In 22 years of public life, Gary Locke won every election in a landslide. That was certainly true of his two races for the governor’s office. Yet, he never turned those easy victories into mandates for bold action.
On Tuesday he delivered a farewell speech to lawmakers, but to many of them he remains a mystery. Conservatives felt like he was a big spending liberal. Liberals felt betrayed when he bucked their agenda, as he did on several occasions.
It’s not unusual for political centrists to hear carping from both sides, but it is unusual that such a popular candidate would squander his political capital. At the end of his eight years, it isn’t clear what he wanted to accomplish.
As a legislator, he worked hard for tax reform. As a governor, he kicked that can down the road. As a legislator, he proposed ambitious projects. As a governor, he always found reasons to wait. As a gubernatorial candidate, he spoke passionately about education. As governor, he championed Promise Scholarships, but sidestepped the bigger issue of funding for secondary and higher education.
Locke was more comfortable as a manager than a leader. He tackled problems as they arose, but did little to head them off. Unfortunately for the state, that leadership vacuum was filled with citizen initiatives, most of which have caused more problems than they’ve solved.
Locke was slow to respond to the widespread discontent over the motor vehicle excise tax. The result was a draconian change that is still reverberating through municipal governments. He was slow to engage the complaints of Boeing Corp., which eventually moved its headquarters to Illinois. And he didn’t effectively lead the charge for much-needed transportation projects. The result was a long delay that hurt the state’s economy.
That’s not to say he didn’t have positive achievements. His “priorities of government” initiative will make the state more efficient and accountable. Welfare reform was long overdue. He prevented the production of Boeing 7E7s from being exported to another state by producing a stunning financial package. But even that bold move was reactionary.
To be fair, he was constrained by an economy that was hit hard by the bursting high-tech bubble and the 9/11 attacks, but Locke seemed content to manage the economic crisis rather than devise a strategy to emerge from it.
To his credit, he looked at the bigger budgetary picture in signing legislation that repealed two expensive education initiatives. That cost him the support of a traditional ally, the state’s teachers union. He bucked another ally, labor unions, in reforming unemployment insurance. That achievement was among others Locke undertook to make the state more competitive.
But his business record would’ve been sullied had he gotten his way in imposing burdensome ergonomics rules. He was also late to recognize the importance of the University District to Spokane’s economic future. Eastern Washington leaders had to talk him out of a planned veto for the new Health Sciences center at the Riverpoint campus.
Locke’s rise to the top is inspirational. From humble beginnings, he became the first Chinese American in the nation to become governor. He served eight scandal-free years, which was a welcome relief from the administration of Mike Lowry.
Nobody doubts that he is a smart and honorable man. But, ultimately, what’s missing from his resume is the passion to lead and the willingness to take chances.
It’s telling that none of the Democratic candidates for governor this year embraced his legacy and that relative newcomer Dino Rossi was able to gain such traction as a Republican reformer.
Yes, Gary Locke never lost a race, and in bowing out this year, he was able to keep that record intact.
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