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Tuesday, July 25, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lowry running again; addresses mistakes

Seattle Times staff reporter

Nearly four years after leaving the governor's mansion under a cloud of scandal, Mike Lowry lowered his sights and popped back into politics yesterday, announcing his candidacy for state commissioner of public lands.

Saying he was urged to enter the race by environmentalists and party members, the one-term Democratic governor and former Seattle congressman claimed his interest in a less prominent statewide position - overseeing the Department of Natural Resources and management of state timber trust lands - shows "just how critical the office is."

"I've got the background on the issues; I've worked them for years," Lowry said.

But while he's eager to make a return to public life, Lowry acknowledged he must first tackle his past. The last two years of his term, he faced allegations of sexual misconduct by a State Patrol technician and a deputy press secretary in his office. He eventually settled the press secretary's claims by paying her $97,500.

Despite Lowry's baggage, state Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt is confident he'll win the Democratic primary because he's well-known among voters statewide. He called Lowry "the 800-pound gorilla" in the 2000 race to replace retiring Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher.

He faces state Sen. Georgia Gardner, D-Blaine, in September's primary, and the winner would run against Republican Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland.

"I believe it will be very hard to defeat him in a Democratic primary," Berendt said of Lowry.

Lowry's unusual announcement comes at a time when Democrats are digging in to the ranks of ex-congressmen to fill relatively obscure statewide seats. At least three former federal lawmakers this year alone are seeking statewide office: Lowry; Mike Kreidler, for insurance commissioner, and Don Bonker, who left the House in 1988 and plans to announce later this week his candidacy for secretary of state.

Berendt said it's a reflection on the growing stature of statewide offices, while Bonker said it's simply rare that three Democratic incumbents would be leaving at the same time.

Still other Democrats said former members of Congress know better than most how much more influence they can have in a state position.

"In our minds we have some hierarchy of the value of these offices," said Democratic activist Jeff Smith. "But if you've ever worked in a legislative office you quickly learn you're one of many, and many of the others are buffoons. These gentlemen would have the ability to set the course for their offices."

For his part, Lowry, 61, said he considered lands commissioner the second-most influential state job - behind the governor.

"I think if we look at what really counts, for the future, for after we're no longer here, it's how we handle our natural resources," he said.

Yesterday, even as he touted his credentials, including five terms in the U.S. House representing the 7th Congressional District, Lowry made direct reference to the sexual-harassment charges that helped influence his decision not to seek a second term as governor in 1996.

Calling it his "responsibility to address another issue," he issued a statement that came closer than he ever has to acknowledging he'd made mistakes.

"As many of you will recall, in 1994, concerns were raised about my behavior toward one of my staff and, as a result of an independent investigation initiated by my office, other individuals as well," Lowry wrote.

"While the investigator did not believe a jury would find in the staff member's favor, that is not the critical point. What is most important is that the inquiry helped me to identify and understand that I caused pain and discomfort.

"I profoundly regret that I offended or upset others, and sincerely apologize to those who have worked for me, supported me, and counted on me over the years," he added.

Berendt said Lowry was merely trying to get the issue out of the way, and didn't expect it to surface much in the campaign.

"A lot of water's come under the bridge, lessons have been learned and I think people are ready to move on," Berendt said.

But Lowry's Republican opponent, Sutherland, said he found it surprising Lowry issued such a statement on the eve of his candidacy.

"It's rather strange that he's making these acknowledgments now," Sutherland said.

Though she declined to discuss the matter yesterday, Carroll Twiss, co-chairwoman of the State Women's Political Caucus, also has told Lowry the caucus hadn't changed its position since urging him not to run again in 1996.

Other influential Democrats privately expressed consternation yesterday that Lowry, who has the support of many environmentalists, would split Democrats and possibly throw the race to Republicans.

And the attorney who represented the deputy press secretary said there were still lingering questions Lowry had not answered.

"Sexual harassment is about the abuse of power, as Mr. Lowry points out, but what he does not address is what steps he has personally taken to assure the public that he will not repeat the behavior if elected once again," said Larry Finegold.

For his part, Lowry said in an interview that he issued the statement "to make sure I communicate this correctly, so I'm not just talking off the top of my head."

He said he didn't think it represented anything new.

"It's what I've thought all along," he said. "I wanted to address it because it's important, and then I want to move on."

If elected, he said he would want to find a way to get more money out of state-owned timber to generate more money for construction of public schools.

He also would want to increase wood-fiber production with poplars and institute a "green Washington" program, designed to show trees here were grown environmentally soundly, which he suggests could raise harvest values by 20 percent or more.

Craig Welch's phone message number is 206-464-2093. His e-mail address is cwelch@seattletimes.com.

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

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