It was the sort of loose locution one might reflexively associate with Republican Donald Trump this election season. Except this eye-opening utterance came from Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in the early minutes of his televised debate with Bill Bryant, his Republican opponent.
As Inslee answered a question on education, delighting in a string of successes in his first term, he swerved to take a swing at Republicans for resisting a teacher pay raise proposal he put forth in early 2015.
“I am delighted that we are finally giving a pay increase to teachers fought voraciously by Republicans,” he said. “They must have been abused as a first-grader or something by a teacher. I don’t understand that. But we succeeded in that.”
Inslee didn’t pause as some audience members laughed and others wondered if had just said what he said. The governor continued on as did the debate.
Did he really think one or more Republican state lawmakers had been mistreated by a teacher and, in an act of retribution, opposed hiking their pay?
“That’s not what he meant at all,” said Jamal Raad, Inslee’s campaign spokesman. “If people misunderstood him, he was talking about a teacher being tough on a kid. He meant something like tough homework or a challenging class. He was not talking about actual abuse.”
“It was an aside while making the larger point that Republicans opposed raising pay for teachers and they’ve consistently done that,” he said.
Here’s how the salary issue played out in 2015. Spending plans proposed by Inslee and the Democrat-controlled House called for boosting teacher pay by 4.8 percent in the 2015-17 budget. The budget put forth by the Senate’s Republican majority called for a 3 percent cost-of-living-adjustment in line with the mandates of the voter-approved Initiative 732.
Grand Old Party members resisted a larger state-funded pay hike for months — about as long as Democrats resisted Republicans’ proposal to lower tuition at four-year universities.
The final deal, reached on the precipice of a partial government shutdown, contained a 4.8 percent increase in the state-funded share of teacher salaries and a two-year price break on tuition for community college and university students.
To many, Inslee’s “aside” is an easily dismissable verbal faux pax in a year where the outrageous and the inaccurate are defining characteristics of the dialogue in the contest for president.
It probably shouldn’t be forgotten too quickly. Inslee is a political professional and a veteran of nearly two dozen campaigns. He understands the impact of each word spoken in a debate and on the campaign trail, especially those directed at one’s political opposition.
Moreover as a teacher’s son, it’s hard to imagine someone less likely to attempt a joke like this in public.
Maybe Inslee couldn’t help himself. Although only 13 minutes had elapsed in the debate, Bryant had already called the governor a failure a few times. That kind of stuff can get under anyone’s skin.
A couple of days later, Inslee had not apologized for his comment.
Then again, that too is something the electorate has come to expect this year.
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dospueblos.