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Sunday, October 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Christine Gregoire: Well-known to a point
By Andrew Garber
Yet for all the attention, Gregoire is a bit of an enigma. She doesn't have a voting record that speaks to her stands on issues, and in her campaign for governor, she's shied away from taking positions.
Asked what she'd do to fix a budget shortfall, Gregoire wouldn't provide specifics. On gay marriage, Gregoire says she can't comment because the matter is in court. Questioned about promises to close tax breaks for business, she talks about appointing a panel to decide.
Voters are left instead with stump speeches about high-profile cases her office has handled and her skills as an administrator. She bills herself as an outsider ready to "blow past" state bureaucracy, although she's no stranger to Olympia politics.
The job of attorney general in many ways provides an ideal platform to run for higher office, says Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University. It provides high visibility without having to take tough votes that can later haunt politicians.
"It's almost like a win-win for a candidate," he said. "You can have a few props of accomplishments and you don't have a [voting] record you have to explain."
Research by Thad Beyle at the University of North Carolina shows about 25 percent of attorneys general who run for governor win. That's more than twice the success rate for state lawmakers. Gregoire's Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, was a state senator for seven years.
Rossi has tried to turn Gregoire's tenure in state government against her, arguing she's a career bureaucrat and "Olympia insider" with no real-world experience.
Her first big break came when former Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner made her director of the state Department of Ecology in 1988. She was head of the agency for four years before running for attorney general in 1992.
An agreement Gregoire negotiated with the federal government in 1989 to clean up Hanford is often cited as one of her biggest achievements while at Ecology.
Gerald Pollet, executive director of Hanford watchdog group Heart of America Northwest, also credits Gregoire for working to make sure the agreement was kept. "Not only would Hanford not be getting cleaned up without Chris Gregoire, there is no doubt that, instead of cleaning it up, it would be a national radioactive-waste dump already," Pollet said.
As attorney general, Gregoire's record has been largely defined by lawsuits her office has handled more than 200,000 since 1992.
The best known are the 1998 national settlement with the tobacco companies, projected to net the state $4.5 billion over 25 years, and a 2000 case where her office missed a deadline for an appeal, a mistake that ultimately cost the state more than $20 million.
Gregoire and supporters say her career should be viewed in a broader context, including her going after companies that have wronged consumers and helping identity-theft victims clear their names.
One of the more controversial accomplishments Gregoire lists is her record in defending the state against liability claims. She created an early-resolution program to settle disputes before they get to court, which her campaign says has saved taxpayers "countless dollars."
But critics, including Rossi, blame her in part for the state's ever-increasing payments for liability claims.
In the 1980s, before Gregoire took office, the state paid an average of $7 million a year in claims. During the 1990s, that more than doubled to $16.2 million annually. So far this decade, the state is paying an average of $41.3 million a year.
Gregoire said despite her office's efforts, the growing amount of money being paid in liability claims is largely out of her control. "The payouts are greater today, but that's a reflection of society," she said.
The attorney general's office has a good record of defending the state in court, she said. "We're going to trial with the right cases and we're going on appeal with the right cases," she says.
But critics say Gregoire should have done more.
"In my view the attorney general's office was basically overwhelmed in the late 1990s and 2000 by sophisticated law firms with more resources to expend on cases than the attorney general's office had to defend," said Bernie Friedman, risk manager for the Department of Social and Health Services. "The results speak for themselves."
Friedman worked as a clerk for former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, who ran against Gregoire for the Democratic nomination for governor before dropping out of the race. Talmadge, who declined an interview for this story, has been critical of Gregoire.
Friedman said that in recent years, Gregoire has put sufficient resources into defending the state. Still, he said, the state is exposed to growing liability as one of a handful of states in the country that gives itself virtually no immunity from lawsuits.
Attempts to provide agencies some protection have been beaten back, he said, arguing that Gregoire has sat on the sidelines during the debate. "She hasn't lifted a finger to cut off state liability since I've been here," he said. "She can advocate for things. But in fact she doesn't."
Gregoire, who has gotten several hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions from private attorneys this election, said she doesn't support efforts to protect the state from lawsuits. "I think that tells the public we're not going to hold the state accountable," she said.
Above the fray?
Gregoire points to the billions she's won for the state through the legal system in particular the $4.5 billion the state is slated to receive from the nationwide settlement with tobacco companies that Gregoire negotiated.
"I gave you $5 billion in restitution from the multiple cases we brought on behalf of the citizens of the state of Washington, more than any of my predecessors combined multiple times," she told Rossi in a recent debate.
In another lawsuit, Washington played the lead in a multi-state case against Household International, which claimed the company violated state law by misrepresenting loan terms and failing to disclose information to borrowers. That case returned $21 million to Washington customers.
The court cases may speak to her ability to lead a law firm, but they say little about Gregoire's skills as a politician and how she would fare as governor in working with lawmakers to set state policy.
Rossi has portrayed Gregoire as political insider and part of a Democratic administration that's left Washington over-regulated and with a weak economy.
"You're going to have to pick," he says in his campaign. "Who do you think will turn this business climate around?"
Gregoire has said she is not an insider, as Rossi claims, and tries to portray herself as someone who's been above the fray of Olympia politics. Yet at the same time, she touts her record of pushing legislation, such as a 2001 effort to strengthen the rights of victims of identity theft.
State Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said Gregoire played the lead role in pushing through legislation that helped make it easier for identity-theft victims to clear their names. "She was everywhere," said Prentice, a Gregoire supporter. "I remember being conscious of how she lobbied everyone."
Gregoire says she played an important role in reforming the state juvenile-justice system and getting a "tough new ethics law" enacted for state government.
Gov. Gary Locke, an ardent supporter, says Gregoire is an astute politician he has consulted often on key decisions he's made through the years.
"I've seen her personally lobbying and talking to legislators. We've had groups of legislators in my office where she's made presentations to them. She's not a person who is a stranger to getting things through the Legislature."
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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