Washington Gov. Jay Inslee launched his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on Friday, declaring climate change the nation’s most pressing issue and promising to build his White House bid around it.
“It is time for our nation to set a new priority,” Inslee told supporters gathered at a solar panel business in Seattle. “This is truly our moment. It is our moment to solve America’s most daunting challenge and make it the first, foremost and paramount duty of the United States, and that is to defeat climate change.”
The 68-year-old former congressman becomes the first governor to enter a race dominated by senators. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are eyeing presidential campaigns.
It will not be easy for Inslee to garner attention with six prominent senators — Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — already running. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke also are expected to make highly anticipated 2020 announcements in the coming weeks.
But Inslee says his emphasis on combating climate change will set him apart from his competitors and from Republican President Donald Trump.
“Climate change is a unifying issue,” Inslee told The Associated Press in a recent interview, calling it a moral necessity and an economic opportunity.
He promises substantial investment in clean energy sources that reduce American dependence on fossil fuels. “This issue is connected to virtually every other value system and thing we want to do in our communities,” he said, mentioning environmental justice, infrastructure, clean energy, health care and national security.
Inslee argues that no presidential candidate has hinged a campaign as heavily on climate and environmental policy as he will. He plans his first trip as a candidate to Iowa next week, with events geared to climate issues. Trips to Nevada and California will follow.
He may have a larger opening on climate since billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer has passed on a national campaign, opting instead to continue his advocacy for impeaching and removing Trump from office. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who has spent millions of dollars on climate issues, may run.
Steyer hasn’t indicated whether he’ll use his fortune to back a presidential candidate, but he welcomed Inslee’s announcement, tweeting Friday, “It’s good to know that a climate champion like @GovInslee will be in the race, pushing the country to recognize what is at stake.”
Inslee has not specifically endorsed the Green New Deal introduced by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, though he said last month that he was “thrilled that this … resolution has been brought forward” as a way to push for action.
He has argued separately for an issue-by-issue approach that adds up to sweeping change. He generally avoids promising specific reductions of carbon emissions under an absolute timeframe. The Green New Deal targets 2030 for the U.S. to become net carbon neutral.
Despite his emphasis on climate policy, Inslee says he’s not a one-issue candidate. A former congressman, he pitches his breadth of personal and political experiences as ideal to bridge political and cultural divides among the Democratic base and the broader electorate.
In Congress, he voted against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and for a ban on certain military-style guns. In Washington, he has signed a new paid family and medical leave program and expanded the Medicaid government insurance program under Democrats’ 2010 health care law.
Inslee is a white male baby boomer who was a clean-cut star athlete and honors student in the turbulent 1960s, when he met his high school sweetheart, Trudi. She is now his wife of 46 years. That puts Inslee closer to the septuagenarian Biden than to the young rock-star-style candidates like O’Rourke or Booker, both in their 40s.
Inslee has nonetheless governed Washington as an unabashed liberal, promoting clean energy, gay rights, abortion rights, environmental preservation, tighter gun restrictions and more spending for education and job training. Most recently, he’s called for a state-based public option health insurance plan in Washington that he calls a “step toward universal health care.”
Republicans have not embraced him, with the state GOP recently deriding his “extreme environmental agenda” and pointing to its price tag.
Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler has quipped that Inslee’s policies “may be geared toward Iowa more than Washington.”
Inslee grew up in the Seattle area, with his mother working as a sales clerk and his father as a biology teacher and basketball coach in public schools. He started his legal and political career in small-town central Washington, where he won a state legislative post and, for one term, a congressional seat before being knocked out in the GOP sweep of 1994. He later returned to Congress representing a metro-Seattle district for 12 years before resigning to run for and win the governor’s office in 2012.
Inslee raised his profile serving as Democratic Governors Association chairman in 2018; Democrats picked up seven governor’s offices, and Inslee became a familiar guest to cable news audiences, using the opportunity to lambaste Trump on such issues as immigration and ethics.
“During the past two years, we’ve been challenged by federal actions that appeal more to our darker natures than our better angels,” Inslee said in his January address of the Washington Legislature. “But we know that’s not who we are.”
Recent polling suggests at least some wisdom for trying to become the climate change candidate.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from December found that self-identified liberal Democrats see the environment as a critical issue: 49 percent named it among their top priorities, compared with 29 percent of conservative and moderate Democrats. Sixteen percent of liberal and moderate Republicans and just 3 percent of conservative Republicans mentioned the environment as a major problem.
In an open-ended question, 24 percent of all adults queried named environmental issues and climate change among the top five priorities for the government to work on in 2019. That compares with 18 percent who mentioned the issue as a priority for 2018.
Barrow reported from Atlanta and Hanover, New Hampshire. Associated Press associate polling director Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.