OLYMPIA – He saw Washington state through an earthquake, a recession, two droughts, an energy crunch and the post-Sept. 11 confusion. But as Gary Locke prepares to leave office next month, the two-term governor – a popular Asian American leader once talked of as a potential Al Gore vice presidential pick – gets mixed reviews.
Friends and supporters say he accomplished much for a Democrat hemmed in by events and by Republican lawmakers running one or both houses of the Legislature throughout his tenure.
“He’s sort of a one-step-at-a-time guy, and these are one-step-at-a-time times,” said longtime Locke friend and adviser Blair Butterworth. “Gary fit the times, and he did it admirably and with honor.”
But Locke’s foes – and some former political allies – call him a do-nothing who was cautious to a fault. Despite tremendous promise and popularity, they say, Locke never showed much vision or used his political horsepower on the sort of sweeping changes that leave a real legacy.
“I don’t think history will remember Gary Locke,” said Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. “Leadership means leading, taking chances, spending your political capital, being bold. … He tried to be everything to everyone, and he ended up accomplishing nothing.”
Locke vowed to be “the education governor” – only to be snubbed by the state teachers union, bitter over Locke’s refusal to back more taxes for teacher pay and schools.
He delighted Republicans last year by sticking to a no-new-taxes budget. Now, only weeks before he leaves, he’s proposed a half-billion dollars in new taxes.
“It’s really hard to stand on top of the fence,” said Sen.-elect Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
‘An immense pride’
Locke faced high expectations from the start. A young deputy prosecutor for King County, he was elected to the statehouse in 1982, moving quickly to lead the powerful Appropriations Committee. After a decade there, Locke in 1993 became King County executive. A year later, he married Mona Lee, a television reporter in Seattle.
In 1996, Gary Locke ran for governor. He survived a tough Democratic primary, then trounced Christian conservative Ellen Craswell in a November landslide election. Four years later, he easily beat Republican radio talk-show host John Carlson. He became head of the Democratic Governors’ Association and last year delivered the Democrats’ response to President Bush’s State of the Union speech.
Locke’s political career was buoyed by his life story. Born to a Chinese immigrant couple in 1950, he spent his first six years in a public housing project in Seattle. He grew up speaking Chinese. He learned English in kindergarten as his mother struggled to learn it from a worn Chinese-English dictionary.
He worked in his father’s grocery store and patched together jobs, financial aid and scholarships to attend Yale. He graduated in 1972 and three years later got his law degree from Boston University. When he became governor, Locke noted that his grandfather had been a household servant in an Olympia home about a mile from the governor’s mansion. It took the Lockes 100 years, he’d joke, to travel that one mile.
“He was an immense pride to the Asian community,” Butterworth said. “He was speaking for a huge number of immigrants who had had their mile that they’d traveled.”
University of Washington professor David Olson predicts that Locke’s ties to China and its booming economy will be the governor’s biggest legacy, one that may not be fully appreciated for 20 or 30 years.
Shortly after taking office, Locke led a trade mission to China. On his last day, he and his family visited the Guangdong Province village where Locke’s father was born. Thousands of Chinese schoolchildren lined the roads to greet them.
Friends and foes
In office, Locke pushed reluctant lawmakers to approve a 5-cent gas tax increase to pay for billions of dollars in transportation work. After getting a black eye over Boeing’s unexpected decision to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago, Locke got the Legislature to approve $3.2 billion in tax breaks and incentives for Boeing to assemble its next-generation airliner, the 7E7, in Washington state.
“I think he’s going to be known as the governor who saved Boeing – and a lot of jobs,” said Martha Choe, former head of the state office of Community, Trade and Economic Development.
Over Democratic objections, last year he instituted a revolutionary “priorities of government” approach to the state budget, prioritizing government services and then allocating dollars on the basis of what’s deemed most important. It sounds like common sense, but it was a dramatic change from a mindset of basing each budget on whatever each agency had gotten in the previous budget.
In the midst of the recession, Locke infuriated the state teachers union – and drew accolades from Republicans – for refusing to press for a tax increase, even for something as popular as schools.
Locke also created “Promise Scholarships,” aimed at students from middle-class families. He angered some Democrats again when he backed welfare reform, cutting the rolls 43 percent and forcing recipients to find jobs.
Citing the wounded economy, Locke also went along with “suspending” two citizen initiatives that were supposed to steer hundreds of millions of dollars into teacher salaries and shrink the number of students in classrooms.
“Our members felt they had been betrayed,” said Washington Education Association President Charles Hasse, particularly because Locke hadn’t voiced similar worries about the gas tax increase.
“You never make progress on these things unless the bully pulpit is used, unless somebody is a strong advocate for what it will take to move forward on schools,” Hasse said. “These students won’t have another chance, another two years in a noncrowded classroom to do over.”
‘A steady hand’
Last week, Locke proposed reinstating those initiatives, with the cost paid by a new tax on beer, soda pop, wine and liquor. It’s unclear, however, whether the incoming governor will support that idea.
To spur the economy, Locke pushed for business-friendly reforms and promoted rural phone-and-data service – which expands access to the Internet and other networks – a move that advocates predict will be as beneficial to struggling areas as electrification once was.
Many of Locke’s accomplishments – his office will be happy to provide an 18-page list – are incremental things, policy tweaks designed to help rural economies, conserve energy, decrease pollution, help salmon, conserve water and streamline government.
“I think he will go down in history as someone who presided over some of the toughest times in state history and didn’t do anything earth-shattering but was a steady hand,” Choe said.
It’s no accident, friends say, that one of Locke’s favorite hobbies is working around the house. He likes to work on cars, do plumbing, fix wiring. During key budget talks in 1991, he broke two vertebrae by falling off the roof of his Seattle home when a ladder shifted.
“Gary is a tinkerer,” Vance said. “He’s very good at the minutiae of fixing bills and writing budgets. But he never had a big picture for the state. He’s a detail guy, not a visionary.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University.
“It would be fair to say he’s not a super-charismatic leader, but most leaders aren’t,” Nice said. “Frankly, it’s not at all practical for a governor all the time to seize the bully pulpit and mold the minds of voters. It often doesn’t work very well, and it often annoys people.”
“It should also be noted that Gary Locke ran a clean ship of state,” said Olson, the UW professor. “This has been a largely corruption-free eight years, and that’s not always been the case in Washington state politics.”
Locke’s predecessor, Mike Lowry, left after one term, battered by two accusations of sexual misconduct, one of which he paid $97,500 to settle.
Locke brought something else to the office: a young family. Mona Lee Locke gave birth to a daughter, Emily, in 1997. A son, Dylan, was born two years later. Last month, a second daughter, Madeline, was born.
It had been decades since young children scampered around the governor’s mansion. Locke stuck his children’s stick-figure artwork on the walls of his stately office, and tricycles and a jungle gym appeared on the mansion’s front lawn. Locke would rush home from night meetings to cut up an apple – a Washington-grown Fuji, thank you very much – and read books to the children. And he was the first governor in a very long time to bristle at reporters during a press conference, then to explain that he’d been up all night with a colicky baby.
Still, it’s hard to have a normal childhood when your yard’s guarded by state troopers, your home’s open to public tours and the local newspaper treats your first day of kindergarten as front-page news.
“It’s not a normal environment for raising a family,” Locke said. “It’s not like you have kids next door that Emily and Dylan can see playing outside and just run out and join them. There are no kids within a quarter-mile.”
Those sorts of concerns are a big part of why he chose not to run for a third term, he said.
“I just think it’s time. We’re ready for another chapter in our life,” he said. He said he’s proud of what he’s done in office, “but I also believe eight years is enough. Especially with the age of the kids, to grow up in a more normal setting.”
In a Dec. 13 interview, Locke denied rumors that he’d lined up a job with a major Seattle law firm. Asked what he wants to do next, he said, “I really don’t know yet.”
“This may sound strange, but he’s a really good man and has extraordinarily good values,” Butterworth said. “Given how willing we are to demonize our elected officials, that’s a legacy of decency and honor that means something.”