DETROIT ― Jay Inslee stood out the moment he walked into the fluorescent-lit room of the Kemeny Recreation Center in southwest Detroit.
Here was this 6-foot-2, blue-eyed WASP in a trim charcoal suit, Clark Kent glasses and a thick Pacific Northwest accent surrounded by dozens of casually dressed Black and Native American activists from Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code.
And yet Inslee seemed at ease, like he’d been here before.
That’s because he had ― just two days earlier. As part of his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination on a promise of throwing the full might of the American presidency at averting climate catastrophe, the 68-year-old Washington governor made a point of visiting the 48217, home to Michigan’s only oil refinery, a coal-burning power station and a handful of emission-belching industrial plants. He chose this forgotten, highway-bound corner of southwest Detroit to announce his $1.2 trillion plan to deliver environmental justice to poor, polluted communities across the country.
When community leaders invited all 20 Democratic presidential candidates in town for the debates to visit on Wednesday morning, only three ― Inslee, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro ― agreed to come. O’Rourke and Castro, though, canceled at the last minute. And so there was Inslee, back again.
The 2020 primary is filled with straight white men over age 45 with almost no shot at the nomination and no clear reason to run. Why would voters choose an RC Cola centrist like former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock when there’s Coca-Cola Joe Biden? Does anyone really need New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when there’s Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)? Like Inslee, all of them are polling at 1% or less.
But to write off Inslee as yet another quixotic also-ran would be blind to what his campaign has already accomplished. Since launching as the self-declared climate candidate in March, the governor’s campaign developed one of the most prolific and sophisticated policy shops in the race. Unlike Andrew Yang ― another fellow low-polling candidate who made his debut Wednesday night as the “doomer,” declaring “we’re already 10 years too late” to avert climate disaster ― Inslee’s team has cranked out nearly 200 pages of dense policy offering a detailed blueprint for how to cut planet-heating emissions and secure millions of lives at the rate scientists say is required to maintain a recognizable planet.
Warren electrified the debate Wednesday when she interrupted Delaney’s rant against the “fairy-tale economics” of promising “Medicare for All” and a Green New Deal. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said.
As a result, July was the hottest month in human history. A wildfire larger than Massachusetts is raging in Siberia. The Greenland ice sheet spewed 197 billion tons of meltwater into the Atlantic Ocean in just four weeks.
Now consider how humans are already faring. An Indian city of more than 10 million is poised to run out of water. After New York City’s poshest and most touristy areas suffered a blackout amid a heatwave last month, the private utility intentionally cut power to poor, minority neighborhoods to avoid another such incident. Miami is bracing for a weekend of paralyzing floods now so routine that the city’s leading newspaper prints headlines like this: ”‘Turn Around and Don’t Drown,’ Weather Service Says. It’s Going To Be That Kind of Day.”
Inslee has a lot to talk about.
“This requires the full mobilization of the country,” Inslee said by phone Friday. “It really requires a president who’s committed to that level of prioritization to get this job done. That’s why I’m running for this office, and this office exclusively.”
In May, his campaign put out its first policy memo, a detailed plan to generate 100% of the United States’ electricity from renewables in roughly a decade. Weeks later, he released the “Evergreen Economy Plan,” a 15,000-word opus blueprinting how to direct $9 trillion to cut a huge chunk of U.S. emissions by 2030, create 8 million jobs and revitalize unions. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the most visible climate champion in Congress right now, dubbed the plan the “gold standard” for a Green New Deal.
The platform kept expanding. There’s a “Climate Conservation Corps,” modeled on the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted 3 billion trees from 1933 to 1942. There’s the “Freedom From Fossil Fuels” plan, an 11,000-word declaration of war on the oil, gas and coal industries. There’s the “American Dream” plan to block right-to-work laws that hurt union membership, set a minimum wage of $25 per hour for clean-energy jobs and wield the federal government’s purchasing power to direct jobs to organized labor. There’s an immigration plan to take in historic numbers of refugees fleeing a warming planet’s ravages, repeal laws that block undocumented immigrants from accessing public goods and provide billions in aid to drought-parched Central American countries.
He became one of the first contenders to promise to end the filibuster, a Senate procedure requiring a 60-vote supermajority to overcome. The tactic is widely seen as a major obstacle to progressive legislation if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remains in power in 2021. Only Warren has joined him on that anti-filibuster pledge so far.
“Over half of the things I’ve proposed can be done by executive order and executive decision-making, so there’s enormous room to move,” Inslee said. His rivals “remain wedded to that antediluvian, nondemocratic, Moscow Mitch-favorite tool ― the filibuster.”
Inslee’s pitch goes beyond wonkery. As a former U.S. representative twice elected governor of a large state, he offers a blend of legislative and executive experience unique in a race dominated by sitting and former members of Congress. He understood before many that climate change is an economic, not environmental, problem. In 2005, he introduced one of the first major climate bills in Congress to actually transition away from fossil fuels. In 2007, he wrote a book calling for a massive clean-energy job program to lower emissions.
He’s an unabashed progressive who broke with many in his party to oppose the Iraq War in Congress and voted against financial deregulation in the early 2000s.
“The vision that underlies the Green New Deal is not new to him,” said Bracken Hendricks, a senior adviser and longtime friend who co-authored his book. “He’s been working on it for 15 years. This is just embedded in his DNA.”
He added: “If your house is on fire, you don’t add ‘Put out fire’ to a list.”
A Slow Start
Inslee offers a wholesome personal narrative. The fifth-generation Washingtonian grew up in Seattle, the son of a high school teacher and a sales clerk. He was a jock who, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, led his undefeated basketball team to victory in a state championship in 1969.
“This is very personal,” Inslee said. “I’ve grown up surrounded by the beauty of the natural world, living on the shore of Puget Sound. My dad was a biology teacher and took me down and explained to me limpets and how the salmon life cycle works. I was hiking in the forests now burning down and skiing down the slopes now melting.”
According to his official biography, he worked his way through college, graduating with an economics degree from the University of Washington before earning a law degree at Willamette University. He married his high school sweetheart, Trudi, and moved to the small town of Selah to raise his three sons and work as an attorney before entering politics. Adding to his broad appeal, Inslee is handsome and stylish. After Wednesday night’s debate, people on Twitter started calling the governor “Bae Inslee,” New York magazine and Splinter wrote thirsty blog posts about his looks, and the emojis that New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson used to punctuate Inslee’s name spoke erotic volumes.
The day following the debate marked Inslee’s biggest fundraising haul to date with 10,000 donors, doubling what the campaign brought in after first launching in March. But governors are traditionally hampered in fundraising compared with senators, who enjoy national name recognition, and Inslee is far behind the current and former legislators in the race. In theory, Inslee’s laser focus on the climate crisis should pay dividends in the primary. Poll after poll shows climate change is now a top issue for Democrats and liberal-leaning voters, and surveys find Americans of most political stripes are worried, to varying degrees, about the threat of global warming.
Yet Inslee’s path to victory is difficult to envision. The governor said he sees his message appealing to voters affected by floods in Iowa, Lyme disease from ticks that are spreading in New Hampshire as winters warm, booming clean energy in Nevada. But his polling numbers don’t reflect that.
It’s not even certain that he’ll make it into the debate in Houston next month. The Democratic National Committee requires candidates to net 130,000 individual donors by Aug. 28 and hit 2% in at least four polls. Even some fans fear Inslee lacks the je ne sais quoi to finally break through and make a serious challenge to the front-runners.
“I know, I know, he’s great,” one activist said after listening to Inslee speak at an event. “But, c’mon, he’s too bland.”
Last month, billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer entered the race, reportedly in part because he was disappointed in Inslee’s failure to take off. The late entry puzzled some longtime activists, many of whom implored Steyer to redirect the $100 million he promised to spend on his own campaign to other candidates, particularly those who could flip or hold vulnerable seats in the Republican-controlled Senate. But Steyer spent the past year crusading to impeach President Donald Trump, which helped elevate his profile beyond parochial climate activism circles. Steyer is at 2% in a key Monmouth University poll released late last month.
Yet Steyer faces headwinds in raising small-dollar donations, given his well-known personal fortune. With Steyer’s polling numbers combined with Inslee’s donors, “you could have the dream climate candidate who would actually make it into the next debate,” said Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert and an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
But, if Inslee is on the next debate stage, the governor should focus on pivoting every question, from health care to immigration, back to how climate change will exacerbate those issues, Stokes said. On Wednesday night, he sparred with Biden, pressing the former vice president on whether his plan would ultimately eliminate coal and most natural gas use. Biden sputtered, and the exchange made his widely praised climate plan look dangerously vague. Even Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), neck-and-neck with Inslee in Greenpeace’s candidate ranking, admitted on stage that the governor has him beat on policy specifics.
They’re not about paying lip service. They’re not about performing wokeness. They’re about answering the question: How do we take on the climate crisis? Leah Stokes, assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara
What his campaign is doing is showing what needs to be done to “actually take on climate change at the scale of the crisis, to make a difference and solve the problem, or at least make a serious dent,” Stokes said.
“That’s what the Inslee plans are about,” she added, pointing to the campaign’s specific proposals on how to transition rural electricity cooperatives off coal and improve life in polluted, frontline communities. “They’re not about paying lip service. They’re not about performing wokeness. They’re about answering the question: How do we take on the climate crisis?”
The way that Inslee sees it, his strength is quite literally Trump’s Achilles’ heel. Just 29% of Americans approved of Trump’s handling of climate change, while 62% disapproved, marking by far his lowest performance ratings on eight issues in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last month.
“It’s the point of greatest contrast,” Inslee said. “I think we beat Republicans on contrast.”
He’s in it to win and regularly points to Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, former governors who, after months of lagging, surged ahead following upsets in the Iowa caucus. If he can hold out until the field of candidates shrinks, he’s likely to distinguish himself at future debates, Hendricks said.
“Nobody is blind to the odds,” Hendricks said. “But there is a pathway. There really is a pathway. There’s not a front-runner who anyone has coalesced around, so somebody in a second tier of candidates can gain momentum.”
Inslee could face some blowback from the left. He opposed Warren’s bid to break up Amazon, headquartered in his hometown of Seattle, raising questions about his commitment to ramping up antitrust enforcement. In March, End Citizens United, a top campaign finance reform group, started pressing Inslee to disavow Act on Climate Now, the super PAC set up to support his campaign. But the governor stands to benefit from a widening base of progressive voters energized by the slate of left-wing candidates in the race.
Sanders has an army of devoted supporters, particularly after his 2016 race. Warren is taking tens of thousands of selfies with fans, giving a personal touch that is starting to pay off. Inslee keeps finding himself in the places most ravaged by the existential crisis he promises to fix. Castro’s bold immigration reform proposals could net a sizable percentage of Latinos, who make up a growing share of the American voting bloc.
On the debate stage Wednesday night, Inslee conjured images of aluminum homes in California reduced to molten goop in the wake of historic wildfires last year. He nodded to flooded fields and ruined farmers in Davenport, Iowa, inundated earlier this year by record floods. And he talked up the 48217, the ZIP code he’s visited three times as of this week.
“He shows up, man,” Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer at the Sierra Club’s Detroit chapter, said in the hallway of the recreation center. “That means something.”