Updated Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 08:24 PM
OLYMPIA — The defining moment of Gov. Chris Gregoire's eight years in office came during the depths of the state's economic troubles.
On Dec. 15, 2010, the Democratic governor took a wrecking ball to everything she cared about, rolling out a budget that slashed state spending for K-12 schools, higher education, health care and more. "Who'd have ever thought that I would be doing this," she told reporters, her voice shaking. "It's just beyond me that I would be the one to do this."
That budget, as well as others Gregoire proposed during the economic downturn, hammered programs she and a Democratic Legislature had spent years building up.
She took hits from people in her own party, as well as from liberal interest groups that had backed her gubernatorial campaigns. Republicans blamed her for spending too much money before the recession hit.
Yet today, both sides credit Gregoire for a steady hand during the worst recession since the Great Depression and for her ability to forge compromise when the Legislature seemed gridlocked.
It is a legacy of stewardship instead of laws.
Paul Berendt, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, says one of Washington's best governors in the past century was Clarence Martin, who led the state during the Depression.
"You can't point to him building a university or making a landmark. But he's a memorable governor because he brought people together and held the state on a steady course during a tough time. I think in 60 years when we look back on Gregoire, it will be very similar," Berendt said.
To be fair, there were other memorable moments during Gregoire's two terms.
She's credited for helping push through the largest gas-tax increase in state history, which paid for billions of dollars in highway improvements.
She also created the state Department of Early Learning, which consolidated more than a half-dozen child-care and early-learning programs into one Cabinet-level agency, and she helped negotiate the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel. This past year, she was a key player in the legalization of same-sex marriage.
But more than anything else, Gregoire's time in office was characterized by the free-fall in state tax collections and recurring, multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls.
To put the seemingly endless budget cuts over the past few years in context, you have to turn the clock back to 2005.
Gregoire had just come into office after narrowly winning election as governor. She beat Republican Dino Rossi by a scant 133 votes after two recounts and a court fight.
The state was rapidly climbing out of what today seems like a shallow recession. Gregoire was under pressure by Democratic interest groups, who helped elect her, to make up for a frugal, recession-era budget by her predecessor, former Gov. Gary Locke.
Backed by a booming economy, Gregoire spent with gusto. Budgets she advocated and signed increased state spending by 31 percent — or $8 billion — during her first term in office.
Republicans pilloried her for doing so, and it's still a sore subject for the governor.
When asked about it recently, Gregoire said: "If you're saying, 'Why did you spend money in the first term? You could have saved it?' Two things for you. Go ask any legislator. Had you saved that money, there is no doubt in their mind that you would have had an (Tim) Eyman initiative to return it to the people.
"But more importantly, where was the money spent? Over 50 percent of it was spent on education," she said. "Where did the rest of the money go? All kids have health care. We dramatically put money into child abuse and neglect to make sure those kids have protection and into Corrections (state prisons). That's where the money went."
Teachers and state workers did well, too. The state's contribution to pay and benefits for teachers increased about 29 percent during her first term and funding for state-worker pay and benefits jumped 31 percent.
But when the Great Recession hit, Gregoire and the Legislature had to take money out of the programs they'd just beefed up.
Furloughs, pay cuts
They furloughed workers and cut their pay. Voter-approved initiatives dealing with K-12 teacher pay and class sizes were suspended.
Several hundred million dollars were cut from higher-education budgets and then backfilled with large hikes in tuition. That increasingly shifted the burden of funding public colleges and universities to students and parents.
Lawmakers also made deep cuts to state parks and the social-safety net that provides health care, housing and food assistance to the poor and disabled.
The current state budget represents the first real drop in state spending that anyone can recall.
"I think she tried as hard as she could to protect every aspect of the state budget from harm, but the way we were hemorrhaging revenue, there was no way to do it," said Randy Hodgins, the vice president of external affairs at the University of Washington. "Those were unprecedented times, and unprecedented bad times."
And although Gregoire proposed and advocated large tuition increases that hit middle-class families, "it allowed us (UW) to keep the doors open... It kept us from falling apart," Hodgins said.
Lawmakers and staff said Gregoire helped keep the Legislature from falling apart when the budget battles turned into partisan standoffs.
Marty Brown, a former Gregoire budget director, said the governor used her skills as a negotiator.
"She is a really great listener. She can put herself in their shoes and say, 'here is what I think you want, or need.' She can do it in a way that ends up being the mediator between sides, even though she does probably have a very strongly held position," he said.
Departing state Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, said Gregoire earned trust among legislators because she kept her word.
He remembers meeting with Gregoire once along with House GOP Leader Richard DeBolt. He said DeBolt wanted the governor to put in writing a promise to veto a part of a bill that House Republicans opposed.
"She looked at me and said, 'Do you want it in writing, too?' And I said 'No, I'm good. If you tell me you're going to do it, I believe you,' " Armstrong said. "I trusted her. If she gave you her word on something, it was good, and I valued that."
Former Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, was critical of Gregoire for spending too much during her first term but said he grew to respect her during the recession. Her strength, he said "was keeping us all together when you got into negotiations. Once she was on board with something, she kept us on track and kept us together. If we were falling apart, she did a great job with whatever caucuses were not working together."
State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said Gregoire "drew a tough hand. Maybe the toughest hand of any governor... in the history of the state. She had to cut the things that she ran for office to expand.
"When she wrote those budgets, she disappointed herself, and obviously her friends," Pelz said, but added, "Gregoire was a Democratic governor, with Democratic values making very difficult decisions, and I'm glad she had the job."
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com