Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna formally announced his candidacy Wednesday in the 2012 race to be Washington’s next governor, speaking to hundreds in attendance in the theater of a Bellevue high school.

The McKenna campaign broadcast Wednesday’s live announcement from their Facebook page and posted a YouTube video in which McKenna criticized the lack of “strong and decisive leadership in Olympia,” and calls for “a new direction for Washington State.”

In a hour-long address to supporters — in which he interacted comfortably with the capacity crowd — McKenna spoke in detail about a host of familiar Republican proposals, such as reducing the number of state employees and doing more to attract big and small businesses, but addressing the state’s troubles in education was the centerpiece in his plan to lead the state out of economic doldrums. McKenna employed only a whiteboard and a simple hand-drawn diagram as visual aids to define the relationship between jobs, education, and state government he feels are in desperate need of bipartisan attention.

Citing a statistic ranking Washington as 48th among the states in the number of bachelor’s degrees per capita, he suggested that the trend for local employers to import high-skilled workers is a failure of state government to prepare the current generation for a prosperous future.

“Don’t you think we ought to be preparing our kids for those jobs? If we don’t… they’re going to be preparing the lattes for the people who come here to do those jobs,” McKenna sardonically quipped.

McKenna also suggested that local education-focused philanthropic groups, such as the Gates Foundation, may be channeling resources to other states because they do not see will among current leaders to embrace necessary reforms.

In making education a key theme in his early campaign, McKenna pours salt into an open sore many see as the major failing of the Legislature this session – the decision to demote higher education funding as a priority in state budgeting.

Education is a resonant issue with Washington’s eclectic voters; in the current economy so is the specter of persistent unemployment. The merging of these two popular issues would appear to position the McKenna campaign well with voters, but the devil lurks in the details. A nearly 17-month campaign stretch will offer plenty of opportunities for the press and voters to tease that devil out. If a gremlin is there to be found it could be in dueling priorities established in McKenna’s announcement speech.

Investments in education – specifically higher ed – were kicked down the road by the Legislature because of budget realities that were impossible to avoid. The next governor will likely face the same realities: flagging revenues, soaring healthcare costs, and the unwillingness of voters to raise taxes.

The plan McKenna described to his supporters for shrinking state payroll and benefits obligations – changes he believes can painlessly made through attrition and negotiating increased healthcare contributions – would have to create a windfall in the budget large enough to pay for his education proposals and stay ahead of the lurking beast in the budget, untold billions in unfunded liabilities that lay buried under layers of creative government accounting.

Despite vagaries of how the state government under McKenna would balance its books, the promise of a better and more educated Washington of the future is a positive message of hope from a Republican who has a proven track record of getting Democrats to cross over and vote GOP.

In 2008, presidential candidate and then-Senator Barack Obama carried Washington easily by a margin of 17 points. McKenna won reelection in the same year by 19 points, improving upon his 2004 performance. If there is a Republican capable of winning back the governorship after a 28-year GOP drought it is Rob McKenna.

He may not be without competition within his own party, though, as Republican sources continue to speculate that Port of Seattle Commission President Bill Bryant is seriously considering his own bid for the governor’s seat. Congressman Jay Inslee from the 1st Congressional District continues to be the rumored Democrat entering the field, but is awaiting a decision from incumbent Democrat Gov. Christine on whether she will run for a third term.

Rumors that Republican Congressman Dave Reichert might enter the race were put to rest hours before McKenna’s announcement Wednesday when the 8th Congressional District representative told Seattlepi.com that he was throwing his support behind McKenna’s campaign.


[photo credit: Donald Pham of North Vietnamese News]