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Originally published November 29, 2012 at 4:28 PM | Page modified November 29, 2012 at 4:28 PM

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Gov. Chris Gregoire’s legacy of public service

An ailing state economy did more to tarnish outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire than did her policies.

Times editorial columnist

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No one could blame Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, as he builds his Cabinet, if he pauses to wonder if his feet are big enough to fill Chris Gregoire’s outsized gubernatorial pumps.

I’m not saying Inslee cannot grow into them. But its worth perusing Gregoire’s public-service biography to grasp the legacy she leaves.

Gregoire’s high-profile public service dates back to 1988 when she was appointed director of the Department of Ecology. As deputy attorney general, she made her mark negotiating the Comparable Worth agreement, a $482 million settlement between Washington and 34,000 state employees.

That was peanuts compared with the $206 billion tobacco settlement Gregoire brokered as attorney general. The largest financial settlement in the world, that money was the gift still giving. It funds medical research and anti-smoking campaigns when it is not being pilfered by the Legislature to plug budget holes.

Gregoire’s legal tenacity has been a boon for environmental battles. The largest nuclear-waste cleanup effort in the U.S. is at Hanford and Gregoire’s knowledge and efforts are unsurpassed.

“Gregoire literally wrote the book on (Hanford) cleanup,” the Tri-City Herald editorial board wrote recently.

Inslee is not headed to the governor’s mansion with a huge voter mandate, but neither was Gregoire. She was elected to her first term as governor by 133 votes. That did not stop her from quickly pushing a successful gas-tax package to fund transportation. Knowing when to take charge marks the difference between a legislator and an executive.

On education, it would be disappointing if Gregoire is remembered only for her unsuccessful, quixotic fight for a piece of the $4 billion Race to the Top federal education funding. That thing never had a chance; too many cooks in the kitchen. A better effort to remember Gregoire by is Washington Learns, the state’s top-to-bottom review and long-term vision for a world-class educational system.

Vision is key for any good executive. Gregoire has it. Back when many thought early childhood education was day care with building blocks, Gregoire used neuroscience research to justify a new state department devoted to early learning.

There were moments in her two terms when she was credited publicly for being the only adult in the negotiating room. There are stories of her gathering the leaders of the Legislature to her office for a sharp-edged sit-down. I had all but written off a tough teacher-evaluation bill stuck in the Legislature until Gregoire stepped in.

Let’s be real. Her tenure was far from perfect. When the economic bubble burst, Gregoire deserved the criticism that she should have spent more conservatively in the good years. But there’s plenty of blame to go around in Olympia, where boom-bust spending is second nature.

Gregoire made up for that overspending. In her second term, she was just about the most conservative Democrat in Olympia. She’d be the first to say she presided over some ugly budget cuts. I hope Inslee is prepared to make equally tough calls.

Gregoire is a master technician of Olympia’s bureaucratic process. Yes, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp is a master also, but Gregoire differs by operating in the daylight.

She’s polling high these days and people wonder what’s next for her. Her green credentials could catapult her to be the next Environmental Protection Agency head or secretary of the Interior.

I could even see Gregoire running the State Department. Think about it. Our foreign policy going forward must be less militaristic and more a mix of international cooperation and investment. Gregoire’s experience in trade negotiations coupled with her lawyerly tenacity would be a ripple-free transition from Hillary Clinton.

Gregoire will be fine. Washington residents rightly turn their attention to her successor. It is worth reminding Inslee of the legacy he is following.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.com Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner


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