Jay Inslee for… the Planet?

Image courtesy of Inslee for America

We’re about a year and a half out from the 2020 presidential election, and everyone knows what that means: campaign season has officially begun. Ads are on TV, the first big wave of bumper stickers is getting printed, and there are already enough democratic candidates to make your head spin. While some are household names– Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden– a single, lesser-known candidate has started to gain traction amongst progressive environmentalists: Jay Inslee.

The 68-year-old governor of Washington is not someone you expect to be the champion of climate advocates. An ex-high school footballer who has been a career politician for decades, Inslee is a far cry from anti-establishment candidates the environmental movement usually support.

Yet his “radically simple”  campaign is gaining attention from hopeful environmentalists looking for big policy changes on a federal level. One look at his website shows just how straightforward his message is. The first thing a visitor sees is a close-up of the man himself next to bolded text that reads “this is our moment to defeat climate change.”

Image courtesy of Inslee for America

It’s a single sentence that tidily sums up Inslee’s entire campaign: climate change is harming American citizens right now and we are the last generation that can stop it. This comes on the heels of numerous articles that say we have just 12 years left to avoid catastrophic climate change and a noticeable increase in the number of US citizens who are worried about global warming. So maybe a single-focus climate campaign isn’t uncalled for; maybe Americans are ready to prioritize environmental issues.

In some states, this is the case. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and California rate climate change as one of their top political concerns, on par with universal healthcare. But that’s leagues away from the national average, where climate change usually takes the lowest two spots on people’s priority lists. So while Inslee might find a solid base in a few states, he has quite a few hurdles to get over if he wants his single-issue campaign to get on the national stage.

But this is all jumping the gun a bit. We’re still a ways away from the 2020 elections. Inslee only announced candidacy on March first, he lacks the necessary donors and funds needed to get a spot in the primary debates, and he’s polling at just .6 percent among democrats. A lack of media coverage has also kept Inslee out of the mainstream. Altogether, it’s too early to start considering whether or not he’s a real national contender, let alone whether he has a shot at the Democratic nomination. So the important question for right now comes down to who Inslee is as a candidate and politician.

His political career began in the 1990s as a congressman representing Washington’s first district (and later it’s fourth), where he followed a pretty standard progressive voting pattern. His most notable vote was to support an assault weapons ban, which he believes cost him his congressional seat. He returned to congress in 1999 and became governor of Washington in 2013.

Inslee speaking as Governor of Washington, 2015. Via Ted S. Warren/AP

As governor, Inslee made his climate focus clear. He was even called the “greenest governor in the country.” Renewable energy became his top priority, and he helped make Washington state into a hub for environmental innovation. His Clean Energy Fund invested over 100 million dollars in the development of green technology, and he joined the 16-state US climate alliance with other notable governors such as Jerry Brown. His other major environmental accomplishment was the passing of a public transit package that prioritized clean energy.

Compounding this are Inslee’s idealistic promises, namely his pledge to begin mobilization toward 100% renewable energy in the next 10 years (his website is unclear about what exactly is to occur in that time frame). Many Democrats are also concerned by his willingness to make sacrifices for climate policy. Inslee has been quoted saying “to govern is to choose,” which means that focusing on climate will probably require “deferring other worthy goals”. And while Inslee isn’t wrong about the necessity of choice (Obama had healthcare, Trump has the wall, etc.), Democrats in most parts of the country aren’t ready for such a commitment to climate.

Such concerns about Inslee’s single-mindedness came out during his town hall last month, when voters steered the conversation away from climate change, devoting ⅔ of the time to other topics. But that ⅓ is still impressive; spending such a large chunk of time on climate change is practically unheard of and it’s far above any other candidate.

But that’s still far less than Inslee usually focuses on climate change; the Washington Post indicates that 81% of his social media posts have covered the topic. While Inslee has been known to connect other issues to climate change, notably the economy, jobs, and social justice, the way voters steered the conversation toward more traditional progressive topics does indicate that many may not be ready for a candidate with such a singular focus.

CNN Town Hall with Jay Inslee

Yet for environmentalists, especially those who prioritize climate change, Inslee is an exciting candidate. While his nomination might be a long shot, the traction he’s gained as a candidate shows how climate change is starting to gain the recognition it deserves. For those of us who believe it to be the defining issue of our generation, there’s something that inspires just a bit of hope seeing him climb ever so slightly in the polls (from .2 percent to his current .6).

Yes, Inslee’s campaign is still nebulous and he has yet to release a detailed plan for reaching carbon neutrality. Yes, it is far too early and his numbers are far too low to really consider what an Inslee presidency would look like.

But for climate-focused voters, this is a welcome change of pace. Some hope that Inslee’s campaign will force other candidates to focus more on the environment, or at the very least, get a more in-depth conversation going. It also poses an interesting philosophical question for environmentalist voters. Is this the campaign we feel is necessary? Has it come time to divert other issues and take on climate change as our singular priority? There surely will be as many answers to this question as there are environmentalists, and these answers will definitely change as Inslee’s campaign matures. For the moment, though, Jay Inslee is the candidate to watch for climate activists, especially those ready to shake up conventional political doctrine.

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