Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) served two terms as Washington's 22nd governor between 2005 and 2013. She was the state's second woman to be elected governor, and the 2004 election to her first term remains the closest governor's race in American history. A Democrat, Gregoire took Washington's budget from a $2 billion deficit to a $1 billion surplus during her first term while simultaneously strengthening the state's education system and improving access to healthcare for low-income children. Her second term, marked by the economic ravages of the Great Recession, was more challenging but similarly successful. Despite having to make significant budget cuts, she continued to expand public healthcare in the state, partly in conjunction with the federal Affordable Care Act. She also signed legislation for two major transportation projects in King County that led to the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the construction of a new bridge over Lake Washington.
Christine (Chris) Lee O'Grady was born in Adrian, Michigan, on March 24, 1947, the only child of Walter O'Grady and Sybil Palmer O'Grady (1916-2000). The family moved to Auburn when she was 6 months old, and her father died soon after. Sybil O'Grady raised her daughter as a single mother (she later remarried) and worked as a short-order cook at the Rainbow Café in Auburn to make ends meet. Chris O'Grady graduated from Auburn High School in 1965 and went to college at the University of Washington. She intended to become a pharmacist but lost interest as she learned more about the profession, and she graduated in 1969 with a Bachelor of Arts in Speech and Sociology.
O'Grady got a teaching certificate but couldn't find a full-time teaching job. She took a position typing and filing in a probation and parole office in Seattle and became interested in juvenile justice, but she quit after being snubbed by a supervisor for a promotion despite having done well in a test and interview. She next was a case worker at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, and it was there that she met the man who became her husband, Mike Gregoire (b. 1945). They married on August 16, 1975, and two daughters followed: Courtney (b. 1979) and Michelle (b. 1984).
By 1975, Gregoire had left her state job and was attending law school at Gonzaga University in Spokane. She graduated in 1977 and went to work as an assistant attorney general to Attorney General Slade Gorton (1928-2020). In 1981 she became the state's first woman to be appointed deputy attorney general. Much of her casework involved child abuse, but her biggest was an equal-rights case. Gregoire represented the state in the case of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees vs. State of Washington. The case – colloquially known as the comparable-worth case – was an offshoot of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a federal law that made it illegal for employers to pay women lower wages than men who were performing similar work. The comparable-worth argument took it a step further and argued that jobs that were of similar value to an employer should also be paid the same.
Gregoire represented the state in defending the case. She was not unsympathetic to the equal-pay issue but argued that it should be decided by the legislature, not the court. The federal district court judge disagreed and held for the plaintiffs in a ruling issued in September 1983. The state appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court decision two years later. The union threatened to appeal, but Gregoire nimbly pivoted from litigator to negotiator and worked out a settlement of the case which called for roughly $482 million in raises for 35,000 state workers, mostly women.
Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) noticed Gregoire's abilities in the comparable-worth case. He subsequently appointed her to lead the Washington State Department of Ecology, and she was there from 1988 to 1992. Likely her most recognized accomplishment during these years came in 1989, when she helped reach an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up nuclear waste at the Hanford nuclear site in Benton County. The Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order (commonly known as the Tri-Party Agreement), signed on May 15, 1989, provides a framework for the state and federal government to oversee cleanup of chemical and radioactive contamination at the Hanford site.
Gregoire ran for Attorney General in 1992 against King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng (1938-2007) and won by more than 11 percentage points. She took office in 1993 and served until 2005, winning reelection in 1996 and 2000 by comfortable margins. She worked on issues as varied as strengthening rights for victims of identity theft to helping reform the juvenile system, but her biggest achievement was something else entirely. She was a lead negotiator in negotiations that led to the November 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with four of the largest tobacco companies in the United States (Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Philip Morris, and R. J. Reynolds). The settlement required the companies to pay approximately $206 billion to 46 of the 50 U.S. states involved in the litigation – the additional four states had separately settled by then – over the next 25 years to reimburse them for Medicaid funds spent on treating illnesses related to smoking, and to fund health programs designed to curb smoking. Washington's share was $4 billion, and in 1999 the state announced that it would receive an additional $395 million.
An Election Night Without End
In July 2003 Gregoire announced that she would run for governor the following year, but three months later a routine mammogram revealed the presence of an early stage of breast cancer. This briefly threatened to affect her plans, but surgery was successful and she quickly recovered. She handily defeated King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948) in the September 2004 primary, but the November general election was another matter. Gregoire was expected to win the general election against former State Senator Dino Rossi (b. 1959), but Rossi gained ground late in the campaign, aided in part by support from Eastern Washington as well as an unexpected wave of support in Snohomish and Pierce counties. Voters responded to his message of change and promise of an improved business climate in Washington, and it turned out to be what, as of 2023, remains the closest governor's election in U.S. history.
Gregoire led by 7,000 votes late on election night, but more than a third of the vote, including hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots, remained to be counted. By the next morning, her lead had dwindled to 32 votes. As the count continued over the next two weeks Rossi took the lead by as much as 2,000 votes, but by the time the final count was announced on November 17 it had narrowed to 261 votes. A state-mandated machine recount reduced his lead further, to 42 votes. On November 30, 2004, Secretary of State Sam Reed (b. 1941) certified the result, and for a few weeks Dino Rossi was governor-elect of the State of Washington.
Washington law authorized any candidate to request a second recount by hand, and Gregoire requested one three days later. During the recount, King County officials admitted – in the first of several admissions of election errors – that they had mistakenly disqualified more than 500 ballots, resulting in a net gain for Gregoire of 119 votes. This and other mistakes left a taint on the final results of the 2004 election that remained in the minds of many nearly 20 years later. On December 30, 2004, Reed certified the new results: Out of 2.81 million votes cast, Gregoire won by 129 votes, or less than .005 percent of the total vote. She was declared governor-elect.
"An election night without end has concluded" ("Doubts Linger…") she said soon afterward, but this wasn't the case. Rossi refused to concede, and Republicans filed a petition in Chelan County Superior Court on January 7, 2005, seeking to set aside the results. Gregoire was sworn in five days later, and the non-jury trial began in late May. After a two-week proceeding, Judge John Bridges ruled in Gregoire's favor. Though he noted that there had been significant problems in the election and vote counting in King County, he held that the Rossi campaign had failed to show that Gregoire had received enough invalid votes to void her victory. His findings actually increased her margin of victory by four votes, to 133.
Gregoire's mother did not finish high school, and it was a mistake that she was determined her daughter would not to make. "She told me, 'There are three things that are important in life and they are education, education, education,'" explained Gregoire in a 2022 interview with HistoryLink ("Seattle Waterfront History Interviews"). This rubbed off on the new governor, so it was perhaps natural that one of her first actions in her first term was to take steps to strengthen the state's education system. "When I arrived at the governor's office in January 2005 ... I realized the education system was not all that different from the one in place when I was a student teacher in the late 1960s," she writes in her book, Tale of Two Terms. Despite a state budget deficit, she took steps to restore funding to pay for smaller class sizes and a raise for teachers, and in May 2005 she signed 10 bills designed to improve education in the state's public schools. She also requested a measure to put Washington's various early-learning and child-care programs into a single agency, which led to the formation of the Department of Early Learning in March 2006. (This agency became part of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families in the late 2010s.)
Gay rights was another issue that Gregoire dealt with during both of her terms in office. There had been repeated but unsuccessful efforts during the preceding decade to pass legislation protecting civil rights for gays. In January 2006, the legislature at last passed a bill amending the Washington State Civil Rights Act to add "sexual orientation" to existing state prohibitions on discrimination in employment, housing, and lending. Gregoire signed the law four days later, but it turned out to be just the first step. The following year she signed a bill that created same-sex domestic partnerships, and in 2009 she signed a bill that granted gay and lesbian couples the same state-provided benefits that married couples enjoyed. In February 2012, she approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington. Opponents successfully gathered enough signatures to block its implementation and require a statewide referendum on the law, but the measure, Referendum 74, was approved by the state's voters that November.
Gregoire once again ran against Rossi in the 2008 governor's race. The year had seemed to start off on a bright note: The economy, though slowing, was still strong. Unemployment was low, and the state budget had grown a comfortable surplus. Exports had increased, and Forbes magazine had recently given a nod to Washington as one of the top five states in which to do business. But as the year went on the economic slowdown worsened, and the retreat accelerated dramatically that autumn, leading to the worst worldwide recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The 2008 campaign was held against the backdrop of the intensifying economic crisis. Gregoire prevailed in Washington's first top-two primary, though she was less than 2 percent ahead of second-place finisher Rossi. However, there was little suspense in the general election that November. Gregoire won by nearly 200,000 votes out of more than 3 million cast, a margin of more than 6 percent.
The financial contraction that became the Great Recession continued to deepen early in Gregoire's second term, forcing her to drastically reduce the state budget. She eventually cut it by a total of $11 billion by 2012, in part through a series of layoffs (more than 10 percent of state employees lost their jobs during the recession) and, to some extent, by consolidating state agencies. In Tale of Two Terms, she explained the hurdles she faced as the recession dragged on well into the early 2010s:
"The fact is a governor has limited discretion in making budget cuts ... about 60 percent of state spending is for basic education, federally mandated Medicaid programs, prisons and other programs, and, for the most part, all are off limits for cuts ... During those first rounds of cuts, all I got from people is, 'don't cut us.' In the next rounds, I started to tell them, 'I can't hear you unless you say where I can cut'" (Gregoire, 104).
Gregoire also faced two major transportation projects as her second term got underway. The first was the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct along the Seattle waterfront. The viaduct was built in the 1950s and was showing its age, and recent studies had revealed that it was vulnerable to damage in a significant earthquake. There were years of debate over whether to replace it with an improved aerial roadway, a tunnel, or a surface street. Though she initially supported an elevated structure, the governor ultimately supported a deep-bore tunnel to replace the 3.8-mile-long viaduct. Boring for the new tunnel began in 2013, and it opened in 2019.
The SR 520 bridge replacement was the second big project. The original bridge, which crosses Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue, was built in 1963 and was similarly threated by earthquakes as well as by significant windstorms. Gregoire signed a bill in 2009 providing funding for the new bridge, and construction began in 2012. The new bridge opened in 2016.
Another paramount issue was healthcare. Gregoire signed legislation in 2007 broadening coverage for children from low-income families, and she worked to create a public-insurance program in the state that became known as Apple Health for Kids. The program took effect in February 2009 and was so successful that by 2017 fewer than 3 percent of the state's children were uninsured. She also worked to implement the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was enacted in 2010 and nicknamed "Obamacare" after President Barack Obama (b. 1961). Though the federal law helped make affordable healthcare easier to obtain, the governor took it a step further and signed additional legislation in 2011 that included the creation of a state health-care exchange designed to limit costs.
In June 2011 Gregoire announced that she would not seek a third term, and she gave a nostalgic farewell speech on January 15, 2013, to a packed House chamber. She summarized many of her accomplishments and called for legislators to keep increasing spending for education and transportation. And she spoke of the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the budget cuts which it had wrought: "You were tested. I was tested. This was not what I expected. It wasn't what anybody expected. But we stepped up" ("Gregoire's Goodbye ..."). She later summed up her governing philosophy in Tale of Two Terms: "Sometimes, when working on volatile public policy issues with a long history, you have to try to wipe the slate clean, start from ground zero, and trust your own curiosity to find common ground and new directions" (Gregoire, 39).
Away from the public spotlight, Gregoire remained engaged after her years in the executive mansion. After a few months off she joined the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Board of Trustees, and she became its chair three years later. She also served as chair of the National Export-Import Bank Advisory Board between 2013 and 2016. More recently, in February 2023 Gregoire joined the Puget Sound Energy Board of Directors – perhaps fittingly so, since as governor she issued an executive order to set the first carbon-emission-reduction goals for Washington. She remains involved in politics, but more in an advisory capacity, out of the glare of the public spotlight.