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March 10, 2012 at 10:59 AM

Jay Inslee to leave Congress to focus on gubernatorial race

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee acknowledges supporters after announcing he will quit Congress to focus full-time on his campaign. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee announced Saturday he will leave Congress to focus full-time on his campaign for governor.

The seven-term Democrat made the announcement during a news  conference Saturday at his campaign headquarters in Seattle.

“I am excited about focusing full-time on talking about my job-creation agenda and building a new economy for Washington state,” Inslee said. “We have a great chance to seize our own destiny, build our own industries, and create our own technological revolutions right here at home.”

Inslee said he recently made the decision after watching the GOP presidential nominees visit Washington with what he described as a “divisive social issues agenda” and then seeing state Republicans offer budget proposals that slashed education funding.

When asked if he was short-changing constituents by leaving his seat empty, Inslee acknowledged it was a difficult decision.

“But I asked this question: ‘Where can I do most good for the state of Washington?'”

He said his constituents will still be well-represented by the state’s two Democratic senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.

“This is a very rational decision,” he added. “I’m not running away from something. I’m running toward something.”

Inslee has lagged behind GOP candidate Rob McKenna in some polls. By giving up his seat before his term ends next January, Inslee frees himself of cross-country commutes and will have more time to raise campaign money and travel the state.

It’s been rumored for some time that Inslee, 61, of Bainbridge Island, might step down from Congress to devote more time  to the campaign.

But Inslee’s camp shot down those rumors as recently as last month.

Forfeiting office has helped some candidates. Of the 10 members of Congress who ran for governor in 2010, only two, Neil Abercrombie, of Hawaii, and Nathan Deal, of Georgia, quit their day jobs to do so. Both are now governors. Of the eight others who remained in Congress, six lost.

But resigning carries its own risks. It allows opponents to slam a candidate as a quitter who didn’t fulfill a commitment to voters.

Former state Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt said last month he wouldn’t advise Inslee to quit because people “expect you to stick with your commitments.”

Juggling a congressional seat and a campaign is probably easier than with many other jobs, with the four-day workweek and frequent recesses, including a month off in summer and winter.

If Inslee had resigned by March 6, Gov. Chris Gregoire would have had to order a special election to fill his congressional seat, setting off a scramble among the half-dozen candidates in the 1st District race.

But by stepping down now, his seat will remain vacant until after the November elections.

Inslee is already facing an unorthodox route to the governor’s mansion. Most recent Washington governors were former public executives. Democrat Gary Locke and Republican John Spellman had been King County executives, and Booth Gardner held the same post in Pierce County. Gregoire was a three-term attorney general.

The last time a sitting member of Congress was elected Washington governor was in 1944, when Monrad Wallgren resigned from the Senate to take office.

Inslee, a lawyer, has been in Congress continuously since 1999. He also represented the 4th Congressional District from Yakima for a single term in 1993-95 after leaving the Washington state House of Representatives.

State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said Inslee’s decision was not really a surprise. “He determined he wasn’t able to do both jobs,” Wilbur said.

Wilbur said Inslee’s move could also distance him somewhat from Congress, which is overwhelmingly unpopular in polls.

“He won’t have to take Congressional votes this year on issues that might have blowback,” Wilbur said. But, he added, “I promise you I won’t let people forget he was a Congressman.”

This report contains material from The Seattle Times archives.

Comments | More in General news, Government | Topics: Jay Inslee, U.S. Congress

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