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Amid virus outbreak, former governor discusses leading Washington during times of crisis

As the fallout of the 2008 recession ripped through the state of Washington, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire had to make some painful decisions.

Her administration took austere measures to try and get the state back in the black, cutting billions of dollars from schools and social services, slashing pay for public employees and eliminating or consolidating government programs.

“I really found myself cutting, cutting, cutting, and getting more and more discouraged,” Gregoire said.

“I’ve always said I’d never wish it on my worst enemy, the Great Recession. This,” Gregoire added, referring to the current COVID-19 outbreak, “kind of puts exclamation points behind that.”

Gregoire, a Democrat, knows what it’s like to serve as an executive government leader in a time of crisis. It’s “unbelievably challenging,” she said — and loud. Her job required listening to the experts, constituents, fellow politicians and her own conscience, filtering out the noise, and then synthesizing all of that often conflicting information into a cohesive plan of action.

For Gregoire, the defining crisis of her tenure was the Great Recession. For Gov. Jay Inslee — and every other governor steering their state through this unprecedented period in modern history — it’s COVID-19.

“My heart goes out to anybody who serves as a mayor, executive, county (commissioner), governor,” Gregoire said. “No matter what decision you make, there are a good number of people who will be highly critical.”

Cautious approach

Inslee’s approach has so far been cautious, defaulting to public health experts to guide the state’s slow, graduated approach to reopening the economy. Governors of other states, such as Georgia’s Brian Kemp, have been less restrained, relaxing some quarantine measures and allowing some businesses to reopen.

Inslee’s incremental approach is opposed by a growing faction within the state, led by some constituents and GOP lawmakers. They argue that the economic damage of the closures is too great to continue, even as public health experts say the social distancing measures are keeping infection rates down.

The divide came to a head last week, when four state Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Brandon Vick of Felida, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the governor over his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. The suit came just a few days after Inslee had issued a four-step plan, requiring communities to hit certain milestones before resuming activities based on risk criteria.

“We can come together to craft a plan that allows us to responsibly re-open with broad bipartisan support,” Vick said in a public statement. “It is time to acknowledge that we are intelligent human beings who not only want to regain our stability and purpose in life but want to continue to make sure that our neighbors and family members are safe.”

In Vancouver, citizens frustrated over the closures gathered for a protest that included a speech from state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver. A mass gathering was held in Olympia over the weekend, the second one in three weeks.

Hard decisions

Inslee, like his predecessor, is tasked with deciding to whom he should listen and whose interests to prioritize as he attempts to steer the state through a crisis while minimizing the harm — even while knowing that some harm is inevitable.

So far, he’s given priority to keeping infection rates down, based on advice from public health experts.

“It’s not easy, because expert information in political context is, at the same time, political information,” said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver.

“It just makes it that much tougher, but that’s the nature of government,” he said.

Stephan’s research is focused on government decision-making as it relates to another, much slower-moving crisis: climate change. Stephan said stark parallels can be drawn with COVID-19.

“There’s definitely some overlap in terms of the role of government officials, the role of experts, and the wider public as well,” Stephan said. “For those who see a crisis, they see a need for coordinated action — for coherent, coordinated action.”

We’re watching a familiar series of events play out over an accelerated timeline, Stephan said.

In the 1990s, as climate change started to gain widespread recognition, there was a bipartisan consensus that the issue posed a threat.

“After 2000, there was a growing sort of chorus from a very small group of people that argued the research was just wrong,” Stephan said. “That small but loud set of voices really upended the sort of legitimacy of experts. They influenced the language and the narrative coming from some politicians, as well.”

The issue split along partisan lines, Stephan said, and denying climate change became mainstream. The divide still exists. It comes down to the role of experts in our public discourse, a role that Stephan says continues to evolve.

Trust in experts — whether their expertise is in viral diseases or in climate data — has never been as low among the general public as it is now, with people seeking out information that reinforces their existing beliefs, he said.

Government leaders aren’t immune.

“A lot of times, decision-makers — who are themselves under a significant amount of stress and are trying to figure things out as quickly as they can — they’re going to fall into some of the same cognitive traps that the rest of us can fall under,” Stephan said.

“Partisanship is a filter through which a lot of perceptions about expertise is understood.”

As Gregoire remembers it, the actions taken by the state government during the Great Recession were actually among the least partisan of her term. There was a sense of solidarity in the Statehouse during crisis-management mode, she said, one that didn’t necessarily exist during normal times.

Gregoire hopes that spirit can be revived during COVID-19.

“The times called for it. Everyone saw it as a higher calling. It wasn’t about, I’m a Democrat, I’m a Republican, I’m from X, I’m from Y. It was about, this is adversely impacting all of us,” Gregoire said. “We’re in a crisis now where every one of us has a role to play, without exception.”


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