I will."
Officials have created an online system for reporting entities who aren't following social distancing mandates. They're also directing people to report violations via local police departments' non-emergency lines, unless someone is in immediate danger.]
Last week, Inslee said the state would release up to 950 inmates confined in Washington state prisons — a reduction of about 6%. Inslee and the Washington State Department of Corrections released their emergency pl an to keep inmates safe from COVID-19 on Monday, after back-and-forth of lawsuit responses between the state and Columbia Legal Services.The legal advocacy group filed a petition with the Washington State Supreme Court calling for release of thousands of prisoners to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 behind bars.
Inslee’s decision to close the state’s schools also got to Freed. On April 7, Freed called Inslee’s school closure order “reactionary,” “premature” and “misguided.”
“As a father of five, I have always supported education choice,” he wrote. “Parents, not the government, should decide what educational settings best fits their child’s needs.”
As of April 16, 25 states and three U.S. territories have ordered or recommended school closures for the rest of the academic year, according to Education Week. The closures affect about half of U.S. public school students, including those in Idaho, led by Republican Gov. Brad Little.
Inslee’s 2020 campaign spokesman, James Singer, said that Inslee wouldn’t respond to the current criticisms from his declared election opponents.
“We’re really not inclined to react or comment on some of these comments,” said Singer. “The governor is focused on doing his job as governor.”
Northwest News Network Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins and Northwest Public Broadcasting’s Scott Leadingham contributed to this story.