When we were classmates at Ingraham High School in Seattle, Jay Inslee was quarterback of the football team and a key player on the state champion basketball squad. I was a fledgling cartoonist and editorial writer on the student newspaper. On Wednesday afternoon, as I watched Inslee shoot hoops with his buddies under the new backboard he had just put up on his garage, it struck me that some things have not changed. It was still basketballs for him, cartoons for me.
But, in truth, the change is rather dramatic. My bio now starts with the phrase “two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner.” Inslee, as a congressman, threw elbows and blocked shots on the White House basketball court with President Obama. And now, that hoop and net he just installed is attached to the garage outside the governor's mansion in Olympia, Wash. As of Wednesday, his bio has a new top line: 23rd governor of the state of Washington.
I traveled to Olympia to see Inslee sworn in. After all, how often does a friend become a governor? And what other governor at his swearing-in would have chosen to be introduced by Dennis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day?
Inslee and I were only acquaintances in our teenage years. Our friendship really started at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. I was in Washington, D.C., covering the event; Jay was a freshman member of Congress. As we walked along a marble hallway in one of the House office buildings, he expressed amazement at where he was and what he was doing. "Our dads are supposed to be doing this, not us!" he laughed.
In 1996, I spent several days tracking him during his first run for governor. He had lost his congressional seat in the watershed election of 1994 when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 50 years and now he was engaged in a quixotic primary campaign against Democratic heavyweights. His life consisted of nonstop fundraising calls and dispiriting candidates’ events where he made his pitch to nearly-empty rooms.
On the night of his primary defeat, standing with just a few friends and teary-eyed staffers at his quiet campaign headquarters, Inslee quoted from memory Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech about the man in the arena “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Two years later, the indefatigable Inslee was returned to Congress from a different district and easily held that seat until he left to campaign for governor again last year. In Congress, he became a leader on new energy technology and climate change. I once asked him how anything would ever get done to forestall the looming climate calamity, given the pitiful lack of political will on the issue. As always, he was upbeat, certain that smart leaders would find a solution, certain this was not another quixotic fight.
So, it was no surprise that, in his inaugural speech as governor, Inslee told the assembled legislators he believes the state can lead the world in providing a technological response to the climate challenge. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated in California that states can take effective action to reduce carbon emissions even while the federal government dawdles. Inslee wants his state to follow a similar path and, in the process, create new jobs in the clean energy industry
Republican legislators, many of whom cling to the idea that climate change is as mythical as unicorns, sat glumly as he directed a message to them: “We don’t deny science in Washington; we embrace it. We do not follow technological innovation; we lead it. And we will not pass up a golden opportunity to create jobs.”
At the governor’s mansion, two hours after his inaugural address and a few minutes before the basketball game, I reminded Inslee of that feeling he had when he first went to Congress, that sense that an older generation should still be in charge. I asked him how he felt on his first day as governor. His answer was firm: “I am ready now.”
So much of the time, politics is dismal and disheartening, but, on Wednesday, I was reminded that elections matter. That is how we raise up good men and women like Jay Inslee who consider “daring greatly” to be their life’s mission.