Washington state's political views are usually as green as its landscape, but some observers say persistent unemployment and a sluggish economy may be pushing the environment lower on Evergreen State voters' priority list during this election cycle, making them less receptive to messages about green jobs.
Seattle-based Democratic consultant Tom Hujar said the polls and focus groups he has conducted for clients have led him to believe the environment is not on Washingtonians' minds this year.
"One of the things that has surprised me is that today when you ask open-ended questions about what are the most important issues facing the country and the region today, for the first time environmental issues rank outside of the top five" answers, he said.
Where Washington state voters are usually second only to Californians in their support for environmental policies and regulations, many are now saying environmental protection should come second to policies that are likely to turn the economy around quickly.
"I don't think I would ever have seen that in this state before," said Hujar, whose company, FDR Services, has been doing consulting in Washington since the 1980s. "The environment is just not an issue this year in any of the races in the state."
That could be bad news for former Rep. Jay Inslee, the Democratic candidate for governor who has made establishing Washington as a green technology hub the centerpiece of his campaign message.
Inslee is polling very slightly behind the Republican candidate, state Attorney General Rob McKenna, though a poll released last week showed the two in a statistical dead heat with 42 percent of registered voters saying they would vote for McKenna and 41 percent saying they would back Inslee.
McKenna also has a fundraising edge over Inslee of $900,000. A Republican has not been elected governor in Washington since 1980.
Inslee was a congressional leader on environmental and green technology issues, co-chairing the House Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition and serving on both the Energy and Commerce Committee and now-defunct Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
He also published a book in 2007 called "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy," in which he called for unprecedented public investment in advanced, low-carbon energy technology.
His commitment to green technology and the environment has won him many admirers -- the League of Conservation Voters in October broke with its usual practice of refraining from making endorsements in gubernatorial races to back him.
"LCV endorsed Jay Inslee for governor because he is a tremendous champion for clean energy, public health, and the environment, and we are confident he will continue that leadership as Washington's next governor," said LCV Senior Vice President Tiernan Sittenfeld in an email last night.
And Inslee has been running on his record, highlighting green technology and his book in a campaign ad released earlier this month in which he said, "I believe in the power of innovation to create jobs."
"We do highlight that quite a bit, because he does feel so passionately about the potential that we have to grow a really robust clean energy economy in Washington state," said Jamie Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee. "He believes we can create thousands of jobs in this industry."
Benton Strong, a spokesman for Washington state Democrats, said, "A clean energy economy in Washington state is the crux of Jay's message."
It's a message that Seattle has heard before. The Emerald City is home to several "green tech" firms, including MacDonald-Miller and McKinstry, which both consult on building efficiency. But Smith said the green technology message resonates on both sides of Washington's "Cascade Curtain," which separates the rural Republican-leaning east of the state from the more urban, more Democratic west.
"This is an issue that brings the two sides of the state together, because he often talks about the agriculture community creating the biofuels of tomorrow," she said. "He talks about the wind from the east powering the skyscrapers in the west."
But Washington state voters aren't as receptive to green jobs as they have been in the past, said Todd Myers of the right-leaning Washington Policy Center. This is in part because they have tried them already, and some of the results were lackluster.
When Seattle was awarded $20 million in economic stimulus funds in 2010 to perform energy efficient building retrofits, Mayor Mike McGinn suggested it would create hundreds of local jobs. But a year later, local news outlets reported that 14 jobs had materialized.
"I think that has created a huge skepticism about the promises of green jobs and the green economy," said Myers, who said he was somewhat surprised to see Inslee running on that message.
"Those kinds of things have contributed to a perception that when somebody talks about green jobs, eyebrows raise," he continued.
Myers said Washington voters had scant interest in the national story of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra and its bankruptcy.
Failures hit home
But state Republicans have not had to try very hard to find local stories with more resonance. For example, they have been making political hay from "green" companies in economically depressed Grays Harbor County that Inslee celebrated in his book, which have been through hard times.
"These companies were in Jay's mind the path to revitalizing Grays Harbor's economy, and that just hasn't taken off," Myers said.
Imperium Renewables, which makes biodiesel from canola oil, hit bumpy waters after it opened in 2007 and had to reduce its workforce.
But Imperium Renewables President John Plaza said his company never did layoffs in Grays Harbor and has in fact filled exactly the role Inslee envisioned in "Apollo's Fire," expanding the local manufacturing base and paying its small-town Washington staff $3 million a year in wages and benefits.
"I think it's important that we not get these positions put forward by politicians confused with the facts," Plaza said. The company's fuel emits as much as 70 percent less carbon than regular diesel, and Imperium is still planning to explore ways to make jet fuel out of waste recovered from the Northwest forestry industry.
Grays Harbor Paper, a company that used 100 percent recycled materials, also featured in Inslee's book, did fail last year.
But Smith from Inslee's campaign said her boss has always been clear that not every startup would succeed.
"We are creating whole new industries," Inslee said at a press event at MacDonald-Miller in February, "and when we do this, of course there are failures."
He compared giving up on green technology to giving up on the Internet before Microsoft, a Washington economic mainstay, was established.
But Washington Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said that during an economic downturn, Washingtonians care more about preserving the jobs they have now than inventing new sectors that might or might not bear economic fruit later.
"People will see green jobs as the future, not necessarily the present," Wilbur said.
Wilbur said that while the state's Democratic voters might be receptive to Inslee's message, it is the 20 percent of voters in the middle who will decide who becomes governor next year. And they are more interested in keeping "real" jobs, like the ones provided by Washington's five oil refineries, than in inventing new industries as Inslee proposes.
"A lot of them understand that these green jobs are not the panacea," he said.
Wilbur noted that Inslee had backed away from statements he made early in the campaign in favor of investing state pension money in renewable energy. "Then we all saw Solyndra," he said.
Smith said her boss had only suggested increasing the state pension fund's current investment in in-state businesses, including green businesses, by a tiny percentage. But she said he dropped that proposal when state employees expressed concern.
Coal terminal controversy
Another source of "real" jobs, Wilbur said, would be the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point near Ferndale, Wash. The terminal would export coal abroad, and job estimates vary widely.
But politicians have been treating the project as a hot potato. Neither Inslee nor McKenna has staked out a firm stance, and neither have the three leading Democrats vying to represent Washington's newly drawn 1st District.
With Snohomish County Councilman John Koster (R) expected to win one spot in the Aug. 7 top-two primary, Democrats Darcy Burner, Suzan DelBene, Steve Hobbs, Darshan Rauniyar and Laura Ruderman are facing off over the other one. The top Democratic vote-getter will advance to the November general election along with Koster.
Hobbs has distinguished himself by being in favor of the port while Rauniyar has opposed it, but both are considered long shots. Burner, DelBene and Ruderman have crafted nuanced positions on the terminal ranging from Burner's suggestion that permitting bodies approve it but have it export something else, to DelBene's position that the environmental impact statement expand to include the impact of the project on all communities along the rail supply line to the terminal.
DelBene appears to be in agreement with Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a political moderate who represents a suburban Seattle district.
"We're just taking a look at the entire program," Reichert told E&E Daily last week. "The entire process, and now we're kind of in the fact-gathering stage to see really how many communities that are going to [be affected] and how much will the impact be."
Wilbur said the coal terminal was effectively a "wash" in political terms, especially for the district's Democrats.
The new district is diverse, with suburban King County precincts in the south and blue collar rural precincts in the north. Wilbur said Democrats would struggle to get much traction in the northern part of the district, where the port is most popular. And the suburban districts are more likely to oppose the port if they think about it at all.
Koster has come out in favor of the port, which Wilbur said would stand him in good stead with non-King County voters.
Coal terminals are also proposed for Grays Harbor and Longview, Wash., and Wilbur said support for those projects is "more of a bonus for a Republican candidate in one of those districts to be for it, because those folks need jobs more than in northwest Washington."
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