Congressman and candidate for Washington State Governor Jay Inslee’s (D-Wash.) decision this past Sunday to leave the U.S. House on March 20 continues to produce layer after layer of controversy, and like dismantling a Russian nesting doll, each new unintended consequence seems somehow more distinctive and exotic than the one before it.
Early criticism dealt with dire predictions about what the necessity to resign might signify in terms of Inslee’s chances to win against Republican candidate Rob McKenna, but conversation quickly turned to the matter of the constituents Inslee leaves behind due to the inelegant timing of his exit.
Had Inslee resigned a week sooner, state law would have required a special election to fill his seat. The delay meant that such a race would not be triggered, costing the First Congressional District its vote in the U.S. House.
Yesterday, four days after Inslee’s announcement, the Matryoshka doll shed another layer, and Washington State elections officials began to lurch back toward the idea of conducting a special election to fill the outgoing congressman’s seat for as much of the remainder of his current term as possible. Timing—as often is the case—is everything and has thrown a new set of wrinkles into an already maddening set of circumstances.
In most years, even though Inslee’s “difficult decision” came too late to hold an early special election, the state could still use the November ballot to elect a single candidate who would fill out the remainder of the current term and then serve the entire term to follow.
But 2012 is not like most years. This is a redistricting year, one in which the State Redistricting Commission also made radical changes to the 1st Congressional District. The U.S. House will not recognize the new district boundaries until 2013, meaning that although the present 1st Congressional District is free to conduct a special election in November to replace Inslee through the end of the 112th Congress, a separate election must be held among voters in the new 1st to elect the candidate to serve in the 113th Congress.
In order to give the current constituents in the 1st an opportunity to have a vote in Congress for what amounts to the month of December (they will still be unrepresented for April through November), ballots this November will have to be choked with a confusing clot of congressional races.
Because the new 1st covers areas that are part of the current 2nd and 8th, a fused election would mean that people in those areas would—at least for a month—have two representatives in Congress an outcome in direct conflict with the Constitution.
The overlap between current and new districts also means that voters in areas of the current 1st Congressional District that will become part of the new 6th and 7th Congressional Districts would also see two sets of candidates on their ballots.
To say this presents logistical challenges—as the state elections office has admitted today—is an enormous understatement. It is a problem without a perfect solution, a mess precipitated entirely by the Inslee’s actions.
Inslee’s choice, as well as his behavior in the aftermath, is a window into his decision-making process and his conscience. The business of governing a state requires predicting the possible consequences of legislation and policy that is often mind-numbingly complex.
If Inslee could not anticipate the obvious negative outcomes from this one simple decision, how can voters expect him to grapple with decisions regarding education, law enforcement, transportation or taxes, choices that have a mind-numbing array of potential impacts on businesses and individuals?
If he did anticipate these complications, but chose this course anyway, that also says something about his lack of principles.
To that point, if Inslee has seemed to come off all-too cavalier about the unfolding (and potentially costly) elections disaster his ill-timed resignation left the state to contend with during his tour of the media this week, it may be because he has had a lot of practice with love ‘em and leave ‘em exits during the past 20 years.
Inslee’s journey since 1992—a hurried chronology despite the two decades it covers—is easier to understand when read as the story of a man on the run rather than of a political climber.
His first love while on the campaign trail in the hot summer of ’92 were the people of Eastern Washington’s 4th Congressional District, but when he was handed his walking papers after only a single term in Congress, Inslee wasted no time and quickly moved over the Cascades to make a fresh start in Western Washington.
With a new lease on life, Inslee quickly picked up work with a Tacoma law firm but barely stretched the leather of his desk chair before he was off and running again, this time in his first gubernatorial bid. He placed third among Democrats in the 1996 primary, last among all primary contenders.
Inslee’s sorrow was quickly forgotten when the Clinton Administration awarded him a comfortable regional directorship for the Department of Health and Human Services. He demonstrated his appreciation by leaving the job in 1998 to run for Congress, and until last Sunday he routinely and convincingly assured voters that he would stick with that job, too.
Can Inslee convince voters that his interest can be captured for an entire 4-year term if elected governor? Or will his attention again be drawn elsewhere by a new ambition?
Ultimately, voters will decide if Inslee’s poorly timed resignation and all of its unintended fallout—as well as his track record of making shaky commitments—are factors worth considering in their choice of the next governor. If those aspects do end up being important to the people who will decide this election, Inslee might just as well quit this race, too.