Outgoing Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib is on unpaid leave attending Jesuit training in California and does not plan to return to his office before his term is up in January, according to his office and the office of Gov. Jay Inslee.
In a statement Tuesday to the public radio Northwest News Network and the Associated Press, the executive director of the lieutenant governor's office, Kristina Brown, said Habib, a Democrat, began his leave on Sept. 1 and notified both Inslee and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig at that time.
"While he is still serving as Lt. Governor and is in no way setting aside his statutory or constitutional responsibilities, he feels that foregoing his compensation during these months is the right thing to do because of the budgetary crisis that the state is in," Brown wrote in an email.
Habib's salary is $117,300 a year.
Brown's statement went on to say: "The public has experienced and will continue to experience no interruption in the services of the office. If the Governor were to somehow become incapacitated, yes, [Habib] would be available to handle the situation."
The lieutenant governor is first in line to replace the governor in the event he is incapacitated and also fills in for the governor if Inslee is out of state.
However, in a letter to Inslee dated Aug. 14, and provided to the news outlets by Inslee's office, Habib said he plans to remain in California through the end of his term in January "as part of my transition into the Society of Jesus." The letter seemed to suggest he would not be available to step in if the governor travels outside the state.
"Should my office receive a travel-oriented Acting Governor request after September 1st, the regular protocol will apply and the role of Governor will revert to you, as it would any other time when both the Governor and Lt. Governor are out of the state," the letter said.
Inslee's office confirmed Tuesday that if both the governor and the lieutenant governor are out of state, the governor himself remains in charge. In the event the governor is incapacitated and the lieutenant governor's office is vacant, Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman is second in line to take the governor's place.
It was not immediately clear if Habib would leave his Jesuit training and return to Washington in the event Inslee became incapacitated. But in an email, Brown, the lieutenant governor's executive director, emphasized that the "Lt. Governor's Office continues to be filled by Lt. Governor Habib."
Currently, Inslee is running for reelection and not traveling out of state, as he did routinely last year while running for president. However, the question of chief executive succession has taken on new relevancy in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent hospitalization of President Donald Trump, who contracted COVID-19.
Previously, Habib announced he was not running for reelection and planned to join the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church with the ultimate goal of becoming a priest. Habib's office said he is currently training as a member of the Novitiate. That is the novice period in what can be a multi-year process to become a Jesuit priest.
It was not clear at the time of his announcement last spring that Habib intended to begin his training prior to his current term ending.
Habib, who is blind, told the Associated Press in March that he had made the decision to leave politics for the priesthood following "two years of careful and prayerful discernment."
Habib's office did not say Tuesday why he chose to go on leave rather than resign his position. Brown said Habib is in contact with the office "multiple times per week by phone" and continues to approve documents that go out with his signature.
"He is aware of the office's day to day operations; I am responsible for implementing and overseeing them," Brown wrote.
Also Tuesday, Brad Hendrickson, the secretary of the Washington Senate, said that while he had heard "rumors" of Habib's departure from the state, he had not been formally notified. When the state Senate is in session, the lieutenant governor presides over the body. If the Legislature were to meet in special session before January, as has been discussed, Hendrickson said President Pro Tem Karen Keiser could fill in for Habib if he was unavailable.
Two Democrats, Congressman Denny Heck and state Sen. Marko Liias, are vying to replace Habib as lieutenant governor. Habib, who is also a former state lawmaker, previously endorsed Liias.
Habib's absence from his post was first reported by Crosscut.com.
This story was reported in collaboration with Rachel La Corte of the Associated Press.