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Sunday, May 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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JONI BALTER

Though dinged for his style, Locke's going to be Locke

Times editorial columnist

IT'S fashionable these days to lament the leadership style of Gov. Gary Locke. Insiders from across the political spectrum join in a full-throttle whine: He's too low-key. Too spineless. Too much of an incrementalist.

Members of the chattering class, myself included, often urge Locke to be more forceful. His limited use of the bully pulpit, along with a tendency to lay low amid heated debates such as last year's Initiative 695, is not the most desired trait for the CEO of a dynamic state.

But Locke and his advisers are betting this is largely an insiders' game. Watching the Locke campaign you realize they have accepted Locke for who he is - a budget-writer, a tinkerer, a public policy wonk. They're wagering his low-wattage leadership matches the moment.

"This is not a malleable pol. You can't reinvent him," said Blair Butterworth, Locke's campaign strategist. "Gary is personally popular because there is a sense he is grounded in who he is. . . . He's not a huge vision guy. He takes it step by step."

Butterworth's spinmeistering aside, if people preferred hot, brassy leaders, why did the hyper-boiling Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry have the support of one-fourth of the electorate at times during his term?

If people favored dynamic leaders, why was Gov. Booth Gardner so popular? The Mr. Rogers-like politician left office after two terms in 1992 but easily could have been re-elected to a third term. He focused on kids, education and the environment. Voters ate it up.

There are exceptions, of course. King County Executive Ron Sims is dynamic and popular. Former Gov. Dan Evans was forceful, visionary and successful.

It depends on the context of the times. With a booming economy, people generally feel content. Voters may cleave toward leaders who keep a steady hand on the tiller and assure the Good Ship Washington steers a steady course. People may not expect much from government right now.

In the months ahead, John Carlson, the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, will rant and rave about Locke's weak leadership skills. As opposed to what? A talk show host?

Be careful what you wish for, folks.

A first-grade teacher in Spokane said recently she likes Locke because he fights to improve education. Asked what she thinks of John Carlson, she responded with an earnest - and honest - "John who?"

Carlson now must introduce himself to people outside the Puget Sound radio audience. He hosted a show on KVI's "hot talk" radio for many years. But people outside the area don't know him.

Carlson tells me he'll introduce himself by traveling the state in his own variation of the Straight Talk Express - a bus tour through the hinterlands. His gimmick is a ripoff of John McCain, the onetime Republican presidential candidate, who ripped off the Clinton-Gore bus tour, who ripped off . . .

Along the way, the leadership question will be part of the dialogue. Is Locke a weak leader? Was he a player this past session?

The answer, like most things, is mixed. He worked from the sidelines much of the legislative session. In the final weeks, his top budget guy, Marty Brown, was at the table and involved. Locke's call for a second special session spurred the final go-home budget.

What did they go home with? Considerable new sums will be invested to reduce class sizes and build schools. Teacher testing will now be required. The Patients' Bill of Rights is welcome. Despite Locke's support, there was no progress on charter schools. Now, he'll back an initiative on charters.

Some damage done by the car-tab initiative was blunted for at least a year.

Not big sweeping vision, but still a positive outing.

"I have a different style," Locke explained as the session wound down. "I'm a more quiet, cerebral person. Maybe it is part of my culture. . . . I am who I am. I'm not a flashy, fist-pounding type of guy. I never have been. I just get it done."

Locke said he didn't intervene in budget negotiations until there was a legitimate impasse. Otherwise, everyone would have resented him.

Maybe. But he could have, should have, convinced Senate leaders to produce a modest property-tax cut. He could have, should have, persuaded the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass a charter-school bill.

If he plays his cards right, the governor will aggressively sell the education package he helped secure, though Tarzan-style, look-at-me, chest beating comes more naturally to his opponent.

Carlson, as the aphorism goes, can talk a dog off a meat wagon. He has to be careful not to talk the dog off the wagon too often, lest the Straight Talk Express become the Blabbermouth Express.

Washington voters sometimes like politicians more like Northwest weather - gray, dull and temperate.

Indeed, they may shun candidates with noisy ideological axes to grind - be they Lowry on the left or Carlson on the right.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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