Hustling off to yet another campaign stop, Gary Locke looks the picture of the assured, comfortable government executive with his immaculate white shirt, fresh haircut and briefcase full of papers parked on the car seat.
He’s the ambitious boy wonder type: Eagle Scout, Yale graduate, lawyer, state legislator and now King County executive. King is the state’s largest county, but it’s apparently not enough for Locke.
Just halfway through his first term as county executive, Locke is running for higher office.
He faces a crowded Democratic field of candidates for governor, including Seattle Mayor Norm Rice.
Locke’s campaign profile is part Horatio Alger success story and part budget jock. Polished and pleasant, he snaps about with a crisp, business-like walk, exclaiming “Fascinating!” and “Great!” as he makes small talk with voters.
Locke says education is his top priority, and the passkey to a better life at any age.
“This state needs to treat education like electricity, something that you can plug into anytime in life. To have a vibrant economy, people have to be able to constantly update their skills.”
In 11 years in the state House of Representatives, including five spent as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Locke honed his knowledge of the state’s education system and spending.
“He’s very perceptive of the different sides of things, and he’s very intelligent,” says Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, who served with Locke on the Appropriations Committee. “He knows statewide issues better than anyone else in the race.”
Locke says he would amend Initiative 601, the state’s taxation and spending measure, to allow spending on education to keep pace with enrollment.
He also promises to work to allow local school levies to be approved by a simple majority, instead of the 60 percent now required.
Levy lids also should be extended beyond the existing two-year limit to give administrators a more predictable cash flow, Locke says.
One of Locke’s campaign mantras is “Education is the great leveler,” and he speaks from personal experience.
A Chinese-American born in Seattle and raised in public housing, Locke’s father was a World War II veteran who worked as a house servant in Olympia not far from the governor’s mansion.
His father later opened a grocery store in Seattle, where he was shot in a robbery almost 20 years ago.
“You see your dad lying there, tubes everywhere. He was in the hospital for a month. It was touch and go.”
His father lived, and both robbers went to the state penitentiary. But both father and son were scarred by the attack.
‘I was very angry,” Locke said. “Ever since then I have been very supportive of crime victims’ rights and compensation. I have always had the view that people who commit serious crimes ought to get tough punishment.”
Locke also supports crime prevention programs dismissed by some in the tough-on-crime set as coddling.
Locke, 46, was elected King County executive in 1993, and took office in January 1994. He was quickly embroiled in a fiasco as the Kingdome started shedding ceiling tiles onto the Mariners’ ballfield.
Emergency roof repairs became a nightmare, as cost overruns pushed the repair bill to $51 million, $18.5 million more than originally planned. Crews worked round the clock, seven days a week, in the county’s rush to get the stadium ready for opening day.
“The Kingdome is clearly one of his minuses,” says Tim Hill, the GOP incumbent Locke defeated to win the executive post. “It wasn’t worth the emergency effort, the panic mentality.”
Others say the county was under tremendous pressure to get the stadium back in service, and Locke made the best of a bad situation.
The county is $65 million in debt for the repairs. Now a consultant recommends another $197 million in work on the dome.
King County residents voted down a new baseball stadium for the Mariners in 1995. Locke helped lead a successful charge to get the Legislature to back the $325 million stadium anyway.
Locke says he believes his constituents didn’t vote against the stadium, but against the sales tax increase proposed to pay for it.
The stadium will be paid for with a combination of King County tax increases worth $186 million; state lottery scratch tickets; stadium license plates; and a state tax credit worth $59.2 million over 20 years.
The Mariners will pay $45 million toward the $325 million ballpark.
Now a new stadium is under discussion for the Seahawks, too.
Locke says he would spend state general fund money on a new football stadium only if the economic return to the state is greater than the cost.
Locke has been criticized as a tax-and-spender.
The Association of Washington Business gave Locke a zero rating in 1993, the year he helped write a budget that raised taxes, fees and college tuition about $1.1 billion and cut spending by about $700 million to close a $1.8 billion budget deficit.
The Building Industry Association gave him a rating of 7 out of a possible 100 points and has criticized Locke for King County’s notoriously slow and costly building permit process.
Locke also voted for a 1993 health care reform bill despised by business, which banded together with insurance interests to repeal the bill during the 1996 session.
Budget negotiations also left hard feelings among Republicans and business interests who say they were shut out of the process by Locke and other Democrats running the show in 1993.
“It was wrong. Especially when you are talking about taxes and fees leveled on business that year of more than $1 billion,” says Don Brunell of the Association of Washington Business, which represents many of the state’s largest corporations.
Locke says the state had to raise taxes to avoid even deeper education cuts.
Now the state is flush with cash, and Locke says tax rollbacks should be examined in the coming legislative session.
He wants to give small businesses a break by letting them make more money before paying the business and occupation tax. Locke says he also might allow businesses to avoid paying the state sales tax on construction for expansion.
Tax relief for businesses that provide “family-friendly benefits” like child care, health benefits, job training and retraining also might make sense, Locke says.
He’s a social liberal, who says he’d sign bills to legalize gay marriage and provide civil rights protections for gay people.
“One of the great strengths of the state of Washington is the diversity of people and lifestyles.”
Roll up his sleeves and get him out of the office and Locke still sounds like the government guy he is. He often speaks a government lingo that numbs faster than it explains.
Talking to a steam plant manager in Centralia, Locke says things like “What’s the fiscal impact?” when most people would simply ask, “What’s it cost?”
Part of it is immersion: Locke’s career has mostly been a steady string of government jobs.
He got started in state government in 1982 working part time as a lawyer for a legislative committee. He soon realized lawmakers were “everyday people.” He decided to run for office.
He beat a 10-year incumbent in his Seattle district, and quickly moved up in the House ranks to become its top budget writer.
Locke earned a reputation as a guy married to his job, working until the wee hours crunching numbers.
His tastes are incurably worker bee. One of his favorite hobbies is home repair. “I like grunt work,” he says, describing smashing up a concrete floor, re-wiring and re-roofing his former home in Seattle.
For all his capacity for hard work, some people would like to see more staying power, grumbling that Locke should finish his first term as county executive before seeking higher office.
“Gary needs to complete this job,” says Democrat Greg Nickels, a member of the King County Council. “He has put a team in place and now he needs to show results, finish this job, and put his mark on this government.”
Not if Locke can help it.
Trolling for votes at the Southwest Washington Fair recently, Locke thrust his hand and face at startled voters, notching contact after contact in his flat-out race to win.
Locke has been consistently at the top of the polls and gubernatorial fund-raising derby and is still seen by many as the Democratic front-runner.
Rice, his main opponent, passed Locke in some polls recently and is enjoying a run of great publicity, with the state’s two largest papers endorsing him. Time magazine just named Rice a Democratic rising star.
But Locke keeps plugging away, ever the Eagle Scout and worker bee.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: GARY LOCKE (D) Resume: Age: 46 … Bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1972 and law degree from Boston University in 1975 … Worked five years as a deputy prosecutor in King County, four years as an attorney and community affairs manager for US West Communications, and legal adviser for the Seattle Human Rights Department … Served 11 years in the House, including five years as chairman of the Appropriations Committee … Currently serves as King County executive, managing the largest county in Washington, 12,800 employees and a $2 billion budget … Born in Seattle and raised in a housing project for WWII veterans … Married to Mona Lee, former KING-TV reporter, expecting first child. Finances: Had $275,325 on hand as of Aug. 27, the most recent reporting period. Out-of-state contributors, especially from the Asian community, have helped fill Locke’s coffers. Why he’s running: “I was born and raised in the state of Washington and care very deeply about its future. I am particularly interested in improving the quality of our education system and increasing access to educational opportunities because education is the key to developing and maintaining a strong economy.” What he’d do first: Pass bills to improve public education, create jobs, fight crime. Also wants to conduct a management review of the Department of Social and Health Services.