Sunday, December 25, 2005

''Gregoire's juggernaut after photofinish win'' (UPDATED)

In the spirit of Xmas, and because Hannukah begins at sundown, we'll let the mainstream media paint today's political picture:

"OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington didn't have a governor - not for certain - until a Chelan County judge finally dismissed an election challenge in early June and Republicans decided not to appeal.

The state's longest, closest, craziest race for governor, one that produced first a Republican winner and then, on the second recount, a Democratic victor, was easily the state's top political story of the year.

It was one year ago, after nightfall on Dec. 23, when Christine Gregoire finally pulled ahead of Republican Dino Rossi when her stronghold, King County, certified its final recount numbers. Gregoire had won the unusual statewide hand recount by 129 votes, out of 2.8 million cast. That didn't settle it though, as court battles and political warfare stretched on.

Neither the gossamer-thin victory margin, nor Rossi's bid for a revote, nor the thousands of protesters massed on the Capitol lawn, nor the possibility of losing a court challenge kept her from confidently taking the oath of office on Jan. 12.

Nor did she and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate play their hand timidly. Gregoire, who had beat breast cancer and numerous courtroom adversaries, said she'd govern full-tilt every minute she had the office.

And so she and her legislative brethren ran a relentlessly expansive, expensive agenda, delighting environmentalists, labor, education forces, children's advocates and others who reveled in their best session in a decade. Transportation forces were thrilled when lawmakers approved a huge 16-year, $8.5 billion construction budget.

Taxes? Forget the phobia of the '90s. Gregoire and the Democrats ponied up more than $400 million in "sin taxes" and a new version of the estate tax to help fill a yawning budget gap as the state began pulling out of recession.

And more breathtaking than that, they approved a four-step, 9 1/2-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike just as pump prices were starting to soar.

Republicans complained about the Democratic juggernaut, but at year's end, voters confounded conventional wisdom and sustained the biggest gas-tax hike in state history. Gregoire allies saw it as vindication of her take-charge, take-risks style, but Rossi and the Republicans said Gregoire turned out to be a taxaholic.

"It was the same old left-of-center agenda we've had for the past 20 years," Rossi said recently. "They went to the tax well reflexively."

On Gregoire's watch, a robust state economy, buoyed by the housing market, world trade, and a resurgent Boeing Co., kept piling the state's projected surplus higher and higher - over $1.4 billion as of last count.

The political year also featured an unprecedented recall of a Spokane mayor who was caught in a cybersex, abuse-of-power scandal. It was a banner year for initiative politics, with Tim Eyman back on track, but fellow tax rebels failing to block the gas tax hike. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who faces the voters next fall, went to Baghdad as an election observer and implicitly defended her vote for the Iraq war. She also gained a Republican challenger. The fall elections favored Democrats once again.

But the big watercooler story was the prolonged election, which rewrote all the scripts for determining the winner of a near-tie.

"That will be the benchmark election for years to come, in terms of the whole theater of it and in terms of enduring impact on how we run elections," said Todd Donovan, whose political science students at Western Washington University use it as a bizarre case study.

It all seems a blur to Gregoire.

"When I think back to where I was a year ago...." she says, her voice trailing off. "That was a very difficult time."

She recalls being tucked away in an austere, depressing office suite across the street from the Capitol, not knowing if she'd be inaugurated - or unemployed.

Still, she quickly adds, the year that began in such turmoil and angst also had some very high points. The legislative session where she was given star treatment and got just about everything she asked for. Trade missions to Europe and Asia. Creation of a billion-dollar Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

At year's end, her staff and supporters were working on softening her tough-as-nails image and looking for better ways to publicize her accomplishments. Her job approval ratings remained mired below 40 percent, with pollsters calling her one of the more unpopular governors.

But Gregoire isn't deterred.

"You know what? I'm having the time of my life," Gregoire said."-from the AP story.

Or to put it another way: She got more done in one year in office than the previous occupant did in eight(sorry Mona). Also, let's not forget how Howard Dean, the DNC and John Kerry joined the netroots and individual donors from around the country to raise gobs of money for the recount. Maybe there is a Santa Claus (and/or Hannukah Harry), after all.

Update: My bad: I should have linked to Alan's post on Northwest Progessive Institute about Gregoire, "Leadership has arrived," two days ago. It's a wonky version of the AP story.

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