Gary Locke, the nation’s first Chinese-American governor, was inaugurated Wednesday amid international media attention, the adoring praise of more than 100 relatives and standing ovations from both sides of the legislative aisle.
Locke delivered an upbeat 30-minute address in which he reached back to his humble roots as the grandson of an immigrant houseboy employed one mile from the governor’s mansion.
“We’ve come a long way,” Locke said of his family. “Our journey was successful because the Locke family embraces three values: get a good education, work hard and take care of each other.
“I am humbled and honored to be the the first Asian-American governor in the continental United States. And honored to be the first person of color to be governor of the state of Washington,” the Democrat said to a standing ovation from a joint session of the Legislature.
The Yale-educated lawyer embraced a tax cut for middle-class families, which brought Democrats to their feet, then vowed to roll back business and occupation taxes to pre-1993 levels. That earned a standing ovation from the GOP.
Pledging to make education his top priority, Locke said he wants the state Constitution amended so school levies can be approved by a simple majority vote instead of the current 60 percent requirement.
Locke also promised to govern by four basic principles: Put education first, promote civility and reject violence and bigotry, judge every policy by whether it helps or hurts working families and protect the environment.
But Locke, 46, punted on two of the highest-profile social issues facing the Legislature: restricting abortion rights and banning same-sex marriages.
Locke, who stood up for gay rights and abortion rights on the campaign trail, was equivocal on both issues in his first news conference as governor.
Asked if he would sign a bill restricting abortion rights, Locke answered, “It depends.”
And if the Legislature sends him a bill banning gay marriage, as both the Republican-controlled House and Senate have promised, Locke said he doesn’t know if he’d sign it. “I would have to see the exact language,” he said.
Locke also remained vague on a gasoline tax hike, instead emphasizing the importance of crafting a “bipartisan solution” to transportation needs.
Locke did say he thinks Band-Aid solutions advanced by some, such as shifting about $100 million out of the state general fund to pay for roads, don’t go far enough.
“For one, it’s not that much money. And it begs the question of a comprehensive transportation program. I’m not into quick fixes.”
Locke’s property tax cut and school levy proposals put him on a collision course with Republican leaders. They like the current 60 percent “yes” vote requirement and don’t want the property tax burden shifted to businesses.
But Locke’s inaugural address was well-received by Republicans and Democrats alike, who appear to be going out of their way to help usher in the Locke administration on a positive, cooperative note.
Locke has made it easy for them by emphasizing popular themes such as getting people off welfare by putting them in jobs, supporting education, cutting taxes and supporting mainstream values such as hard work and responsibility.
“I could have given a similar kind of speech,” said Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, the Senate’s top budget-writer. “He was hitting on my themes, things I’ve been beating the drum on for years.”
Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, called Locke’s vision “realistic. … The emphasis on mainstream values was right. I think he is very in sync with the times. It’s where I would like to see the Democrats going.”
Republican leaders said Locke’s agenda is so similar to their own they can’t quite believe it, especially after four years of butting heads with former Gov. Mike Lowry, an outspoken liberal Democrat.
“I’m very encouraged,” said House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee. “We are starting on common ground.”
Senate Majority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, said he couldn’t believe his ears. “We have a governor saying what we’ve been saying. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I came here and everyone was talking about tax reductions.”
Locke will benefit from his longstanding relationships with legislative leaders in both parties.
Both McDonald and Ballard hugged Locke on the speaker’s rostrum before Locke’s address and appeared to mean it.
Locke and Ballard joined the House at the same time in 1983, and McDonald and Locke spent five years together hammering out budgets in closed-door conference committees.
He never thought he would wind up where he is now, Locke said. “Never did I think I would be governor of the state of Washington. It’s just a very exciting day, a real whirlwind. And very humbling.”
Around noon, when Lowry’s term officially ended, Locke crossed paths with the outgoing governor as Locke walked into his imposing Capitol office for the first time.
“He left a very clean office,” Locke said of Lowry. But when Locke checked over the governor’s massive wooden desk, he found something Lowry had left behind.
“The only thing I found was a ‘Gary Locke for governor’ button.”
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