Jay Inslee, Candidate and Eco-Dude
The last Friday of winter was unseasonably warm, and Naomi Hollard, a senior at Columbia, stood on campus in jeans and a T-shirt. “We have twelve years to save the planet,” she said, facing a camera.
“That’s great,” a documentary producer said, out of frame. “Can you do one where you hit that just a little harder?”
“We have twelve years to save the planet!” Hollard said.
“Amazing,” the producer said.
At 11 A.M., Hollard ascended the steps of Low Library and picked up a bullhorn. About fifty people had gathered—Columbia students holding placards, middle-school students wearing backpacks—for a “climate strike,” one of thousands taking place worldwide that day. “The idea is that students walk out of class to demand action on climate change,” Hollard said. “In our case, a lot of students are already gone.” Midterms had just ended, and spring break was about to begin. “Still, this turnout is great. Maybe word got out that we had a Presidential candidate coming.”
She was referring to Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, who was, at that moment, walking through the campus’s wrought-iron gates. Inslee, sixty-eight, is tall and handsome in a John Lindsay-ish way: silver hair, blue eyes, square jaw. He is running for the Democratic nomination, on what is essentially a single-issue platform. “If we don’t solve climate change, we won’t be around to solve anything else,” he said. “I believe, when you’ve got one shot, you take it.” He moved through the crowd, dispensing folksiness. “Heya, man,” he said, shaking hands with a sophomore named Zachary Kimmel. “What’re you majoring in, Zach?” History. “Well, that’s fantastic.”
B. Junahli Hunter, an eighty-year-old woman with a streak of blue in her hair, tapped Inslee on the shoulder. “I just donated to you!” she said. “I believe that the underlying problem with the world is contempt for others, and that the solution is compassion. I also wrote an essay about nonbinary sexuality way back in the seventies!”
“Oh, cool,” Inslee said.
He walked up the steps, and Hollard handed him the bullhorn. “I just met a young man named Zach Kimmel,” Inslee said. “He’s studying history. And here’s what Zach knows: studying history is great, but making history is even better, and you’re making history here today.” The demonstrators cheered. A few sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Kimmel, standing in the crowd, called his mother, in Brooklyn. “I was an anecdote!” he said.
The Columbia strike was organized by the Sunrise Movement, a national network of young climate activists. Last month, a group of kids, some of them third graders, went to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office in San Francisco. They urged her to support the Green New Deal and live-streamed her response on Facebook. Feinstein has been a professional politician for fifty years, but she has apparently not mastered the art of keeping one’s cool around small children. “You come in here, and you say it has to be my way or the highway,” Feinstein said. “I don’t respond to that.” (A week later came the “Saturday Night Live” parody: “I don’t come into your first-grade classroom and knock the Elmer’s glue out of your mouth, do I?”)
Inslee, at Columbia, seemed determined to clear the low bar that Feinstein had set. “I love this stuff, man,” he told a senior named Alex Loznak. “It reminds me of the protest language of the sixties and seventies—‘Right on, brother,’ all that stuff.” In 1972, Inslee was on a year abroad in Stockholm. “The U.N. was holding its first-ever summit on the environment, and we were there, outside, holding up signs about biodiversity,” Inslee said. “I’m a little grayer now, maybe a little better dressed, but it’s still the same fight.”
He climbed into a Chevy Suburban and headed to midtown for a fund-raising lunch. An hour later, he was back in the Suburban. The driver, a Washington state trooper, pulled up at Columbus Circle, where climate strikers were converging for a march. Inslee got out, put on a suit jacket, and strolled through the crowd.
“Who’s the guy in the suit?” a student wearing a Gloria Steinem pin asked.
“My mom’s gonna vote for him,” her friend said.
A group of students stood across the street from the Trump International Hotel holding signs (“There Is No Planet B”), and Inslee started to approach them for a selfie. Then they took up a chant—“Fuck Donald Trump!”—and Inslee backed off.
Loznak, the Columbia senior, marched a few feet behind Inslee. “I wish I’d been able to push him a bit on his exact schedule for decarbonization,” he said. “But he does seem sincere.” Loznak is one of twenty-one young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, a federal lawsuit, currently on appeal, alleging that the government is violating citizens’ rights by destroying the environment. “If Inslee can do it, I’m all for it. I’m withholding the Loznak endorsement for now, but I think he’d make a good President.” ♦