Sit in a room and talk politics with Christine Gregoire, and you'll leave with a distinct impression: If you were in legal trouble, you'd want her on your team.
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In a refreshing change from Gary Lockean spinelessness, Gov.-elect Gregoire is a fighter. She's been one tough-assed attorney general when it's come to cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation or taking on the tobacco companies. The shift from Locke to Gregoire won't be a shift of policies so much as one of temperament. Both are middle-of-the-road, pro-business Democrats who are well-versed in the ways of Olympia and state government. Nevertheless, the campaign, election, and recount mess leave a couple of important questions unanswered. What will she fight for? And can she wield her major strength without turning it into a weakness that undermines her administration?
One thing we know about Gregoire the fighter: She'll fight for herself. She refused to concede, a stance that allowed her to snare "victory" from the jaws of defeat. But to succeed as governor, Gregoire will have to be more than just another dogged attorney. For one thing, she's going to have to tell the truth.
Gregoire has the knack of George W. Bush and the Republicans for claiming every defeat is a win and relying on the image of toughness to see her through. The trouble is, while she makes a strong case for herself, her pronouncements are often at odds with public perception, and the truth.
When it was revealed that she belonged to a racist sorority while attending the University of Washington in the 1960s, Gregoire immediately tried to portray herself as a noble civil-rights pioneer fighting for change from within. "I chose to stay and to fight against discrimination," she maintained during the campaign, even though the record shows that her sorority continued to reject black candidates. Her version of events offended many in the African-American community, including those whose loved ones had actually experienced discrimination during the time Gregoire was a sorority leader.
Then there's the lawsuit against Gregoire by former assistant attorney general Janet Capps. She claimed Gregoire made her a scapegoat in the case of an appeal that was not filed in time, resulting in a $17.8 million hit to taxpayers. Capps claimed she was wrongly blamed. Gregoire fought back. Mediation didn't work. A settlement couldn't be reached. In fact, Gregoire's attorney, Anne Bremner, said settling the case would be viewed as paying "hush money." Gregoire's legal team was so obstructionist, the judge sanctioned and fined them over their behavior. Evidence mounted that Capps had, in fact, been railroaded. Suddenly, in the middle of her gubernatorial primary campaign, Gregoire settled, citing new developments in the case. Capps got a state job and back pay, and the taxpayers got stuck with an estimated $2 million bill for legal and settlement costs. How did Gregoire describe the outcome? It was "in the best interest of the taxpayers," she said. Please. The whole thing was an expensive Gregoire screwup, hardly a victory for the people.
Gregoire is still at it. In her statement regarding her recount victory, the about-to-be governor-elect announced that this was "the biggest display of democracy I have ever seen" and said that Washington's election system was a "model to the nation and to the world at large." Regardless of who you supported, whether Gregoire or her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, if nothing else this election revealed serious flaws with how our votes are counted: There is too much partisanship, and there are too many errors. In a democracy in which one legitimate vote can make all the difference, you better have an accuracy rate that can inspire confidence in a 129-vote margin of victory. Gregoire might have won the recount game, but this election is no role model, and saying it is undermines her credibility.
In this divided state, Gregoire must learn to lead. It's not enough to fight. After all, George Armstrong Custer was a fighter, and there's a marker at the Little Bighorn that proves it. And so was Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. He stood up under fire to prove it—and was shot by one of his own men. Leadership is more than being a single-minded advocate, especially for yourself. It is the capacity to bring people together for a common purpose in tough times. That will take more than rhetoric about unity and being everyone's governor. Gregoire is going to have to take substantive actions that rise above self-serving claims.
The Seattle Times editorial page had an interesting suggestion, which was that Gregoire and the Democrats pay for the last recount instead of sticking the public with the bill. That would save taxpayers nearly a million dollars. Proper elections should be publicly funded, not paid for by special interests. The state should pay the bill. But Gregoire ought to acknowledge—and it is no weakness to admit—that the state needs election reform. Both she and Rossi are victims of a flawed system. Why not appoint a nonpartisan commission to work toward meaningful and immediate election reform that won't be so subject to partisan pressures? Admit that the main civics lesson is that we can do better with our election system. We must ensure that every vote is properly counted, that uniform standards are applied, that secure and safe technologies are in place, that the vote is counted and recounted in a timely fashion, and that individuals can track their vote to make sure it didn't get lost in the system, or the mail.
Christine Gregoire can seize election reform to restore public confidence and make sure all voters are enfranchised—even those who didn't vote for her. That would be leadership. That would be a legacy. That would be something that could help heal the divide. It might not be what a pit-bull attorney/politician would be inclined to do, but it would be a way to turn her current "victory" into a real and long-lasting one.