Adams Aftermath: Strong Emotions, Political Scramble
A week after the newspaper report that finished Sen. Brock Adams' re-election campaign, the state is awash in emotions:
The senator's followers are hurt and angry, either at The Seattle Times or at Adams. Some of his alleged victims feel vindicated; others feel insulted by his failure to acknowledge they exist. Some media critics feel bolstered in their distrust of journalism. Some voters feel bolstered in their distrust of politicians.
And some politicians, surveying the scene, feel a sense of anticipation - and a tinge of guilt for feeling it.
For those who practice or follow politics, everything is different today than it was one week and one day ago, before The Times reported that eight women say they were sexually harassed or molested by Adams over a period of 20 years. The allegations included several instances of drugging and a rape, and the women, though unnamed in the articles, backed their claims by signing statements attesting to the truth of their stories and acknowledging they could be required to testify should Adams sue the newspaper.
Hours after the report was published last Sunday, Adams denied the allegations but withdrew from the Senate race. Since then, he has returned to Washington, D.C., where his Senate colleagues seem neither to have welcomed nor shunned him.
Adams says he plans to stay in office until his term ends in January. Unless the Senate Ethics Committee investigates the claims and substantiates them, there is no reason to believe he'll be forced to do otherwise, at least so far as the law is concerned. The Ethics Committee has shown no public interest in the matter.
At home, meanwhile, the report touched off a political scramble that seemed somehow less than spontaneous. Gov. Booth Gardner, for example, said Monday he had avoided "thinking downstream" about the possibility Adams' alleged sexual behavior would come to light.
"I consciously did not try to think through this issue in advance, even though all of us had some premonition something like this might occur," Gardner said.
Gardner's statement suggested an aspect of the newspaper report many found significantly troubling: that people close to Adams knew of "Brock's problem," as one woman in the original story put it, but chose to keep silent about it.
The Times found itself answering to some of the same criticism. In a front-page note accompanying last Sunday's story, Executive Editor Michael R. Fancher explained to readers that reporters had been investigating the claims against Adams for 3 1/2 years. The inquiry had begun in September 1988, when former congressional aide Kari Tupper publicly alleged Adams had drugged and molested her at his Washington home a year and a half earlier.
Throughout the week, Fancher appeared on television and in newspaper interviews deflecting claims, among others, that the report was a finely timed political hit piece. If the paper heard of "Brock's problem" in 1988, the critics said, why did it wait until March 1, six months before the primary election, to reveal it?
Fancher responded that, among other factors, Adams' decision to run for re-election influenced some of the women to come forward with their stories only recently.
Other critics concentrated on the journalistic precedent of using the newspaper to level serious, felony-level allegations at a person without saying who the accusers are.
Fancher's response was that the newspaper believed the allegations to be true - based on extensive reporting and research - and had tried to persuade the women to go on the record. When that seemed impossible, the editors decided to publish with the signed agreements in hand.
It was a story, Fancher said, that had to be told.
Certainly it was a story that found an audience. The New York Times printed an article about the printing of the article, and the report was featured on ABC's "Nightline," CNN's "Crossfire," NBC's "The Today Show" and the "CBS Evening News," among other television programs.
Many journalists and media critics defended the paper's use of unnamed sources. The local press was especially supportive. As of Friday, 13 daily newspapers in the state, from Spokane to Aberdeen to Bellevue, had printed editorials praising The Times and urging Adams to resign.
Karen Marchioro, chairwoman of the state Democratic party, said she was confident The Times had reported the allegations carefully, a statement widely seen as the final break in her tenuous support of Adams.
Literally before the senator had completed Sunday's emotional news conference, with his wife, Betty, and his daughter Kokie at his side, political pros were sizing up the fallout.
Which candidate would benefit from Adams' withdrawal? Mike Lowry, the Democratic former congressman who hasn't officially entered the campaign? Patty Murray, the Democratic state senator who is the only woman in the race? U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler, the Bellevue Republican who immediately became the contestant with the most money?
Who else might enter? Gardner? Former U.S. Rep. Don Bonker? Jean Enersen, the local TV anchor? A list was quickly drafted and debated.
Politicians and their hangers-on, including reporters, quite often are self-interested, cynical, speculative and taken with gallows humor. But the lightning-quick segue from a disgraced candidate's exit to a campaign field's partisan maneuvering left a bitter taste, even among some political pros.
"Brock's life fell apart a little over a week ago," says Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant. Political questions, he says, "are so outweighed by the tragedy of this that the politics are incidental, minuscule, insulting."
Yet the political maneuvering quickens. Yesterday's meeting of the state's Democratic party executive board - to consider pressuring Adams to resign - illustrates again that politics is an impatient business. Marchioro and Jeff Smith, the party's executive director, say they have a responsibility to Democrats that goes beyond one man.
THE GARDNER FACTOR
The implication is that the "one man" they mean is Adams. But before spring has sprung they may be using the same logic to coax Gardner into the race.
The governor had made the decision to bow out of politics, at least for the time being, after two generally successful terms in Olympia. He was tired, he said last fall. He wanted a sabbatical. He didn't want to challenge the incumbent Adams anyway. If all went well, he hinted, he might return in 1994 to take on the Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.
But when Adams pulled out of the race, all eyes turned to Gardner. Would he reconsider running for the Senate if his candidacy could save the seat for the Democrats?
"I was hopeful this would be a decision I would never have to make," the governor told reporters Monday.
He said he would decide whether to run after the Legislature adjourns, which it is scheduled to do this Thursday.
That he is regarded as the linchpin of the campaign can be seen by the results of yesterday's executive-board meeting. In leaving the resignation decision for Adams, but pointedly keeping its options open, the party committee is lying low until it knows the governor's mind.
Gardner, the committee all but said, is the 800-pound gorilla of state politics.
Here's why. As a moderate Democrat with a decent record, a personal fortune, excellent business connections and a history of high voter popularity, Gardner looks to some like an unbeatable candidate.
"He'll run and he'll win," said a top Republican strategist at the Capitol last week.
When even the opposition thinks you're a lock to win, your chances are pretty good.
While generally keeping his options open, though, the governor made one decision party leaders noticed: He said that if Adams resigns he, Gardner, won't appoint himself to the vacancy.
Now we're left with two possibilities.
-- Gardner decides to run for the office. If that happens, if he becomes a candidate who has ruled out taking a short-term Senate appointment, an Adams resignation would prompt the appointment of a lame-duck, caretaker senator.
From a political view, there would be virtually no advantage to such a scenario. Instead of infuriating Adams and alienating his hard-core supporters by asking for his resignation, therefore, the party likely would hold its counsel and let the senator retire in peace.
Adams endorsed Gardner for the seat last week, a move some figured was rooted in his desire to serve out his term. Others said Adams simply likes Gardner better than Lowry.
-- Gardner decides not to run. In that event, the governor's ability to appoint another Democrat becomes a powerful political tool. Instead of an open-seat contest on what the politicians call "a level playing field," the appointed senator would get the advantages in raising money, communicating with voters - and maybe even passing some legislation - that an incumbent enjoys.
If the appointee were Lowry, the benefit would be even greater. After losing two previous Senate campaigns, Lowry's biggest knock is that he's too liberal to win a statewide campaign. His detractors say people just can't imagine lefty Mike Lowry in the United States Senate.
An appointment, even for a few months before the fall election, could change all that.
"If Adams were to resign and Booth were to appoint Lowry, I think you would find that would help a lot," says Butterworth, the Democratic consultant. "People would see the world would not come to an end with Mike Lowry in the Senate. The sun would come up in the morning."
For the Democrats, the potential benefits of such a scenario might encourage them to try persuading Adams to step aside.
THE WILD CARDS
There's also a chance, of course, that Gardner and Lowry both will join the race, setting up a primary that the conventional wisdom says would go to Gardner.
But the most inside of the inside politicos - the pollsters - have their doubts. The 800-pound gorilla, these doubters say, has been losing weight and nobody seems to have noticed.
"I think Mike Lowry would be awfully tough to beat in a Democratic primary, even by Booth," says Alan Secrest, who until last Sunday was Adams' pollster.
Gardner's legendary popularity is now more memory than reality, Secrest says. Gardner suffered during the teachers' strike last year and his ratings in polls, according to Secrest, are adequate but not overpowering, especially against a strong liberal with a loyal base, like Lowry.
"He is no icon," Secrest says of Gardner.
Bob Moore, the region's top Republican pollster, who is working for Chandler, has a similar assessment.
"He is certainly not as popular as the conventional wisdom had him," Moore said Friday. "I don't know where he is today, but when we looked at it last fall, we concluded he would have had a tough time getting re-elected governor. Or at least it would not have been a cakewalk."
Lowry, Moore said, might be an even bet to upset Gardner in the primary.
Furthermore, either one of them conceivably could be blindsided by Murray, who has neither the experience, the money, the advisers nor the staff most politicos look for as signs of campaign promise.
What she has is a fresh perspective and a lot of gumption in a year voters are sick of politics as usual. And as a woman, she might profit on a subconscious level from Adams' troubles, even if she never mentions them.
"You look back at the United States Senate and there are 98 men and two women who look exactly alike," Murray says. "They have the same perspective. They're millionaires. They haven't balanced the home checkbook in years. What that place needs is someone who understands exactly what it's like to live in communities today and live with policies they're making.
"Booth and Lowry and everyone else," she says, "they all look exactly like the people who are already back there."
Last week, Murray got a boost from several women's groups that, freed from helping Adams, said they would consider endorsing her. While most analysts still consider her an extreme long shot, they acknowledge that if she locks up some key support, raises some cash and builds some momentum, she could emerge as a dark horse.
THE CENTRAL FIGURES
If all this is distasteful to Butterworth, it probably seems especially so to Adams' supporters and to the women who allege he harassed them or worse.
Tupper, speaking last week after The Times story was published, clearly was not thinking of politics. Rather, she saw the stories of eight other women as a vindication, although a sad one, of her own 4-year-old claims.
"It's been a roller coaster from exhilaration to immense relief to anger to exhaustion and sadness," she said.
Some of the women whose stories were told last Sunday also were feeling many emotions.
"He may have begun to mend the damage he has done within his own family, but he hasn't mended the hurt for all of the many victims he left behind," said the woman who was a secretary to Adams for more than a decade.
"He needs to apologize to all of us."
The senator didn't do that since, he said, he couldn't respond to "hypothetical comments by hypothetical people." That despite the fact the stories contained a substantial amount of detail about several of the accusers and the circumstances of their accusations.
Adams and his staff said they were angry that, for all practical purposes, his 30-year political career was coming to an end. It was a career that had more than its share of highlights.
First elected to Congress as an idealistic young Democrat in 1964, Adams had a distinguished House career and became President Carter's secretary of transportation before returning to private law practice in 1979 and then upsetting Gorton to win his Senate seat in 1986.
As those accomplishments receded behind last week's front-page headlines, Adams walked away glum but defiant.
"This is the saddest day of my life," he said. "I have devoted over 31 years of my life to public service and I care for people and I have never harmed anyone."
On the part about it being a sad day, there were no arguments.
Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.