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Women’s Groups Quiet On Lowry Disappointed Rights Activists Aren’t Rushing To Defend Longtime Ally

First it was Brock Adams, then Bob Packwood followed by Bill Clinton. Now Gov. Mike Lowry, too, stands accused of sexual improprieties.

Once again, women’s groups are left to wonder: Has another champion of women’s rights betrayed us?

While making no judgment on recent sex-harassment allegations against the governor, and expressing the wish that accusers would get specific, they say it doesn’t look good for their old friend and ally.

Until an investigator reports her findings and alleged victims go public, Lowry is being tried in the court of public opinion.

He isn’t faring so well.

In the past week, both his chief spokeswoman and his main lawyer abruptly resigned, depriving him of the support of two of his top three female staffers. Neither broke with him, but women’s groups say their departures spoke volumes.

Lowry stands accused of repeated harassment of his former deputy press secretary, Susanne Albright. She has not spelled out her story. A probe is under way by harassment expert Mary Alice Theiler, who was appointed by Lowry’s office. Several Seattle attorneys say they represent other women that Theiler should interview, presumably more alleged victims.

Lowry says only that overly friendly behavior may have offended unspecified women and that he’s sorry.

It could take months to sort things out, particularly if Theiler decides to investigate Lowry’s decade in Congress, which ended in 1988.

Like the Democratic Party and other longtime Lowry loyalists, women’s groups are not inclined to take sides publicly, even if it is Lowry in the hot seat.

Since Anita Hill’s showdown with Clarence Thomas at the Senate hearings that ended with his confirmation as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, women’s groups are unwilling to do or say anything that would undermine the credibility or standing of any accuser.

That stands no matter how credible or politically popular the alleged harasser has been, leaders say.

Many women are reeling as they consider the possibility yet another Northwest pol may have feet of clay.

“People feel so disappointed. They feel “Here we go again,”’ says Nancyhelen Fischer, chairwoman of the Washington State Women’s Political Caucus and a longtime backer of Lowry’s.

“People say they hope it isn’t true and that if it is, that he ought to go get help.”

The assumption of many women’s rights activists is that if there is a problem, it is related to a drinking problem, Fischer says. Lowry has said he cut back his drinking 10 years ago and does not have a problem with alcohol.

As time passes, women’s groups seem to have less patience in these matters.

Women stood by Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., for months and even years when he was accused of drugging and assaulting Kari Tupper, a longtime family friend and former Lowry intern. They abandoned him only after eight more women came forward in 1992, Fischer notes. Adams served out his term, but did not run again that fall.

“When it was Brock, we got all these calls (to the caucus office) defending him,” Fischer says.

“There was sadness with Packwood,” who is accused of making sexual advances against 29 women, she said, noting that the Republican senator from Oregon was “so good on choice.”

“I’m not hearing that at all with Mike,” Fischer says.

“Only one person called to ask why all the women’s groups aren’t out there defending Mike. People are saying things like, `Mike, if you have an alcohol problem, get help immediately.”’

Lonnie Johns-Brown of the National Organization for Women’s state chapter, state Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt and others who could be expected to rally to Lowry’s side in a political battle are scrupulously noncommittal in this personal crisis.

“We’re always concerned by these kinds of reports,” Johns-Brown says.

There are no “I Believe Susanne” buttons popping up yet.

But Fischer says Albright’s credibility is at least as good as Lowry’s.

A former journalist, Albright worked for Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and the Senate Democrats before taking a job in mid-1993 with the governor.

She is described as a Lowry Democrat and was considered one of his most ardent advocates. Friends say the post with Lowry was the job of a lifetime and she would have no reason to make up a wild story to get Lowry in trouble.

Fischer says the sudden departure of Lowry’s chief legal counsel, Jenny Durkan, also was damaging to the governor, as was the statement by sexual harassment lawyer Judith Lonnquist that she has been retained by women with pertinent information about Lowry.

Both women are intelligent people of integrity and have very high credibility, Fischer says.

“Jenny Durkan must have had a very serious reason for going,” she says.

Lowry’s press secretary, Anne Fennessy, Albright’s old boss, announced her resignation Friday.

With women’s groups worrying about misplaced trust, some activists wonder aloud if their endorsement criteria need to include more than voting records and words.

“We have not yet figured out how to handle it,” says state Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle. “It will be an issue.”

Fischer says the total person must be considered.

Increasingly, she said, women will look for women candidates, “rather than having to support whatever male is best on our issues.”

Some of Lowry’s old allies complain he is being pilloried by the nonspecific harassment allegations. The claims could be true, but until they are spelled out the governor is boxing with phantoms, they say.

“There has been no filing of a complaint or a case sent to the Human Rights Commission,” says state Rep. Pat Thibaudeau, D-Seattle. “I have terrible trouble with trial-by-press. Let’s go ahead and bring the facts to light.”

Rep. Sommers agrees.

“The dilemma is you’re dealing with rumor. It is unfair to the individual involved unless a person brings specific allegations. There is no way to respond or defend themselves. It is innuendo,” she said.

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