Inslee Sticks To Campaign Game Plan -- Message Attempts To Boost His Profile

MOUNT VERNON - At a Democratic Party forum here, one of those cookies-and-weak-coffee stops held in interchangeable school auditoriums on the primary election circuit, each candidate was given three minutes for opening remarks.

Jay Inslee, candidate for governor, needed less than half that to get where he was going.

"I am a candidate who says we have to put schools first, not pro football teams," he told the crowd.

The former Yakima Valley congressman has a preternatural ability to stay, as the political gurus say, "on message."

Speaking to a roomful of liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill, or raising cash from Republican fruit growers, he introduces himself as the guy who won't let the prospective owners of the Seattle Seahawks blackmail taxpayers into building a new stadium.

Inslee is running $70,000 worth of television ads that proclaim his better-known opponents - King County Executive Gary Locke and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice - want to spend your tax dollars on just that.

Through sheer persistence, Inslee has placed public financing of sports facilities on the front burner of the Democratic primary - probably robbing votes from Locke, who as county executive is saddled with fallout from negotiations with the Seahawks.

It's less certain that Inslee's relentless attacks are enough to make the Democratic primary more than a two-man race between Locke and Rice.

"During the campaign, from Port Angeles to Walla Walla, the question is, `What is the difference between these three good people,' " Inslee says. "This is not political smoke. I'm asked this question multiple times daily. This is the answer I'm providing."

Inslee, 45, is a Seattle native who starred in football and basketball at Ingraham High School. His father was a teacher and coach at Garfield High School and, later, director of athletics for the Seattle School District.

But Inslee's political roots, unusual for a Democrat running statewide, are planted in Eastern Washington.

While practicing law in the small Yakima Valley orchard town of Selah, Inslee and his wife got involved with a local school-bond measure in 1987. Inspired by that experience, Inslee then won two terms in the state House, where he served as vice chairman of the powerful Budget Committee, then run by Locke.

Inslee, unlike Rice and Locke, lacks executive experience.

His record is defined largely by his two years in Congress representing the 4th District, a sprawling, arid land that follows the Columbia River basin from north of the Grand Coulee Dam to the Tri-Cities and the Yakima Valley.

In narrowly winning the seat in 1992, Inslee exhibited both boundless confidence by entering a race many friends warned him to stay out of and endless energy on the campaign trail. Once in office, his survival strategy in the state's most Republican district included declaring semi-independence from President Clinton and the Democratic congressional leadership on budget matters, while working tirelessly for local farmers who mostly vote GOP.

It was a prickly path.

While he went to Washington as one of those "new" tight-fisted Democrats, he came under fire almost immediately by voting for a Clinton deficit-reduction plan that included higher taxes. When the final version of the plan hit the floor, Inslee voted no. He also later signed on to the bipartisan Penny-Kasich budget-cutting proposal aimed at forcing deeper whacks in government spending.

Even local Republicans credit Inslee for working Congress in much the same breathless way he campaigns. Orchard owners praise the energy Inslee put into the successful fight to open Japanese markets for Washington apples and pass a Yakima River enhancement bill. He was on the phone from Congress to local growers nearly every day.

"You didn't get the feeling that he had an assistant he was telling to go do this and then he would just forget you. He gave the impression that he was working it himself," says Mike Hambelton, a Republican-leaning executive for a Wenatchee orchard.

"Jay has this incredible ability to win people over."

Neither the footwork nor the enthusiasm could save Inslee two years later, when he was returned to private life by a GOP tidal wave that wiped out five of the state's incumbent Democratic members of Congress. Inslee was damaged by his votes for the tax increase and a ban on assault rifles, which made him a target of the National Rifle Association.

But Inslee, tall and telegenic, with blue eyes and dark hair going a little gray, is his own best spin doctor. As he campaigns for governor, he turns his 1994 defeat into a selling point.

"It's easy to be pro-choice, pro gun-control in the comforting confines of King County. I've been tested and tempered on issues like that in a way that my opponents haven't," says Inslee. "I know this sounds funny, but it was a loss to be proud of in some ways."

The governor's race is yet another contest that many people - some who don't think he has enough experience, some who don't think he can win - advised Inslee not to make. His decision to run is explained partly by the abruptness with which his congressional career ended.

"After the 1994 elections, I felt there was something I had to offer in public life and it just got cut short," he says.

Inslee moved to Bainbridge Island after his defeat and joined a Seattle law firm. A year later, he declared his candidacy for governor. At that point, Inslee was running as an early alternative to embattled Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry. When Lowry announced in February that he wouldn't seek re-election, Rice and Locke jumped in.

His campaign has only five full-time workers. Other than candidate forums, Inslee makes few personal appearances. Instead, he spends most of his days in a tattered Pioneer Square office, with files stacked on an unvacuumed floor, making fund-raising phone calls. He has raised more than $375,000, far less than Locke and Rice.

"They are a lot better known," says his campaign manager, Joby Shimomura. "The flip side is that because everybody already knows Gary and Norm, what else are they going to tell voters? Jay has an opportunity to create himself for voters."

Taking a cue from GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, Inslee cast himself early as a spokesman for those outside Seattle - a theme he still stresses. While Inslee the congressman hewed a fiscally conservative line in Congress that separated him from his party's leadership, Inslee the candidate for governor often sounds like the most partisan Democrat in the field.

He peppers his talks with roundhouse swings at House Major Leader Newt Gingrich. He talks of establishing his green credentials last year as statewide spokesman against Referendum 48, a property-rights initiative that seemed particularly popular in his rural congressional district. He is a staunch defender of the state's controversial Growth Management Act. He supports a permanent ban on offshore oil drilling in the state and keeping Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River, in a wild state.

Education, though, is Inslee's favorite subject. He wants more money spent on vocational education, both in high school and beyond. He also has proposed easing the rules for passage of school funding levies, from a required 60 percent of the vote to 50 percent.

But virtually every candidate for governor is stressing schools this year. That's where the stadium comes in.

Inslee's school-vs.-stadium argument can sound oversimplified. A new football stadium is just talk at this point, with Locke favoring a Kingdome renovation. Any state support would likely come from increased admission taxes or other new sources, not from the same general-fund pot of state money that supports public schools.

And Inslee wasn't a public critic of a deal struck last year by the Legislature to use state funds for a new baseball stadium in Seattle after King County voters had rejected a new ballpark.

Inslee insists details about any future deal with the Seahawks aren't as important as what our dealings with pro sports teams say about government priorities. That, he believes, resonates with liberals and conservatives.

"It's galling to see schools go out with a tin cup when we spend tens of millions subsidizing pro teams," Inslee says. "It's not just money. We spend so much energy on keeping these team owners happy and let it dominate our public discussion so much that we've lost our focus."

Critics claim Inslee is the one letting the stadium question completely dominate his campaign, and is in danger of sounding like a one-note candidate.

"Out here, Jay is trying to use the stadium as a kind of us-vs.-them thing. A lot of people are fed up with that kind of stuff," says Rae Barnett, Democratic chair for Chelan County, in the heart of Inslee's old congressional district. "It'd be better if he talked about education in real terms."

One of his opponents, in his own indirect way, has acknowledged the potential potency of Inslee's message.

Several months ago, Locke dismissed Inslee's battering as "good-natured ribbing." Now the King County executive has started swinging back, telling audiences how Inslee "begged" him to include money in the state budget for the Yakima Sundome when they both served in the state Legislature. This week, Locke began running ads touting himself as the candidate who "stood up to the greedy Seahawks owner."

Inslee just keeps on-message.

When a woman in the Mount Vernon audience asked the candidates about their position on public funding for the arts, Inslee's face flushed red as it does whenever he gets pumped up - which is nearly every time he talks.

Steal a play from present Seahawks owner Ken Behring, he suggested: "Maybe the Seattle Art Museum should threaten to move to L.A." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Facts about Jay Inslee

Here are the basics about Jay Inslee, Democratic candidate for governor:

Born: Feb. 9, 1951.

Hometown: Seattle.

Family: wife, Trudi, and three children.

Education: attended Stanford University; earned economics degree at the University of Washington, law degree at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

Occupation: attorney.

Political experience: one term in Congress and two terms in the state House, all representing the Yakima area.

Favorite author: Mark Twain.

Little-known fact: His father, a teacher at Seattle's Garfield High School, taught biology to rock 'n' roll great Jimi Hendrix.

- Associated Press