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Sunday, August 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State women's caucus endorses Lowry opponent

Seattle Times staff reporter

Despite his name recognition and decades in public office, women's groups are passing over former Gov. Mike Lowry and endorsing one of his fellow Democrats in the race to become the state's next commissioner of public lands.

Yesterday, the Washington State Women's Political Caucus - a one-time Lowry ally - unanimously endorsed state Sen. Georgia Gardner, D-Blaine.

Earlier this month, Washington NARAL (the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), an influential abortion-rights group, did the same.

Leaders of the Women's Political Caucus refused to say whether the sexual-harassment charges that helped drive Lowry out of the governor's office four years ago played a role in their decision to support Gardner.

But at least one influential Democratic woman maintains she has enough other concerns about a Lowry candidacy that there's no need "to open that Pandora's box.

"The question that comes to my mind is what could he possibly do in that position that he hasn't already had a chance to do in a much more powerful one?" said Cathy Allen, a Seattle Democrat and political consultant. She is vice president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

Allen said it wasn't clear whether Lowry was eager to become lands commissioner, or simply eager to return to public office. In addition, she said, "the shadow of his past hangs heavy."

"The number of women who urged us to take this position could not be discounted," Allensaid.

In fact, she suggested that even Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland, the best-known Republican in the race, would be preferable to Lowry.

Gardner, Lowry and four other Democrats are vying for the party nomination to replace retiring two-term Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher.

"We think she (Gardner) is the better candidate," said Carroll Twiss, caucus co-chairwoman.

Twiss and co-chairwoman Jennifer Hill refused to discuss in detail why Gardner was their choice.

The Political Caucus and NARAL are tiptoeing around the question of whether Lowry's past should be a factor at all in his campaign for lands commissioner.

Lowry left office as governor in 1996 after paying a former aide $97,000 to settle claims that he made inappropriate sexual advances toward her. Earlier, a State Patrol fingerprint technician had made similar accusations.

In announcing his candidacy for public-lands commissioner last month, Lowry apologized if he had offended anyone with his actions as governor. But he maintained his apology was no change from what he'd said at the time - that the incidents had been misunderstandings.

The Women's Political Caucus - which tried to dissuade Lowry from seeking re-election as governor in 1996 - refuses now to even discuss the matter.

Some leaders from NARAL, the abortion-rights group, admit the 5-year-old scandal haunting the one-term governor and former congressman whom the Democratic state party chairman dubbed "the 800-pound gorilla" of this year's lands-commissioner race, is dividing the political left.

Lowry said yesterday that he still expects many NARAL supporters to vote for him and is confident he's in the race for the right reasons.

"I feel very good about why I'm in this race, which is that we're in a critical state of our natural resources," Lowry said.

"I feel very good about the issues we're bringing into this campaign. I'm very interested in us having the natural-resource policies that protect our wildlife and protect our fish."

He also points out he has earned an endorsement from the influential Washington Conservation Voters.

But Gardner was pleased to hear the caucus considers her the most-qualified candidate.

"I think it's very significant to have the support of your peer group," Gardner said.

She maintained Lowry's scandal could play a role in her race.

"There's no doubt it's relevant; my point is it's not relevant for me to discuss it," she said.

Sutherland, who acknowledged Lowry was better-known throughout the state, said he, too, was pleased such an influential Democrat as Allen considered him a good candidate.

"That sounds like good news and recognition for years of work," he said.

Karen Cooper, executive director of NARAL, said her group endorsed Gardner because the legislator actively sought the endorsement and - unlike Lowry - filed her paperwork before the deadline.

Cooper acknowledged Lowry's political baggage presents a "tricky question."

But because he has a history of supporting abortion-rights causes, NARAL's membership publication will include a special section that talks about Lowry's voting record, she said.

In liberal circles, Lowry once was so revered that activists still vividly recall the charismatic aura of his earlier campaigns, when 50 volunteers would sit at tables and sing peace songs while stuffing envelopes. Each time Lowry entered, "It was like a god had walked into the room," Cooper said.

Now, those same activists listen at fund-raisers while former fans alternately defend or profess to despise Lowry.

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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