For King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, the third try for statewide office could be the charm. Or the third strike.
On paper, this Republican gubernatorial candidate should be the one to beat in a crowded field. A poll Maleng commissioned in spring 1995 gave him the edge as the best-known of the bevy of would-be governors.
But with less than two weeks to go before the Sept. 17 primary, he’s not leading the pack. He’s one of several candidates claiming to be the person with the best chance of beating former state Sen. Ellen Craswell of Poulsbo, the perceived front-runner.
No other candidate has run statewide. Maleng ran twice - for governor in 1988 and for attorney general in 1992.
The downside for the 57-year-old lawyer is that he’s lost both.
The question, which the primary will help answer, is whether he is known from his previous races primarily as the guy who lost.
Maleng doesn’t think so.
“It’s how you run - that’s the important thing,” he said recently. “You can run and lose and be finished.”
Or one can lose, learn, come back and win, he said. The other Norm in the race, Democratic Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, lost his first two tries for City Council, Maleng noted.
After the 1995 poll convinced him to try again, Maleng prepared a series of “white papers” on everything from welfare reform to education to juvenile crime.
He began making pilgrimages to county GOP gatherings throughout the state, reintroducing himself as the boy from the dairy farm near Acme, Wash., who worked hard, studied law at the University of Washington and captured a piece of the American dream.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” said former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay, for whom Maleng once was a mentor and now is a close friend. “He’s an honest, bright guy.”
The title role in the Norm Maleng story might be played by Andy Griffith - but not Charlton Heston. Even Maleng’s closest political allies concede he is not flashy.
“He’s got real depth to him. I don’t know if that’s enough in this day of mass media campaigns,” said Rich Kuhling, former Spokane County GOP chairman who ran the state campaigns for George Bush.
Spokane attorney Dave Broom, a University of Washington classmate, said Maleng’s leadership abilities surprised people on campus in the fall of 1957. In those days, nearly all male students enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. At the unit’s first meeting, Maleng stood out as someone who was smart, thick-skinned and substantial.
“Here’s this guy who in some ways seemed a little bit like a bumpkin with that down-on-the-farm tone of voice,” Broom said. “Everyone nearly instantly recognized him as a leader. The officers picked him as commandant of cadets because they knew the other cadets would rally around him. He’s a natural leader - without much charisma.”
McKay argued that Maleng holds a job that requires substance, not flash. He has overseen criminal and civil proceedings in one of the nation’s largest cities for 18 years.
“You don’t want a flashy prosecutor. You want one who’s honest, introspective and fair,” McKay said. “No one ever accused him of a politically motivated prosecution.” Maleng doesn’t dispute the characterization that he’s not flashy but says his two previous races taught him something about showing more of himself when campaigning.
“It’s important when you run that people know you,” he said. “I tend to be out more, working the crowd.”
He spent “a couple of hours” shaking hands at the recent GOP state picnic on Vashon Island.
When he ran for governor in 1988, he assumed his pragmatic conservative stands would generate quick support from business.
In fact, the business community backed a popular incumbent, “business” Democrat Booth Gardner, while the newly energized Christian conservative movement flocked to state Rep. Bob Williams of Vancouver. Maleng was caught in the middle. He was outhustled and lost the primary.
“He’s a really nice guy,” said Williams, who now heads the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative policy group in Olympia. “He thought he was better-known in the state than he actually was. He relied more on the King-Pierce-Snohomish vote.”
Veda Jellan, a longtime GOP activist who is both a neighbor and personal friend, agreed.
“He was a candidate who had always run in just one county - and possibly not the most popular, although it’s the most populous,” she said.
A personal tragedy changed Maleng from the cerebral prosecutor who first sought the governor’s mansion, friends said.
In early 1989, his 12-year-old daughter Karen died in a sledding accident on a Seattle hill.
“The greatest hurt you can ever have in your life is to lose a child,” he said. “It’s not part of the natural order of things.”
He threw himself into an assignment from newly re-elected Gardner, who had enough respect for his old campaign rival to ask Maleng to head a task force on new legislation dealing with sex offenders.
The panel traveled the state, listening to an outpouring of tragic stories from the victims of sexual predators.
“It was a kind of therapy for me,” Maleng said. “I’d suffered such a deep hurt, … I literally could feel their loss and suffering. It was one of the most meaningful experiences in my life.”
The committee drafted the Community Protection Act, which allows dangerous sex offenders to be held in treatment facilities indefinitely even after they have served their sentences. It was passed by the Legislature unanimously.
His work with the sex offender law appeared to provide a natural platform for the state attorney general’s job, which opened in 1992 when incumbent Ken Eikenberry ran for governor.
Maleng’s polls that year showed him leading Democrat Christine Gregoire throughout the campaign. But it was a good year for Democrats, particularly female Democrats, and “I just couldn’t get over that tide.” Gregoire won by 240,000 votes.
Since his daughter’s death, Maleng is less afraid to show his emotions, said McKay, his neighbor and close friend.
“I see a guy who now has more stuff coming from his heart than his head. He goes to visit the parents of kids who get killed in King County and is not afraid to cry with them in their living rooms,” McKay said.
Maleng uses his small-town upbringing as a springboard for his call for better schools, more spending on higher education and welfare reform.
He insists, however, that his “Acme values” are not as dated as a Capra movie.
“It’s not a matter of going back to the ‘50s or ‘40s. You’re not going to go back to a prior era,” he said. “But a lot of those values are equally important now. We’ve got to get recentered.”
The “Becca Bill,” named for a teenage prostitute murdered in Spokane, is an example of returning to previous standards by mixing punishment with prevention, he said. In the 1970s, the state allowed children over 12 to make their own decisions, removing penalties for running away from home. The 1995 law allows police to detain runaways while parents try to get them into treatment or counseling.
In his many issues briefings and white papers, Maleng sets out detailed plans for everything from taxes to colleges to welfare.
The state Department of Social and Health Services is “dysfunctional” and needs to be dismantled. The percentage of the state budget given to colleges has shrunk to 11 percent over the last 15 years; it needs to go back to 14 percent. The 1993 increase in business and occupation taxes should be rolled back completely, and tax-free “enterprise zones” should be set up in depressed areas. When 16-year-olds commit adult crimes, they should be tried as adults - even if it means life in prison or the death penalty.
In an era when most candidates talk of family values, Maleng offers a record to match his rhetoric, said Jellan, who knows all of the GOP contenders.
“For him, family values mean better schools and less crime,” she said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NORM MALENG (R) Resume: 57, born in Acme, Wash., lives in Seattle … bachelor of arts, law degree, University of Washington … King County prosecutor, 1978-present, re-elected four times unopposed; former chief civil deputy, King County; former staff counsel, U.S. Senate Commerce Committee … member, state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, 1981; chairman, Governor’s Task Force on Community Protection, 1989 … married, three children, one deceased. Finances: Raised $491,000 as of Aug. 22, including $22,000 from previous campaign and $16,120 from state Republican Party. Why he’s running: “I’m running to change not only the size of government but also to change the directon of government so it reflects our values and principles.” What he’d do first: “I’d restore higher education as a top priority in the state.”