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Postman’s success as chief in context

When Jay Inslee won election to the 1st Congressional district in 1998, he asked his campaign manager to serve as his chief of staff.

Joby Shimomura was a close family friend and political confidant, who had just led a campaign that picked up one of five net-new Democratic seats in a mid-term election with huge headwinds. There was an impeachment underway. Republicans would win the national popular vote. And, it would be only the second time since the Civil War in which the president in power would pick up seats in Congress during his second midterm election.

It was a big win, and Shimomura played a constructive and outsized role for Inslee as he stabilized the district. She would serve as chief until 2007.

At that point, Inslee appointed Brian Bonlender to the role of his chief of staff.

Bonlender had been a long time staff person, including working on that 1998 campaign as finance director and serving as his congressional legislative director. Like Shimomura, he knew how Inslee thought, how he worked, and could ably represent that to stakeholders on the congressman’s behalf.

When Inslee ran for Governor, Bonlender remained at the head of the Congressional office, managing official duties. The campaign manager in that 2012 race was Joby Shimomura.

Running that 2012 race was risky. Internal polling showed Inslee behind 15 points to then-Attorney General Rob McKenna.

So, it’s no surprise Inslee looked to his most trusted staffers to help win that election. Bonlender and Shimomura were two of the essential pillars to Inslee’s political career, second only to Trudi Inslee.

After having only two chiefs over 14 years, and looking to them for the most important roles, Inslee did something surprising when he won that first gubernatorial election.

He appointed an outsider to the role of chief of staff.

Mary Alice Heuschel was given the reins as Inslee’s most important staff person.

Previously, Heuschel served as the superintendent of the Renton School District. It was a position she had held for eight years, managing a large, complex district of 14,000 students.

But, she was an outsider to the Inslee political family. She lasted about 10 months.

In her place, Inslee brought back Shimomura, his trusted political advisor.

Shimomura was a strong chief of staff, earning praise from staff, stakeholders and Inslee himself when she stepped down in 2015. It was at that point that David Postman took over the position.

Here is why I tell you this story.

Next week, David Postman will leave his role as Inslee’s chief of staff. His replacement, Jamila Thomas, will take over.

All you need to know to answer the question of whether Postman was good at his job is that he served for five years in the role as the first successful chief of staff that didn’t come from within Inslee’s closest core group of advisors.

It wasn’t clear that was going to be the case at the beginning.

The relatively quick turnover of Heuschel to Shimomura showed Inslee was willing to make a change if the fit wasn’t right, but would return to folks he knew and trusted for this most important position.

Postman had served on Inslee’s staff in a communications role, rising to a senior advisor. So, Inslee certainly knew who he was getting when Postman took the job as chief.

But, to serve in that position as long as he did after having been relatively new to Inslee’s inner circle, is a testament to how good of a chief of staff Postman actually was. It’s a sign of how much trust Inslee had developed in Postman during a range of challenges.

Postman spoke with the authority of the governor. He knew how to hold his agency leaders accountable. He knew how to give his team a long leash to grow and work well on Inslee’s behalf.

And, he worked hard at it.

In 2017, I interviewed Postman for our podcast series. He was gracious in making time for me. Then, like now, he has been unafraid to tell me when he thinks I am wrong.

I asked him then about how he will have wanted to be remembered after he leaves this position.

Q: When they write the history of Washington State and your role in it, what would you like them to write about you?

Postman: Well, I guess my initial impulse is that I hope when they write the history there are much better and more important things to mention than me!

I don’t know. I work hard at it, you know? I’m not the smartest guy in the room about any of these issues, and not always the nicest guy, but I do put a lot of effort into it and work really hard, and try to reflect the governor’s values every day and don’t supplant that with my own kind of personal feelings.”

Best of luck to you in what’s to come, David.

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