Government

Jay Inslee's 2020 plan: Become president, save the planet

Washington governor brings climate change message to Iowa flood victims

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks June 9 at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids. Inslee’s campaign is focused on combating climate change, and he has found some Iowa flood victims to be receptive to his message. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks June 9 at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids. Inslee’s campaign is focused on combating climate change, and he has found some Iowa flood victims to be receptive to his message. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DAVENPORT — The heap of ashes behind Jay Inslee used to be an acute-care center in Paradise, Calif.

Now it was a backdrop for the message the Democrat was about to bring to the 2020 presidential campaign trail — the message he has embraced for more than two decades.

“We can’t allow climate deniers in the White House,” Inslee said in a short video he posted to Twitter soon after the deadly November wildfire. “You can’t stand here and say you don’t believe in climate change.”

Inslee, who is serving his second term as governor of Washington, doesn’t see climate change as an issue for the next president of the United States to address. He sees it as the issue.

It’s why he’s turned flooded towns in Iowa and burn zones in California into campaign stops; it’s why he’s giving headaches to Democratic leaders by demanding a climate debate.

“My wife and I had a discussion about this,” Inslee, 68, said about his decision to run for president on a climate platform. “We wanted to be able to say we did everything we could. And we realize how diminished and degraded and despoiled my grandchildren’s lives will be if we don’t get a president in the next term to make it job No. 1.”

Inslee grew up on Bainbridge Island outside Seattle. His parents were amateur conservationists who helped restore the alpine meadows on Mount Rainier in the summers.

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As a congressman from Washington state, he warned his fellow representatives in July 1999 about “insidious” greenhouse gases overheating the planet.

Inslee saw a solution: The government could help create a clean-energy economy to cut emissions and create jobs.

Inslee tells Iowans he’s ‘hopping mad’

The transformation didn’t happen. But the story of Inslee’s political career is that if at first you don’t succeed, you can try, try again.

“He’s like the Energizer Bunny in that regard,” said Brian Bonlender, a former congressional chief of staff and former head of Washington’s Department of Commerce under Inslee. “He will not stop.”

Climate scientists warn that world leaders are running out of time to prevent a future of scorching temperatures, rising oceans and worsening natural disasters.

But President Donald Trump’s administration has rolled back Obama-era environmental policies meant to monitor and limit climate change.

“We got a guy in the White House telling us that the climate crisis is a Chinese hoax. What a bunch of baloney,” Inslee said after visiting businesses damaged in recent Iowa flooding, anger creeping into his voice.

“It makes me” — Inslee searched a moment for the word — “hopping mad, as you can tell.”

ahead of the curve on Green New Deal

The governor’s campaign will be a test of whether a climate-focused candidacy can translate into the kind of environmentalist victories recently seen in European elections.

Inslee hasn’t polled above the low single digits but has secured enough donors to qualify for the first round of Democratic primary debates. The Democratic National Committee has refused his call for a climate debate.

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But there are signs that more policymakers are coming around to Inslee’s philosophy of pairing clean-energy investment with jobs, housing and other liberal policy initiatives. Now congressional Democrats are discussing a Green New Deal to transform the economy to produce clean energy.

“He was one of the people who was arguing for a Green New Deal before the Green New Deal was the Green New Deal,” said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club environmentalist group. “He doesn’t get much credit for that.”

Several Democratic presidential candidates have proposed aggressive climate investment programs. But Inslee’s plan, which includes closing all coal plants by 2030 and investing $3 trillion in emissions-efficient transportation, infrastructure and housing, has received the biggest raves from climate experts and activists.

“JayInslee’s climate plan is the most serious + comprehensive one to address our crisis in the 2020 field,” Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a key proponent of the Green New Deal, tweeted in May.

Iowa flood victims receptive to message

Nationally, Inslee is betting that the political opening for a climate-centered candidacy will keep growing as voters encounter more disasters linked to the effects of climate change: bigger wildfires, heavier floods, rising oceans.

“When you’re surfing, you gotta wait for the wave,” Inslee said in a recent interview. “The wave is showing up now in the form of Paradise, Calif., burning to the foundations; Iowa and Nebraska being underwater; Miami Beach being flooded. ... So the wave has arrived.”

On a recent campaign visit to Davenport, Inslee toured businesses along the Mississippi River that had been deluged by record flooding. Workers tossed plastic bags filled with waterlogged belongings into dumpsters as Inslee talked to three women who help run the Dress for Success store. The nonprofit, which provided clothes for women in need, lost half its inventory.

“There’s not enough sandbags in the world to protect you from these floods,” Inslee told them.

LuAnn Haydon, a Dress for Success board member, agreed, urging immediate action to halt climate change.

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“Look at the fires all over California. Look at the floods in the Midwest. It’s not going to stop,” she told Inslee.

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