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The Liberal Legacy Of Mike Lowry Governor Steps Down After Four Years Of Controversy, A Scandal And Many Hard-Fought Battles

Wed., Jan. 15, 1997

Mike Lowry jabbed his finger at yet another chart and hunched over the microphone, his suit coat climbing steadily up the back of his neck.

The governor was in full cry, really ripping into it as he spun a complex plan for changing Initiative 601, the state spending cap.

But there were few questions from his audience of reporters and editors when he finished. Only one reporter walked up to the state’s top Democrat as he stood alone, holding his notes.

“Isn’t anyone going to ask about this?” Lowry said last week, his voice full of frustration.

It was not a new problem for the governor, who steps down today.

Ever since the GOP seized control of the state House in November 1994 and shifted the political agenda to the right, Lowry, an outspoken liberal, has been fighting to be heard.

Much of his crowning accomplishment, the health care reform act of 1993, was repealed in 1995 before much of it ever went into effect. And many of Lowry’s most important actions over the past two years have been by veto, rather than enactment of bills.

A sexual harassment scandal in 1995 formed a cloud over the governor’s head that never dispersed. Last spring, Lowry, 57, announced his first term would be his last.

Lowry took the Capitol by storm in 1993, astonishing lobbyists and longtime observers with his desire and ability to work the Legislature to push through his agenda.

“He was the best lobbyist I’ve ever seen in Olympia,” said Don Brunell of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s largest business group.

Most governors keep their distance, lobbying legislators discretely in the stately governor’s office down a flight of marble stairs from the House and Senate.

Lowry headed straight for the legislative chambers, taking members on in hallways, back rooms, elevators, or right at their desks. “I remember saying, ‘My God, how do we counter that?’ You can’t,” Brunell said. “I don’t think anyone can.”

A lunch-bucket guy who didn’t schmooze or strategize, Lowry was a rough-cut, double-barreled governor.

Instead of carefully crafting a media strategy, Lowry made headlines before even taking office for embracing a major tax hike to close a state budget gap.

He was quickly dubbed “Governor Mayhem” and helped bring about a tax revolt that ironically will be among his most enduring legacies.

“I-601 was a direct result of the tax increases in the 1993 session,” said Len McComb, director of the state Department of Revenue.

The tax increase also obscured Lowry’s real passion for cutting government waste and pruning the bureaucracy to funnel more dollars into essential services and programs.

Lowry cut the rate of growth of state employees outside of education dramatically. By the time he left office, the state work force was growing more slowly than the state population.

Lowry also cut growth in state spending by more than half from an average of 9 percent a year in the decade before he took office to 4 percent in 1995.

He cut state spending on travel by 25 percent his first year in office, and slashed state workers compensation insurance rates 10 percent, saving businesses about $100 million last year.

His successful overseas trade missions opened lucrative export markets, and Lowry pushed through business tax breaks that helped generate 174,600 new jobs since taking office.

The record shows Lowry’s biggest commitment was to helping children and the poor. During Lowry’s administration the waiting list for state-subsidized child care was eliminated, and health insurance was extended to 140,000 adults and 195,000 low-income kids.

He cut a determinedly proletarian profile in the state’s highest office, slicing his own salary $31,000 a year; paying his own telephone bill at the governor’s mansion; buying his own groceries and kicking in $100 a month to help maintain and gas up his state car.

A former congressman, Lowry also opted not to participate in either the federal or state pension plans. “He wanted to live as his constituents were living and that means no special pensions and no special treatment,” said Jordan Dey, the governor’s press secretary.

Yet criticism of the governor was crude and rude. The Valley Tavern in Hadlock, Wash., printed a picture of the governor bannered with the warning, “Avoid alcohol during pregnancy. Your child could look like this.”

Early on, Lowry blamed his troubles in part on the media, who he branded “unwitting subsidiaries of the right wing of the Republican Party” after a string of stories about his tax proposals.

His relationship with the press ranged from fragile to toxic, and by the end of the term, he would grant no one-on-one interviews to assess his administration or future plans.

Even his friends recall his term with a sigh.

“Oh dear,” said Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, who supported Lowry for more than 20 years. “His legacy is going to be mixed, unfortunately. It makes me sad to talk about it. I used to be part of the Mike Lowry cult, but it’s a legacy of great sadness, of great missed opportunity.”

During the last legislative session she threw her support behind a Democratic challenger for governor, concerned Lowry could not win a second term because of questions about his conduct.

Lots of questions.

Less than halfway through his term Lowry was the butt of jokes, allegations of sexual misconduct and worse.

After the allegations of sexual misconduct, women’s groups urged Lowry not to run again. So did leaders in his own party, from legislative colleagues to the state party chairman.

Lowry paid $97,500 out of his own pocket to his accuser, Susanne Albright, a former press aide, in hopes of putting the controversy behind him. But in the minds of many, that only made him look guilty of charges she never filed.

He grew increasingly isolated, with his own party moving further to the right every year as the Republican tide rose.

As the political rhetoric of the day embraced restricting the civil rights of gay people, putting criminals on chain gangs and rolling back abortion rights, Lowry held news conferences to champion liberal values.

He defended the right of gay people to live and work where they choose and marry each other.

He made it clear any bill restricting abortion rights would be vetoed, and stuck up for the rights of even condemned murderers, vetoing a bill passed by the Legislature to cut off organ transplants and other medical assistance for inmates on death row.

An opponent of capital punishment, he insisted on flying to Walla Walla to look condemned murderer Charles Campbell in the eye before letting the execution proceed.

That kind of courage brought Lowry praise even from his political adversaries. “When Mike Lowry says something, you always know exactly where he stands,” said House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee.

Asked what he’ll do now, Lowry said he honestly doesn’t know.

After a triumphant State of the State address Tuesday, Lowry told reporters he would continue to be active on children’s issues, and perhaps join with other former governors in a bipartisan push for change.

He didn’t rule out running for public office again. “If there are ways I can be of help I would like to be,” he said with a smile.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


 

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