Politics & Government

Washington Gov. Inslee seeks climate moment in Democratic debate, but gets little time

Jay Inslee wanted people to remember him after the first night of Democratic debates as the climate-change candidate.

He got less than two minutes.

Asked by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow if his plans would save Miami, the Washington State governor said “yes,’’ then repeated his talking points that “we are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last to do something about it.”

Inslee had called for a climate-only debate, but the notion was rejected by Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez as unfair to other candidates. The candidates spent 10 minutes of Wednesday’s two-hour debate on the issue, even though Perez predicted before the debate it would be “the most robust and in-depth conversation” of the evening.

Inslee, 68, who is known by less then 1% of Democratic voters according to recent polls, did not have a breakout moment in the pack of 10 Democrats that lined the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami. Beyond his signature issue, Inslee addressed immigration, abortion and healthcare.

He used his limited time to declare a “climate emergency,” but “the most important issue on this and the biggest decision for the American public is: Who is going to make this the first priority? I am the candidate, and the only one who says this has to be the top priority of the United States, the organizing principle to mobilize United States so we can do what we’ve always done — lead the world.”

Inslee also used his first question to get into the climate issue. Asked by Telemundo/NBC host José Díaz-Balart whether he believes income inequality is a concern, he said he supports unions and notes that he “marched with SEIU folks.”

“It’s not right the CEO of McDonald’s makes two thousand times more than the people [working] at McDonald’s,’’ he said, then added: “Donald Trump is simply wrong. He says wind turbines cause cancer. I say they cause jobs.”

But he failed to have much time to deliver any detail. He has released three of the most detailed climate action proposals of any campaign, including moving the nation to 100% clean energy, using energy investments to create jobs, and pursuing a “Climate Mission” to put the nation on a path to net-zero climate pollution by 2045.

On Monday, Inslee held a press conference near the site where Kanter Real Estate plans to drill an exploratory oil well and released a fourth package of proposals aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in encouraging oil and gas exploration and holding the industry accountable.

But when asked what was the biggest threat to the U.S., Inslee didn’t answer “climate change,” as several of the others, but said: “Donald Trump.”

After the debate, Inslee explained: “Well, he is the biggest threat because he is lying to the American people about climate change.”

He was asked by moderator Savannah Guthrie what he would do on his first day as president about the families who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There is no reason for the detention and separation of children,’’ Inslee answered. “They should be released, pending their hearings, and the law should be followed.”

He used all of his answers to bring up his record, touting the law passed in Washington State to prevent using law enforcement as immigration agents, his lawsuit against Trump’s “heinous Muslim ban,” and a law to give Dreamers a college education.

“Donald Trump tried to threaten me the other day,’’ he said. “To tell me he would send refugees to Washington State if we passed a law. I said to him that is not a threat at all. We welcome refugees into our state.”

He admits he is an underdog. To differentiate himself, and to capitalize on his experience as governor, he has staked his presidential run on making climate change the centerpiece of his campaign. But he is no newcomer to the public stage — he is in his second term as governor and has held public office since he was a state representative in 1989, including seven terms in Congress.

Inslee has to improve his standing in the polls by the end of the summer or he won’t be invited to the September debate. At a climate change forum at the Frost Science Center on Tuesday night, he urged the audience to go to his website and contribute. “I have 80,000 donors now and I need 130,000 by the end of July,’’ he said. “If you can spare $1 and your friends could spare a dollar, we can do this.”

Inslee touted the fact that his state has successfully sued the Trump administration, being the first to take the administration to court over its immigration proposal in January 2017 and multiple efforts to challenge the Muslim travel ban.

Several times during the debate, Inslee pointed his finger trying to interject and, after the debate, said he would have liked to have had time to answer questions about gun safety, having lost one election after voting for the assault weapons ban bill — a vote he said he does not regret.

Inslee closed the debate saying that when he was thinking about a run for president, he thought of his three grandchildren and how “on my last day on earth i wanted to look them in the eye and tell them I did everything humanly possible to protect them from the ravages of the climate crisis. And I know to a moral certainty if we do not have the next president who commits to this as a top priority, it won’t get done.”

He urged the audience to join him so they could have a “unified national mission and we can save ourselves.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas