Article by Erik Smith. Published on Tuesday, November 09, 2011 EST.
Enormous Fund-Raiser in Bellevue Launches New Phase of Campaign, With One Year to Go
Attorney General Rob McKenna ditches the chalkboard he used in his campaign kickoff and uses an iPad in his first major policy speech of the gubernatorial campaign.
See Also: McKenna Gets Down to the Nitty Gritty – His ‘New Direction,’ in His Own Words
By Erik Smith
Staff writer/ Washington State Wire
BELLEVUE, Nov. 8.—With exactly one year to go before the gubernatorial election in 2012, Republican candidate Rob McKenna laid out an ambitious agenda he says will reverse the state’s fortunes after nearly three decades of Democratic Party leadership.
You can call McKenna’s “New Direction for Washington” an amplification of the ideas he’s been touting all along – a boost for K-12 and higher education, a corresponding reduction in the size and scope of government, and an effort to create a more business-friendly environment in this state.
But Attorney General McKenna also demonstrated once again that he’s the detail man in the race, shoehorning an unusual level of specificity into his speech at the packed Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, where about 1,500 supporters gathered Tuesday morning. It’s safe to say anyone who thinks there isn’t much difference between candidates will likely be surprised a year from now. McKenna is talking about things no Democrat would embrace, much less discuss, or even whisper. And yet he’s pitching them in a way designed to appeal to the voter in the middle.
Things like pledging to open the state’s workers’ compensation system to competition from private insurance companies or co-ops, supporting tort reform, promoting charter schools, awarding teacher salaries based on performance and the difficulty of their jobs, and requiring state employees to pay higher health insurance premiums.
“This is the most beautiful, innovative, pragmatic but idealistic, downright quirky state in America,” McKenna said. “We are a little different around here. We are known throughout the world for changing the way people do things, everyday things – the way we work, fly, shop, read, even drink, even contribute our money, all for the better in Washington. We think, we create, we innovate, we find solutions. We always have.
“But right now there’s something broken in our state. Our citizens need jobs. Too many are out of work. Too many are losing their homes. Too many of our students aren’t learning, aren’t graduating, aren’t working. Our state government is mired in the same old ways of doing things, a stagnating bureaucracy that suffocates even the best efforts of its best workers. We need to fix this. We need a new direction for Washington.
“It won’t be easy, but we can do it, beginning a little over one year from now. Because by then we will have already done something almost as hard. We will have sent a Republican governor to Olympia for the first time since 1980.”
A Fortnight for Fund-Raisers
Certainly the speech called attention to the fact that McKenna has a detailed program for state government – something his chief Democratic opponent, Congressman Jay Inslee, has yet to provide. You’ll find plenty more details on McKenna’s campaign website. But more importantly in the scheme of things, the event kicked off a fortnight of fund-raising events around the state.
Right now, Inslee and McKenna are roughly even in fund-raising, each with about $2 million so far. But McKenna, as a sitting statewide elected official, will be prevented from raising money starting Nov. 28 by a state law that bars him from taking checks while the Legislature is in session. Legislators return to Olympia on that date to begin what is likely to be a contentious special session. The freeze ends when lawmakers adjourn, in March if they finish on schedule, or just as likely sometime after that.
Meanwhile, Inslee is free to raise as much money as he wants while the Legislature is in session, because his is a federal office, not a state position.
Which explains why McKenna is going to be a traveling man between now and Thankgiving, making a push for contributions. The Bellevue event was the launch, a $40-a-plate breakfast of bacon and eggs.
Offers Dramatic Contrast
McKenna’s “new direction” appears to be just that – a sea change in state policies that have been overtly and tacitly supported by key Democratic constituent groups over the last three decades. Public-employee labor unions, the K-12 education bureaucracy, the trial lawyers – all would lose the position of favor they have enjoyed during the years of Democratic dominance. In his speech, McKenna took direct aim a K-12 education establishment that has resisted change and has turned Washington into a last-place “backwater” in education reform efforts. By proposing to eliminate joint and several liability in cases filed against public agencies, he is challenging the trial lawyers who now can tap taxpayers’ deep pockets even when the state bears only a small percentage of responsibility for a claim.
But perhaps a more typical element is McKenna’s emphasis on higher education, which poses just as much a threat to traditional Democratic interests, but in a much more indirect fashion. Higher education has seen its share of the budget shrink while spending on social programs and public-employee salaries and benefits has ballooned. Today the state spends less, in actual dollars, than it did 20 years ago, McKenna said, and students and parents are expected to pick up the slack with all-but-unaffordable tuition increases.
These days Washington’s big corporate employers are having to recruit more than half their workers from out of state because Washington residents lack the appropriate degrees, he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have to ask ourselves, are we going to prepare our children to take these jobs or are they going to be preparing the coffee for the people who come in from out-of-state to take this work? I say, prepare the kids, take the work, keep it in state.”
It might not seem like a controversial position at first glance. But if higher education’s piece of the pie gets bigger, that means other pieces will have to shrink. The money has to come from somewhere.
A Shocking Vision
The change wouldn’t happen overnight. McKenna is talking about a shift in emphasis nearly as gradual as the one that shifted the big growth in state spending to general government over the years. McKenna said he hopes to make state government leaner and more efficient, reducing the number of state employees as well as fast-rising health-insurance costs. McKenna said he will promote the use of wellness programs and health savings accounts. “We’ll use competitive contracting to determine which services and products the state ought to provide and what can be done better faster and cheaper by private businesses and nonprofits,” he said. “We will move state government from a culture of rigid seniority and job classifications to a culture of performance, accountability and high expectations.”
McKenna vowed to appoint agency directors from the private sector, “who understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of regulation and taxes, not just what it is like to be a regulator and a tax collector.”
And he outlined what must be one of the most shocking visions of any Republican seeking high office in the nation today – a turnabout on a familiar Ronald Reagan line, that the most frightening thing you’re ever likely to hear is the sentence, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
“Visualize with me. You’re in your office. There’s a knock on the door. The Department of Ecology walks in and says, ‘Hi, we are here to help you figure out how to make your company more successful.’“After you get up off the floor, after having fainted, you will be talking to an agency leader and a manager who is there working in my administration to figure out how they can do their jobs better, protecting the environment while not making it unnecessarily difficult for you to do your job in creating jobs for the people of Washington state.”