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Originally published October 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 14, 2008 at 11:15 AM

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Christine Gregoire: Smart, intense and struggling to woo voters

Gov. Christine Gregoire's supporters worry that her accomplishments, ability to connect with people and dedication to family are getting lost in the bitter rematch against Republican Dino Rossi in Washington's race for governor.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

Christine Gregoire

Party affiliation: Democrat

Age: 61

Family: Married, two adult daughters

Residence: Olympia

Education: B.A., University of Washington; J.D., Gonzaga University

Political/job experience: Governor, 2004-present; attorney general, 1992-2004; director, state Department of Ecology, 1988-92; assistant state attorney general, 1977-82.

Web site: www.chrisgregoire.com

OLYMPIA -- For most of Courtney Gregoire's life, her mom was either the head of a state agency or a prominent politician.

During that 20-year stretch as the Department of Ecology director, the state attorney general and now governor, Christine Gregoire always put her family first, her daughter said.

She never missed a high-school soccer game and spent Sundays in the kitchen, cooking five meals to store in the freezer so the family could eat together during the week, said Courtney, 28.

"We're close because our mom always made us a priority," she said. "That family dinner time, I tell you, was sacred."

It's a side of the governor her daughter worries is getting lost in all the negative advertising surrounding her bitter rematch against Republican Dino Rossi.

Some supporters, however, feel there's more at play than hard-hitting ads when it comes to public perceptions of the governor.

Gregoire, who calls herself a "recovering lawyer," is known for fact-laden speeches that are short on sound bites and long on policy initiatives. People generally describe her as "intense."

That's led to speculation that personal style could be one reason why the race between her and Rossi is so close, even though she enjoys the power of incumbency in a Democratic state and has good approval ratings in the polls.

In 2004, Rossi lost to Gregoire by only 133 votes, after two recounts, and polls suggest this year's race will also be close.

"I think Dino is a much better campaigner than Chris is," said Democratic state Rep. Fred Jarrett, a Gregoire supporter. "I think he's got much more experience at marketing, and marketing himself."

Rossi, who's made a living buying and selling real estate, comes across on stage and on TV as an easygoing guy with a good sense of humor.

The governor, not so much.

Paul Berendt, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, says generational forces may explain the difference. Gregoire came of age at a time when "in order to be fully respected ... women had to act hyper-professionally," Berendt said.

"It permeates a lot of what she does."

Public and private sides

Gregoire, 61, was raised by a single mom who worked as a short-order cook at a diner.

She graduated from Auburn High School in 1965 -- a year before the National Organization for Women was founded.

She was attending the University of Washington when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that sex-segregated help-wanted ads in newspapers were illegal. She graduated from law school a year before the federal government banned employment discrimination against pregnant women.

Berendt said the governor's speaking style "to some extent, has put her at a disadvantage because norms have changed and people want to have a more informal relationship with these public figures."

"So I think there are those who get the wrong idea about her because she is very formal in public," he said. She's a different person, he said, when talking one on one or in small groups.

The governor showed her less formal side at a recent fundraiser at a private home in Medina.

Shortly after arriving, she accidentally knocked a full wine glass out of someone's hand while mixing with supporters. It shattered on the wood floor. Without thinking, the governor dropped to her knees and began mopping up the mess before being pulled away.

Gregoire was at ease working the small crowd and had them laughing at stories of Courtney's wedding earlier this year and about a separate incident in which she was in a women's restroom shortly before giving a speech. Not knowing who was next door, a woman in the adjoining stall asked whether she thought the governor would actually show up to speak.

"I quickly said, 'You know what, she's very committed and I'm sure we can count on her,' " Gregoire said.

The governor was more formal when speaking to a large crowd at a retirement home in Lacey, Thurston County, the following week. She recycled the same jokes used in Medina but spent most of her time delivering one of her trademark speeches.

At one point she reminded the crowd that she was put in charge of transportation in July 2005.

Launching into her talking points, she said, "Since that time we have completed 165 transportation projects. These are things like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, where it ... cut the commute time by an hour and there have been no fatalities and the amount of accidents has been reduced 60 percent and the miles per hour driving has doubled."

Another 66 projects are under construction and 40 more are waiting in the wings, she added.

The governor delivers these streams of facts and figures from memory. But how much actually sticks with the listeners is unclear.

Peg Cloutier, 73, a resident at the Panorama City Retirement Community and a Gregoire supporter, said she likes the depth Gregoire provides in her speeches but felt it could turn off some voters.

"Some people don't want to know the details," she said. "They want this nice-looking man, standing there with this nice-looking family. They talk to somebody like Governor Gregoire and they're hearing all these specifics and they say 'Yawn, yawn.' "

"She just knows stuff"

Gregoire's fondness for detail doesn't stop at the podium. Her staff says she's a heavy reader who takes stacks of documents home each night to peruse, and she seems to remember everything.

"She just knows stuff," said Marty Brown, the governor's legislative liaison. "It's kind of scary."

When it comes to making major decisions, Gregoire likes to immerse herself in the details and then bring together all the key players to hash out a solution.

Sometimes it works.

Back in the spring of 2005, the Legislature was at a stalemate over a plan to increase the gas tax by 9.5 cents -- the largest proposed increase in state history. The money would help pay for transportation improvements, including replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The bill had actually failed in the state House.

Gregoire had won the governorship by only 133 votes just a few months earlier, and the election was still being challenged in court by Republicans.

Yet she pushed leaders in both parties to keep the gas-tax bill moving.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, remembers the governor's meeting with her and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. "Frank said, 'Governor, are you sure you want to do this?' "

"She said ... she couldn't look herself in the mirror if she did not go forward. Because if the viaduct collapsed or Highway 520 and people were killed, it would be on her watch and her conscience," said Kessler, who said she changed her vote from no to yes because of that conversation.

Eventually, the gas tax passed both the House and Senate.

"I don't think it would have gotten through without her direct involvement," said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, a Rossi supporter, who voted against the tax. "It's an example of her working a bill extremely hard to get it through."

But there are times when her leadership style has led to years of negotiating with no clear end in sight.

Despite her passion in pushing the gas tax through in 2005, the state still hasn't decided how to replace the one-mile stretch of the viaduct along Seattle's waterfront. Negotiations between the governor's office, local officials and interest groups have been ongoing for the past 18 months.

The state is moving ahead with $1.1 billion in work on the north and south ends of the structure, but a decision on the middle part isn't expected until after the election.

Armstrong says Rossi would be more decisive.

But Gregoire says that with the viaduct, and the equally contentious replacement of the Highway 520 floating bridge, it's best to reach a consensus before moving ahead.

"Legislation is a whole lot more stable and sustainable if you bring all the diverse parties to the table and try to see if you can make steps forward without shoving something down someone's throat," she said.

Asked if she thought there were any public misperceptions of her that she'd like to set straight, Gregoire said: "There is nothing more important to me than my family and my girls. I have what I consider to be a pretty good sense of humor. I like to rib people and have fun, but we deal with a lot of very serious issues."

She added, "At the end of the day, ... my goal in this election is to have people look beyond the dressing and look at what is at stake in this state."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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