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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee joins 2020 Democratic presidential field

On March 1, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) released an ad for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. (Video: Jay Inslee)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday became the latest Democrat to launch a 2020 presidential bid, asserting that he is the only candidate who will make combating climate change the nation’s top priority.

“Whether we shrink to this challenge or rise to it is the vital question of our time,” Inslee said at an event staged at a solar installation company in Seattle. “We have one chance to defeat climate change, and it is right now. It is my belief when you have one chance in life, you take it.”

As he did in a video released earlier in the day announcing his candidacy, Inslee made it clear that his bid would be built largely around a single issue that he called “the most urgent challenge of our time.”

In his remarks, Inslee argued that fighting climate change is central to progress on an array of other fronts, including health care, national security and racial justice.

Minorities, he said, are disproportionately affected by climate change in part because they are more likely to live near pollution-spewing plants.

“I am running for president because, unlike the man in the White House, I believe in all the people who make up America,” Inslee said in one of several barbs directed at President Trump.

Inslee, 68, is the first governor to enter the crowded Democratic contest and has the longest political résumé of anyone in the race.

In 1992, after two terms as a state legislator, he was elected to represent a largely rural, Republican-leaning congressional district in central Washington. In Congress, Inslee attracted national attention by voting for the 1994 assault-weapons ban, immediately making him a target for the GOP.

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“People are fed up with crime and want something done to protect them and their children from violence,” Inslee told reporters at the time, standing by his vote.

Inslee lost in that year’s Republican wave, but he mounted a comeback, winning in a neighboring district four years later. One of the most potent attack ads run against him portrayed a fictional call from President Bill Clinton, thanking Inslee for being so loyal; in 1998, Inslee ran his own version of that ad, with a Newt Gingrich impersonator thanking the Republican incumbent for helping him impeach the president.

Back in Congress, Inslee was a reliable liberal vote and a member of the center-left New Democrats. He focused mostly on climate and environmental issues; in 2007 he published “Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy,” a book about ways to transition the country from dependence on fossil fuels to renewable energy.

He also kept one eye on Washington, running for governor in 2012 and winning a narrow victory over a popular Republican attorney general. Inslee spent his first term presiding over a divided state government, cutting budget deals with a Republican state Senate and instating a moratorium on the state’s death penalty.

Inslee was comfortably reelected in 2016 and joined the loud resistance to Trump, bringing the state into lawsuits to stop a ban on refugees and immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries. But Inslee’s time in Olympia entered a new phase in 2018, after a special Senate election gave Democrats full control of the state government.

“It will be a bell in the night, showing hope for the country,” Inslee told the New York Times on the eve of that election.

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The governor made good on that bravado, reviving a number of ambitious bills that Republicans had blocked and capping it all with a push for a carbon tax.

During his remarks in Seattle on Friday, Inslee cited a number of his accomplishments and suggested they should be replicated on the national level, including raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure, abolishing the death penalty and legalizing marijuana.

“It’s about time we do it nationwide,” he said of the latter measure.

Inslee will have to overcome a few major hurdles as he begins his run. Despite spending more than two decades in elected office in Washington state, he lacks the national name recognition of several of his would-be opponents.

And despite his calls for drastic action to combat climate change, Inslee’s most ambitious climate initiative — the institution of a tax on carbon emissions — was voted down in the state’s November elections amid massive opposition spending from oil companies.

In response, Inslee introduced a new batch of legislation, calling it “a clean energy smart deal,” that he says would stop the state’s utilities from relying on fossil-fuel power by 2045.

During his remarks Friday, Inslee decried the influence of fossil-fuel industries on politics and vowed that if he is elected president, “that gravy train is over.”

To capture the nomination, Inslee would also have to overcome some tension within his party in one of the earliest-voting states.

Inslee was chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in 2018, and New Hampshire Democrats felt that he did not direct enough support to their gubernatorial candidate, Molly Kelly, who lost to incumbent Republican Chris Sununu.

In an interview with a local radio station, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley said Inslee “abandoned” the state in the 2018 election.