The 68-year-old governor is launching his bid Friday in Seattle, following recent visits to the first primary state of New Hampshire and the early caucus state of Nevada.
"We went to the moon and created technologies that have changed the world - our country's next mission must be to rise up to the most urgent challenge of our time: defeating climate change," Inslee says in a video announcement ahead of a public announcement later Friday in Seattle.
VIDEO: This is our moment, our climate, our mission — together, we can defeat climate change. That's why I'm running for president. Join #OurClimateMoment today https://t.co/zg8ILGyk0Z pic.twitter.com/pUZVxyzfc5— Jay Inslee (@JayInslee) March 1, 2019
Inslee is the first governor to join a Democratic primary that has been dominated by senators. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also are eyeing presidential campaigns.
It will not be easy for Inslee to garner attention with six prominent senators - Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts - already running. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke also are expected to make highly anticipated 2020 announcements in the coming weeks.
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Inslee acknowledges his underdog status but says his emphasis on combating climate change will set him apart.
"Climate change is a unifying issue," Inslee told The Associated Press in a recent interview, calling it a moral necessity and an economic opportunity.
He promises substantial investment in clean energy sources that reduce American dependence on fossil fuels.
"This issue is connected to virtually every other value system and thing we want to do in our communities," he said, mentioning environmental justice, infrastructure, clean energy, health care and national security.
Inslee argues that no presidential candidate has hinged a campaign as heavily on climate and environmental policy as he will. He may have a larger opening since billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer has passed on a national campaign, opting instead to continue his advocacy for impeaching and removing Trump from office. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who has spent millions of dollars on climate issues, may run.
Inslee has not specifically endorsed the Green New Deal introduced by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey. Inslee instead advocates for a more piecemeal approach he describes as ambitious but attainable, and he avoids promising specific reductions of carbon emissions under an absolute timeframe. The Green New Deal targets 2030 for the U.S. to become net carbon neutral.
Despite his emphasis on climate policy, Inslee says he's not a one-issue candidate. A former congressman, he pitches his breadth of personal and political experiences as ideal to bridge political and cultural divides among the Democratic base and the broader electorate.
Inslee is a white male baby boomer who was a clean-cut star athlete and honors student in the turbulent 1960s, when he met his high school sweetheart, Trudi. She is now his wife of 46 years. That puts Inslee closer to the septuagenarian Biden than to the young rock-star-style candidates like O'Rourke or Booker, both still in their 40s.
Inslee has nonetheless governed Washington as an unabashed liberal, promoting clean energy, gay rights, abortion rights, environmental preservation, tighter gun restrictions and more spending for education and job training. Most recently, he's called for a state-based public option health insurance plan in Washington that he calls a "step toward universal health care."
Republicans have not embraced him, with the state GOP recently deriding his "extreme environmental agenda" and pointing to its price tag.
Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler has quipped that Inslee's policies "may be geared toward Iowa more than Washington."
Inslee grew up in the Seattle area, with his mother working as a sales clerk and his father as a biology teacher and basketball coach in public schools. He started his legal and political career in small-town central Washington, where he won a state legislative post and, for one term, a congressional seat before being knocked out in the GOP sweep of 1994. He later returned to Congress representing a metro-Seattle district for 12 years before resigning to run for and win the governor's office in 2012.
Inslee raised his profile serving as Democratic Governors Association chairman in 2018; Democrats picked up seven governor's offices, and Inslee became a familiar guest to cable news audiences, using the opportunity to lambaste Trump on such issues as immigration and ethics.
"During the past two years, we've been challenged by federal actions that appeal more to our darker natures than our better angels," Inslee said in his January address of the Washington Legislature. "But we know that's not who we are."
Inslee says he doesn't necessarily buy into the usual political wisdom about lanes in a primary: liberals vs. moderates, older candidates vs. younger, white men vs. the others. But recent polling suggests at least some wisdom for trying to become the climate change candidate.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from December found that self-identified liberal Democrats see the environment as a critical issue: 49 percent named it among their top priorities, compared with 29 percent of conservative and moderate Democrats. Sixteen percent of liberal and moderate Republicans and just 3 percent of conservative Republicans mentioned the environment as a major problem.
In an open-ended question, 24 percent of all adults queried named environmental issues and climate change among the top five priorities for the government to work on in 2019. That compares with 18 percent who mentioned the issue as a priority for 2018.
Still, the environment continues to trail behind the economy, health care and immigration as an issue that Americans see as important for the government to address this year.
Next week, Inslee plans to visit Iowa, which starts the nominating process with the first caucus, with trips to Nevada and California to follow.