Mike Lowry's Other Side -- Governor's Emotions Run High, Friends Say
OLYMPIA - Mike Lowry was livid.
It was 1993 and several social-service advocates were in his office to talk, they thought, about why the governor had cut a deal with lawmakers that got health-care reform passed but excluded migrant farmworkers from coverage.
Instead of a discussion, though, they got a tirade. Lowry lashed out at the group for complaining to reporters about the farmworkers' plight, saying it was an act of mistrust after all he had done for their causes over the years.
"He just exploded," recalled Rogelio Riojas, director of several farmworker clinics. The meeting became a shouting match.
"I never expected that," Riojas said.
Most people would be surprised to see Lowry - relentlessly affable and upbeat in public - in a temper tantrum behind closed doors.
It's a side of the governor rarely seen or talked about.
But in recent weeks, a fuller picture of the private Mike Lowry has emerged as he faces accusations of sexual harassment and deals with the subsequent resignations of two top aides. Lowry said in an interview last week that he has been under more intense scrutiny than any other politician. And his wife, Mary, said the allegations of sexual harassment have opened the door for the governor's enemies to attack him personally.
But details about the other side of Mike Lowry come largely from his friends and supporters, who offered them in his defense to paint a picture of the governor as a man whose emotions run high and can be easily misunderstood.
In answer to allegations that he sexually harassed his former deputy press secretary, the governor, his wife, and his friends say he's just an overly friendly guy and a boss who tries to put people at ease with a hug or a pat on the back or leg.
At the same time, though, Lowry and his friends concede he can be brutally insensitive to employees and others.
"I've known Mike for 25 or 30 years. I've never heard anything like this," Bob Gogerty, a Seattle political and business consultant
whom Lowry counts among his closest advisers told The Olympian newspaper last week. "Drinking? Yes. Arguing? Yes. . . . But sexual harassment? Never. Not once."
Lowry's explosive temper is also used to explain stories about his drinking, which he himself said was a problem in the past.
Those stories, said Jan Shinpoch, Lowry's administrative aide in Congress, "get real, real exaggerated by people who just can't believe that he would treat them that way when he was sober. Yelling at people is no real gauge of whether Mike has been drinking."
What does Lowry think about the favors his friends have been doing for him lately?
"My behavior," he said, "is darn good."
That's not what Susanne Albright, former deputy press secretary, says. She quit her job, she said, because of a persistent pattern of physical sexual harassment. She will not discuss the details of what happened. But her attorney, Larry Finegold, has said the behavior was more serious than good-natured pats or hugs.
Two other women, both former Lowry congressional aides, have also come forward to talk to the Seattle attorney who is investigating the harassment allegations against Lowry.
Last spring, a female State Patrol employee complained that Lowry inappropriately touched her while she was fingerprinting the governor for a White House security clearance. The attorney general's office said it could neither prove nor disprove the allegation.
Lowry said he had done nothing inappropriate to Albright and denied the State Patrol employee's charge.
Following the public airing of Albright's charges, Lowry's top lawyer, Jenny Durkan, resigned and a week later his press secretary, Anne Fennessy, said she was quitting, too. Durkan has said little about the reasons for her departure. Fennessy said she had been planning to leave for some time and that her decision should not be seen as indicating a lack of faith in Lowry.
The controversy is the biggest in a 20-year political career that has taken Lowry from the King County Council to Congress to the governor's mansion.
Lowry has long traded on an image of unflinching personal integrity: As governor, he gives 20 percent of his $121,000 salary back to the state; as a candidate, he refused to run negative ads and voluntarily imposed a $1,500 limit on contributions.
Throughout his career, Lowry has resisted talking about his personal life or even his personal thoughts. He says he doesn't like reporters trying to "get into my head."
Now that his behavior is under intense scrutiny, though, he has not only answered such questions but brings his wife along to interviews where she shares her own insights into the governor's psyche.
What difference does all this make to the job Lowry was elected to do?
QUICK TO ANGER, QUICK TO RECOVER
Fennessy, who has known Lowry for a decade, says she's never been bothered by Lowry's temper.
"He gets mad but I've never been intimidated," she said. Lowry is quick to anger and quick to recover, Fennessy said. Sometimes, she said, she would intentionally provoke Lowry, such as before a press conference, so he would let off steam in private rather than in front of the cameras.
"He may have a quick temper but he also has a quick humor," she said. In meetings with his staff, Lowry says little, lets others talk, uses a joke to lessen tension and then announces his decision.
"With Mike, what you see is what you get. The passion is there in private and public," said Walt Crowley, longtime political adviser and sometime speechwriter for Lowry. "The passion translates into unwavering beliefs and a sense of what's right. It also translates into impatience, stubbornness and anger that can make him a difficult person."
Sometimes it isolates Lowry from even those closest to him.
"The big joke when I worked for Mike is that I was in his inner circle," said David Bley, a former Lowry congressional aide who now works for Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. "Mike's inner circle is Mike."
Lowry said if he had a dollar for every person that claimed to be one of his close advisers, "We could house the homeless."
A Lowry aide who recently has been among the closest to the governor, deputy press secretary Jordan Dey, said what is sure to set Lowry off is "when people try to get him to move away from his principles or try to overmanage him."
Nate Ford, a longtime ally who is a labor adviser to the governor, says Lowry sometimes has to watch his temper.
"When Mike gets excited, people think it's aimed at them. He can be intimidating," Ford said.
But Lowry is careful about who sees that side of him. Legislators say that in two years they have never seen the governor blow up.
"I've heard all those rumors," said Senate Majority Leader Marc Gaspard, D-Puyallup. "In all the meetings I've had with him there has never been anything other than a respectful discussion. He'll be very persuasive with his arguments, but he never raises his voice."
As in the meeting with Riojas, the farmworker official, though, Lowry expects unwavering loyalty. This has often put him at odds with one of the most powerful of Democratic Party financiers, the machinists union that represents Boeing workers.
In Congress, Lowry had a mixed record of support for the union's priorities, said Linda Lanham, the union's political director. So when it came time for endorsements for statewide races, the union backed Lowry's primary-election opponents.
"He just felt we were very disloyal," Lanham said. "He was, to say the least, very angry. He is a very emotional person. He wears his emotions on his sleeve."
The same stubbornness and political self-reliance can also make Lowry look like a more gutsy and outspoken politician than many.
During his first run for Congress in 1978, he kept talking about Indian fishing rights when advisers told him to shut up. He got into knockdown arguments with his staff in the 1992 governor's race over his insistence on a contribution limit. As governor, he has wielded his veto pen freely against some politically popular bills, such as ones aimed at pornography or regulatory-reform legislation that he felt went too far.
But Gogerty says the one-man-band style can also be a liability as governor. He and others openly criticized Lowry for putting together a weak staff of mostly longtime loyalists or campaign workers.
NO CHIEF OF STAFF
Just as in Congress, Lowry declined to hire a chief of staff. As chief executive of the state, Lowry still doesn't delegate decision-making powers well.
"Maybe his talents as a congressman were better utilized. He seems to be struggling here," said Michelle Aguilar, former executive director of the governor's office of Indian affairs.
Aguilar said she quit in part because she didn't have enough access to Lowry to be influential.
"He doesn't like the idea of others thinking for him," said Ford, a labor adviser. "Part of the growth he's had to go through as governor is realizing that it's too immense for him to do on his own."
But Lowry does not admit to political errors or misjudgments.
After the 1994 elections, which saw Republicans make their greatest gains in Olympia in nearly 50 years, Lowry said it was not a reflection of the job he or the Democrats had done.
Self-effacement has never been a strong suit.
On election night in 1983, after he was soundly beaten by Dan Evans in a U.S. Senate race, Lowry extolled the effort "as easily the best campaign in the history of the state of Washington."
In recent weeks, he has conceded to a few personal shortcomings.
Two weeks ago, he acknowledged that he grew worried about his drinking 10 years ago or so while in Congress.
"I have seen him appear to have consumed more alcohol than is prudent in a public setting," John Geise, an aide to former Republican Rep. Rod Chandler, said of seeing Lowry in Washington, D.C., during his congressional days.
In typical Lowry fashion, he contends he diagnosed the potential problem himself - then simply took it upon himself to moderate his behavior.
He has grudgingly said he may have made people uncomfortable with his "comradeship stuff" of hugging employees and patting them on the back.
"Everybody knows I'm that way," Lowry said last week. "I'm not that way more than an awful lot of other people. There are a lot of people when they haven't seen someone for a while, they hug.
"I want people to feel comfortable with me. I don't want people to think that I think I'm a big shot."
But the reaction can vary depending on whom he is patting or hugging.
"I can see where some of the things he did, being a very friendly person, could have been misunderstood by some people," said Tricia ;Wilson, Lowry's executive assistant for his last six years in Congress.
"It didn't bother me and a lot of people just took it as the way he was. But maybe the younger generation is more sensitive."
URGED TO TAME BEHAVIOR
The public Lowry is far more mellow than the 1984 congressional version who proclaimed that "the very survival of the world depends on beating Ronald Reagan."
Lowry claims he's even restrained his arm-waving enough that he can again wear a wristwatch without smashing it against a wall or door.
After the 1988 Senate-election loss to Slade Gorton, Nate Ford says, Lowry was urged to tame his aggressive behavior and think more about the image he was projecting.
Ford says, "Mike had a difficult time understanding his impact on other people, how his aggressiveness can make them feel threatened. He's worked on it."
The job of telling Lowry fell to his wife.
"Mary Lowry has talked to me about this numerous times," Lowry said. "Hundreds would not be an exaggeration."
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