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Tuesday, January 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Meet The Governor Of Details -- Personally, Gary Locke Thinks More Of Plumbing Than Partying

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

GARY LOCKE, who becomes governor tomorrow, prefers plumbing to partying, and is known among friends as straight-laced and serious.

Bill Clinton didn't inhale. Gary Locke couldn't even get the cork out of the bottle.

The year was 1988 and the one-time Eagle Scout had accumulated a lot of merit badges during six years in the Legislature. Enough that he had just won the coveted chairmanship of the House budget-writing committee. So Locke and his political mentor, Ruth Woo, decided to celebrate.

How to celebrate, though, was a problem. Locke rarely samples anything stronger than Pepsi.

When Woo's husband, Ben, got home, he found on the kitchen table a bottle of zinfandel he had been saving for a couple of years. Only a sip or two was gone. The cork was floating in the wine, signaling a futile battle to open the bottle properly.

Locke's friend, Seattle teacher Carol Austin, chuckles when she hears that story.

"I'm not sure I've ever met anybody more straight-laced," she says. "When I tried to fix him up with dates, I'd tell them, `He's a really nice guy, but very serious. At the end of the night, though, if you ask him in for a cup of tea, that's all he's going to ask for.' "

In the 14-year career path from the statehouse to the King County Executive's Office to the governor's mansion, Locke has been no political innocent. He often played the role of the arch-partisan in the Legislature, delivering stinging attacks on Republicans. Critics complain he can be a difficult and at times slippery negotiator.

In private life, though, the man who will become Washington's 21st governor tomorrow remains more Jimmy Stewart's earnest Mr. Smith than Bill Clinton's saxophone-blowing life-of-the-party.

Locke's free time is spent sweating over plumbing and auto overhauls. He has a passion for horticulture: grafting fruit trees, ministering a friend's ailing gardenias, growing orchids in his office.

Locke's tenure as King County executive may wind up graded on the future of professional football and baseball in Seattle, but he isn't much of a sports buff. While his wife, Mona Lee Locke, spends Sundays watching her beloved 49ers on television, Gary does the laundry. Until he wed two years ago, Locke's version of a night out was taking in an action flick or showing up at his married friends' homes to make coffee-almond ice cream.

He's kept his private side so private that the Seattle Weekly once dubbed him, "The Man Who Mistook the Legislature for his Life." A few of the people Locke lists as his most influential advisers - the people he touches base with on big decisions - say they've never even had a social dinner with him.

And then there is that wooden, policy-wonk image. It still slips into play occasionally, like when he recently referred to the couple's first baby, due in March, as "the impending child."

But these days, Locke takes a cue from Vice President Al Gore and uses his image as a chance to show off a sense of humor. When told that a reporter was writing a personality profile about him, Locke deadpanned, "Is that possible?"

On the stump, warm-and-fuzzy has never come easy for Locke.

The 46-year-old governor-elect has always been more comfortable overwhelming audiences with intricacies of government finances than warming a crowd with jokes and personal stories.

The gubernatorial campaign, by plan, was different.

Locke offered his own background as a parable for the American Dream. His great-grandfather came to America in the late 1800s, working in California, before returning to his family in China. His grandfather, arriving in America as a teenager at the turn of the century, took a job as a houseboy in Olympia, just blocks from the state Capitol.

His father, raised in China, was the first to settle permanently in America - owning a restaurant in the Pike Place Market and later, a corner grocery on Queen Anne. A near-fatal shooting of his father in a stick-up helped to prod Locke into public life. His mother, Locke would tell audiences, raised five kids, and, at age 60, enrolled in an "Idioms of American English" class at a local community college.

But another favorite Locke campaign tale - how he seemed headed down the wrong path until a sixth-grade teacher at Beacon Hill Elementary straightened him out - brings chuckles from friends and relatives.

The memory of a wayward young Locke is one that none of them share.

"Well, I was starting to give my parents some lip," recalls Locke, when pressed about how wayward he really was. "I felt very insecure in school. That teacher opened all these possibilities for me."

Perhaps appropriately for a guy who loves plumbing and would go on to run King County, Locke gained a measure of self-assurance with a sixth-grade report on, of all things, Metro's efforts to clean up Lake Washington. Locke was fascinated with the project's huge sewer pipes.

The teacher encouraged his interest, praising his work and urging him to give an oral report to the class. Eventually, the teacher selected him as a student leader on field trips.

By the time he graduated from Franklin High School, his yearbook entry resembled a resume: honor student, senior class and student-body chairman, member of the choir, swim team, track team and "Bye, Bye Birdie" cast.

Locke spent much of the tumultuous 1960s as an undergraduate at Yale, which he attended on a scholarship. He then earned his law degree at Boston University.

He went to anti-war demonstrations, but gets far more animated recalling his experience each summer during high school and college directing a Boy Scout camp in the Cascades.

"I loved it. It was hard physical labor," he says, pointing to a framed picture of his fellow counselors. "We'd create new nature trails and look after all the young kids."

In 1982, Locke, then a King County deputy prosecutor, decided to run for a $13,000-a-year state House seat. His father was less than thrilled.

"Chinese people didn't think about politics," says the elder Locke. "Gary was good at math and science. He was a lawyer. I thought he should find something more suitable."

On election night last November, in a hotel suite filled with reporters, Locke did a very un-Locke thing as returns showed him easily winning election as the first Asian-American governor on the U.S. mainland: He broke out singing "Something Good" from "The Sound of Music."

"Gary's got that warm, personal side to him," says Mary Charles, a close friend. "I just don't know what it takes to unlock that in public."

He attacks outside interests much like his approach to the budget, arming himself with encyclopedic knowledge and fixating on the details. He remodeled the bathroom in his first house three times. When the power windows on the car of one of his drivers broke during the campaign, Locke fretted much of the night about the problem and helped fix it the next day.

That intensity was often seen as rudeness or aloofness. Ruth Woo and other mentors schooled Locke on social niceties such as small talk and writing thank-you notes.

But even with reporters, Locke, whose first marriage in the 1970s ended in divorce, talked openly about his yearning for a family.

As a single guy, he adopted friends like the Woos and Austins and the Charleses as his second family, dropping in at their houses several times a week for dinner.

Living alone for so many years, says Charles, helps to explain Locke's sometimes frustrating decision-making process: He solicits advice from all sorts of people, but rarely drops clues about where he's headed or what he believes.

Charles believes his marriage to Mona Lee Locke, a former KING-TV reporter, has not only loosened Locke up but changed his way of doing business.

"He has really mellowed," says Charles. "Gary is a shy guy who was pretty much all alone for all those years. He made difficult decisions by himself, with no one to lean on, no one whose interests he had to juggle."

Marriage, like many of Locke's pursuits, wasn't a product of snap judgment. His friends saw Mona on television when she moved here from Wisconsin, then called her up and asked if she'd like to meet Locke. Mona says she resisted the idea, thinking, "Oh, gawd, I don't like politicians."

Her impression didn't change much after their first date, when Locke asked Mona whether he should run for governor in 1992.

Locke passed on that race. But he persisted with Mona, with friendship growing into courtship.

When Locke finally proposed, it was with an unusually flamboyant gesture. But one, typically, with all the details ironed out. He hired a plane to trail a banner that read, "Mona, I love you. Will you love me." Friends watched for the plane, then signaled to Locke, who was inside Mona's apartment. He blindfolded Mona and led her to the roof, where a bottle of champagne and flowers were waiting.

James Locke says its a good thing his son didn't run for governor that first time, before he got married: "When you have that governor's mansion, it's a big house. You've got to have a first lady."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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