If his name were Smith or O’Malley or Liebowitz, Jim Waldo might be a strong favorite for governor.
But as the Tacoma lawyer travels the state - trying to project an image of competence, energy and concern for education and the economy - he is plagued by allusions to a cartoon character in a popular series of children’s books.
“If you’ve got another Waldo joke, let’s have it - but I’ve probably heard it already,” the Republican chided a crowd in Spokane earlier this year.
While most candidates in the crowded gubernatorial race fight for any kind of name recognition, Waldo has some built in. The problem is, it’s the wrong kind.
He is constantly joshed with “Where’s Waldo?” inquiries and headlines, a reference to the stripe-sweatered, bespectacled bookworm who hides in historical scenery.
No one makes the connection to Waldo General Hospital, a Seattle institution founded by his grandfather. Jim Waldo was born there, 48 years ago.
Waldo has learned to look on the bright side. During a trip through Skagit County, a local newspaper reported on his daily agenda with a “Where’s Waldo?” map.
In Yakima, he posed with Waldo the Clown, a local celebrity, who some people thought was the subject of the Waldo for Governor signs sprouting in yards and fields in central Washington.
Waldo has been involved in politics most of his adult life, but always in other people’s campaigns. This is the first time his name is on the billboard and his face is on television.
He started campaigning for Dan Evans for governor as a high school student in 1964, then became Evans’ “eyes and ears” on college campuses after 18-year-olds received the right to vote. He took on more and more campaign responsibilities as he worked for John Spellman in 1980, the Evans senatorial campaign in 1983 and ran the Slade Gorton reelection campaign in 1994.
In between, he served in the Evans administration, President Ford’s Labor Department, practiced law and mediated disputes on fish, Indian treaty rights and energy issues.
But whenever the election cycle came around, he was sought by leading Republicans to be the person who managed money, juggled schedules or prepared briefs on issues.
“I’ve always been clear that I wasn’t the decision maker,” he said.
His job as state director for Gorton in 1994 convinced him to step into the campaign spotlight.
“I spent time traveling the state, and met people like me who said if they were starting over, they’d go to another state,” he said.
“These weren’t ‘I hate government’ types,” he added. They were people fed up with government regulations and taxes.
Don Moos, a former state agriculture director and longtime political ally, recalled sitting around a campfire with Waldo in 1995 and sensing his friend was edging toward that decision.
“He was delving deeper into issues. He said he was not interested in just practicing law the rest of his life,” Moos said. “He’d been close to many successful candidates, and that bug is there.”
Faced with the choice of being a bystander or a player while the country goes through its biggest change since the industrial revolution, Waldo said he opted to be a player.
This year he must play in a field crowded by seven other Republicans, six Democrats and a Socialist Workers candidate. In the state’s open primary, each voter gets a ballot with all the names on it, and can vote for anyone.
“They don’t know any of us that are running,” he told a group of about 50 professional women during a recent Spokane breakfast.
To raise his profile, Waldo bought billboards around the state in the spring, on which he put his picture and a simple slogan: Overhaul Education.
He has come back to that education theme throughout the campaign, and in trips to Eastern Washington, undecided voters ask him for details. At the breakfast meeting, the women wanted to know how he would fix the schools without, as one put it, “risking public education.”
Waldo fielded the question like a policy analyst, ticking off his “five key elements”: Higher expectations for students, safer schools, competent principals, competent teachers and involved parents.
Then he tied together a higher priority for schools, greater access to colleges and a reduction in regulations for schools as well as businesses.
“All Republicans want to get rid of regulations, big deal,” he said, chiding himself slightly as he paused for a breath before launching into specifics.
The Spokane School District lost $148,000 in state and federal money for special education because all forms weren’t properly filled out, he said. Parents asked for the services, and the school delivered them, but District 81 had to return money because of a paperwork problem.
District 81 officials later verified that they and almost every other public school system in the state were forced to return money from the 1993-94 year because auditors ruled they didn’t follow a new set of regulations.
“This is nuts,” Waldo told the breakfast group, and many in the audience nodded in agreement.
Waldo tries to position himself as a social moderate and fiscal conservative, hoping to win the support of voters who backed his friend and mentor, Dan Evans. But he must vie for those votes with King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, who sounds similar “cut the bureaucracy” themes.
Evans, who is returning the favor by campaigning for Waldo, said his former aide may be the best choice for using the office to press for change and tout new ideas.
“Some of the others will manage the office OK, but the bully pulpit will be missing,” said Evans, the state’s only three-term governor. “Getting the Legislature to go along requires an ability to bring people together, and his whole career has been in resolving disputes.”
For Waldo or Maleng to win, the Christian conservative wing will have to split its votes among several candidates, rather than coalescing around former state Sen. Ellen Craswell of Poulsbo, Evans said.
“Ellen has a particularly zealous group,” he said.
For months, Waldo and other Republicans have paid careful tribute to Craswell and her strong grassroots support. When his potential supporters mutter “scary” at the mention of her name, he would praise their organization.
“I’m envious. They are doing exactly what you’re supposed to do to win elections,” he has said.
But last week, Waldo became the first GOP candidate to overtly criticize Craswell, contending she “stepped over the line that divides church and state.”
Those steps include a promise to fill the government with “wise and godly people,” and to hire only Christians for her Cabinet, he said.
Craswell quickly replied that Waldo was misinterpreting her statements. She said she was using godly with a small g, to denote good character, and she never claimed to have a religious litmus test for Cabinet members. She added she would defend everyone’s right to believe “according to their own conscience.”
With less than two weeks remaining in the primary campaign, it was clearly a risky strategy. Waldo knew that if he wins the primary, he needs Craswell’s supporters to win the general election.
Waldo claimed he was trying to be “accurate but not disrespectful.” But 24 hours later, the candidate was forced to retract part of his criticism.
After reviewing a videotape of a recent forum, he was forced to concede Craswell did not say she would hire only Christians.
“It is clear, my staff member’s memory was incorrect,” he wrote in a letter. “I apologize for the mistake in the description of your position.”
Waldo must now hope to energize a different group of voters - moderates, economic conservatives, independents and even Libertarians.
“They need to wake up. We are a majority of the Republican party and a majority of the public,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: JIM WALDO (R) Resume: 49, born in Seattle, lives on Vashon Island … Bachelor of arts, Whitman College, law degree, Willamette University … Attorney, specializing in environmental and Indian treaty issues; former staff assistant, U.S. Labor Department; assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle … campaign executive for Dan Evans, John Spellman and Slade Gorton … Married, three children. Finances: $747,000 as of Sept. 4, including $3,870 from the state GOP, $3,000 from Mr. and Mrs. George Weyerhaueser, and $2,200 from Mr. and Mrs. James Cowles. Why he’s running: “I want to lead and I want to provide opportunity for individuals and accountability in government.” What he’d do first: “Put in place a new Cabinet with department heads who are leaders instead of administrators.”