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Ratings Rise As Harassment Scandal Recedes Lowry Agenda Likely To Hit Brick Wall But Lawmakers Brace For Surprises

He’s fighting tax cuts expected to be adopted and pushing a legislative agenda predicted to be largely ignored.

Half his former Democratic allies in the Senate are supporting someone else for governor in 1996.

But as Gov. Mike Lowry prepares for his fourth legislative session beginning today, the state’s top Democrat is looking better than he has in a long time.

The buzz in Olympia is about policy, not Lowry’s conduct. And that’s a big improvement.

About this time last year, Lowry was besieged by reporters grilling him about what happened with Susanne Albright, a former press aide who resigned abruptly and later alleged Lowry touched her inappropriately.

Reporters dug through the governor’s past, researching everything from his driving record to his drinking habits.

The scandal took media attention away from policy and legislation, even as Republicans were taking the wraps off their much-vaunted “Contract With Washington State.”

“We’re reluctant to do any of our big bills,” Senate Minority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, lamented at the time. “They may not even get any ink.”

The governor denied anything happened, and an independent investigation concluded Lowry was oblivious to how his conduct had affected Albright. Her descriptions of what happened weren’t substantiated in the report.

But Lowry paid $97,500 out of his own pocket to Albright to prevent any lawsuit against him. Women’s groups urged the governor not to run again, and key Democratic party officials publicly agreed.

But less than a year later, during a question-and-answer session with political reporters and editors from virtually every newspaper in the state, the sexual harassment scandal didn’t even come up.

Instead, the questions Lowry fielded last week ranged from Medicaid cuts to open government - comfortable ground for the governor.

His approval ratings are up, cracking the 30th percentile. Nothing to crow about for many politicians, but a good sign for someone who has always been a bottom-scraper in the polls.

As the Legislature steams toward enactment of tax cuts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, Lowry has been at his best, adopting the mantle of a leader who’s above election-year politics.

He repeats the importance of thinking long-term and preserving the state’s financial health, with the clear implication that legislators aren’t.

But with a Republican majority in the House, a conservative tilt to the Democratic Senate, and a revolt under way in his own party, the governor finds himself standing largely alone.

“In the House, many Democrats support him, but we can’t make much difference,” said Rep. Dennis Dellwo, D-Spokane. “In the Senate, about half of the Democrats are supporting his opponent for governor and there’s not enough of the others to be much help to the governor. And the new majority leader is pretty conservative.

“The mix of the makeup of the Legislature and the election year doesn’t give the governor’s agenda much chance,” Dellwo said.

“But he’s pretty creative, good at pulling things out of hats. He could surprise us all.”

While they love to beat up on his liberal policies, even the staunchest Republicans say they respect Lowry for his convictions.

“The governor at least has been consistent,” said Rep. Brian Thomas, R-Renton, chairman of the House Finance Committee.

Stubborn is more like it, some said.

“The governor seems to think that if he just talks a little slower, the people of the state of Washington will get it,” said McDonald. “But he’s the one who doesn’t get it.”

Rep. Jean Silver, R-Spokane, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was kinder to her adversary. “The governor is more difficult than the rest of the Legislature. He doesn’t say yes to what we think is proper.”

Indeed, Lowry has taken controversial stands against popular bills passed overwhelmingly by both parties.

Twice he has vetoed bills that would have restricted the sale of books and sound recordings in the name of protecting minors from pornography.

Lowry said the bills amounted to censorship and vetoed them in their entirety in 1995 and 1994.

He ripped hunks out of an equally popular teenage runaway bill last session, called the Becca Bill after a teenage prostitute murdered in Spokane. Lowry vetoed a section that would lock up runaways for up to six months even though they had committed no crime.

He also vetoed cuts in the business and occupation tax, and property tax last session, saying the state couldn’t afford them. Both passed the House and Senate with overwhelming support and are back again this session.

For women’s groups and other liberals, Lowry has presented a conundrum. He has a superb record of appointing women to positions of responsibility, yet the taint of the sexual harassment scandal remains.

“It’s his biggest problem,” said Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who said she supports Lowry’s policies but will back Sen. Nita Rinehart, D-Seattle, for governor.

Key allies, including half the Democratic caucus in the Senate, are supporting Rinehart in 1996. Lowry hasn’t said whether he’ll run again.

“I don’t see how he can,” Silver said. “It would be embarrassing.”

But she and others never count the governor out.

“He’s like a rabbit, coming up out of holes everywhere when you least expect it,” she said. “He’s a magician.”

Lowry is proud of his record.

Surveys he’s looked at show the more than $900 million tax increase enacted with his support in 1993 is his biggest problem, not Albright, the governor said.

He said news coverage that made it look as though he reneged on a promise to raise taxes only as a last resort created enduring resentment. “That’s still out there. It’s huge,” Lowry said.

“I only did exactly what I said I was going to do.”

But for Lowry, that has always been the problem. He takes more heat for keeping his promises than most politicians do for breaking them.

“He doesn’t get much credit,” Brown said. “But that’s the way it is in politics.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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