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Originally published October 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 15, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Citizens get chance to vent; critics call it a political campaign

The questions ran the gamut — from 9-year-old Charlotte Hudson, who wanted to know the best and worst parts of being governor, to...

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

ABERDEEN — The questions ran the gamut — from 9-year-old Charlotte Hudson, who wanted to know the best and worst parts of being governor, to 90-year-old widow Roni Parker, who was looking for an ally in her long-running feud with local officials over property taxes.

More than 300 people packed the local high-school cafeteria last week for a chance to meet up-close with Gov. Christine Gregoire and her entourage of Cabinet members and senior staff.

"We need to make sure ... we're listening to you," Gregoire told the crowd. "Government and democracy work best when we listen to the people that we serve."

It was the latest stop on Gregoire's "Citizen Engagement Tour."

For the second year in a row, Gregoire is hosting town-hall meetings across the state. So far, she's been to Seattle, Bellingham and Aberdeen. The next event is tonight in Yakima, followed by meetings during the next few weeks in Spokane and Tacoma.

Before each gathering, the governor tries to get a sense of key local issues by sending a team of Cabinet members to meet with local officials. She also has hired pollster Stuart Elway to conduct focus-group meetings with a group of randomly selected local voters.

The tour is costing the state about $130,000 — not including all the hours Gregoire's staff is spending organizing the events and responding to questions.

Gregoire shrugs off criticism from Republicans who say her tour is little more than a taxpayer-financed political campaign. She said going out and meeting with people is part of her job.

"What am I supposed to do, sit in Olympia and listen to lobbyists all day?" she said in an interview after the Aberdeen meeting.

Global warming

Gregoire and her staff have the town-hall routine down pat.

The governor stands on stage in front of a giant banner that reads "Building a better future for Washington families." Her brief opening remarks focus on issues Elway has identified as people's top concerns — education, health care and the economy.

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Then a moderator with a remote microphone moves through the audience fielding questions at random.

At her town-hall gathering in Seattle earlier this month, there were numerous questions and comments about global warming. "It's time for America to stand up to this issue — stop following and start leading," Gregoire said.

In Aberdeen, where there was just one mention of climate change, the discussion focused more on the region's struggling economy. Dorothy Voege, the town's mayor, talked about reading in the Seattle papers about how well the economy is doing.

"I feel like we're not part of that Washington," Voege told the governor.

For some people, the gatherings are a chance to vent about a pet issue. In Seattle, one woman talked about how her children were being poisoned by fluoride and other chemicals. In Bellingham, the governor was urged to reduce fuel consumption by lowering speed limits.

Others come forward with emotional pleas for help.

One woman asked Gregoire to support her imprisoned relative's clemency request. Another complained to the governor about how the state had moved her fiancé to a private prison in Arizona, where he no longer can visit with his children.

Melissa Kassahn of Aberdeen told Gregoire about how she and her four kids were left homeless last year by a fire that caused extensive damage to her house. Since then, she said, she's had nothing but problems in trying to get back into her home.

"We've been messed over by the contractor. We've been messed over by the state. We've been messed over by the insurance [company]," Kassahn told the governor.

Gregoire pointed across the room at Judy Schurke, head of the state Department of Labor and Industries, and told her to see what could be done for Kassahn. By the end of the evening, Kassahn had a handful of business cards from state and local officials wanting to help.

Invaluable experience

In most cases, the governor's standard response is "let me get back to you."

Those who don't get a chance to ask a question in person can submit as many as they want in writing.

Gregoire said she is requiring her staff to make an initial response to every question within 10 days.

So far they are replying to more than 350 questions.

In Aberdeen, when young Charlotte Hudson came up to ask her question, Gregoire said the best part of being governor was meeting kids like her. Then Gregoire got choked up as she talked about the worst part: attending the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.

She or her husband have tried to attend the funerals of all Washington residents killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"It's small communities that are broken up," Gregoire said. "I hope and I pray that not another person's life is lost."

Dawn Keough, Charlotte's mother, said the experience was invaluable for her daughter.

"I brought Charlotte tonight because I thought this might be the only chance she'd ever have to see the governor," Keough said. "I was very impressed."

Gregoire even seemed to win over some skeptics.

Don Lentz, a retired logger from Aberdeen who grilled the governor about taxes and traffic problems, said the event seemed like a "political rally."

But, he added, "I think she probably did as good a job addressing the questions as most politicians."

On the same night Gregoire was visiting Aberdeen, the state Republican Party was toasting Dino Rossi at a dinner in SeaTac themed "Run, Dino, Run."

Rossi, who barely lost to Gregoire in 2004, has not announced whether he will run in 2008.

But for the past several months, he has come under heavy fire from Democrats who have accused him of using a nonprofit group to run a de facto — and illegal — campaign.

Given all the Rossi-bashing by the Democrats, state GOP Chairman Luke Esser said Gregoire's latest tour — and especially her use of a pollster — is "rich with irony and hypocrisy."

"It looks an awful lot like a taxpayer-financed campaign tour," Esser said.

Gregoire bristled at Esser's assertion.

"That's not about politics," she said. "That's about real people with real problems, looking for a way for their problems to be solved."

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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