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Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Locke career marked by transition

If his political career ends with his second term, Gov. Gary Locke will have evolved from a freshman legislator sponsoring an income-tax measure to a two-term governor who considers this year's no-new-tax budget among his top accomplishments.

He went from telling a labor convention in his first gubernatorial campaign that he'd veto anything they wanted him to, to being in trouble with the state's unions, including the teachers union, which made a point of "un-endorsing" him.

It's too early to give a final grade to the Locke years. He has a year and a half to go. And he says that in that time he will "go at an even more intense pace" to try to accomplish things still left undone.

But clearly Locke will be remembered by his conversion to fiscal conservatism and the trouble that brought him from traditional Democratic backers, particularly in labor unions. He is among the most pro-business governors the state has seen in recent history.

If Boeing decides to put its new airplane factory in Washington, Locke will get much of the credit for pushing through a package of major tax breaks for the company.

In the end, though, Locke might be remembered as much for who he was as for what he did.

As the first Asian American elected governor of a mainland state, Locke was a political celebrity. He was singled out in one of President Clinton's State of the Union speeches, was feted in the national and Asian press and was mobbed during a visit to his ancestral village in China.

Alienating traditional allies

Locke's life story — the son of Chinese immigrants of modest means who rose to political prominence through a combination of brain power and hard work — resonated with voters, said pollster Don McDonough, who worked for Locke in his campaigns for the Legislature and King County executive.

"I don't think voters knew who they were getting, except for his story," said McDonough.

Two very strong election finishes, perhaps his best legislative session this year and a fat campaign bank account made him formidable in the 2004 election.

But Locke angered many Democrats and their backers this year by proposing a budget that called for no new taxes and instead modified popular, voter-approved health and education initiatives and cut funding to many programs.

Republicans praised the Democratic governor, though, as did business leaders who helped him push the plan through the Legislature.

He also won approval for a $4.2 billion, 10-year transportation plan that raises the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon.

During his term, Locke said education was his top priority, though many of his bigger plans in that realm were not successful. He backed a 2000 initiative that reduced class sizes. But his budget this year cut funding for the measure, as well as one that mandated annual raises for teachers.

That prompted the state teachers union to declare him an enemy.

"We're pleased he has decided to not seek a third term," said Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association. "It seemed to us that he was guarding his popularity to the detriment of actual achievement in office, especially on education."

More manager than leader?

Locke's political career began with an 11-year run in the state House.

State Republican Chairman Chris Vance, no fan of Locke's, still gives him high praise as a legislator.

"I was in awe of Gary's ability at House Appropriation Committee meetings," he said. "If there was a hall of fame for legislators, Gary Locke should be in it."

Locke represented Seattle's 37th District, a liberal bastion, in the state House of Representatives for more than a decade. He appeared to fit the district well.

He sponsored an income-tax proposal during his first term, backed tax increases in 1988 and 1989 even when the state economy was booming, supported a major business-tax increase in 1993 and in his five years as budget committee chairman helped write budgets that increased state spending by nearly 60 percent.

That money reduced school class sizes, increased college enrollment, extended health coverage for expectant mothers and the poor, repaired a broken mental-health system and expanded the social safety net.

In 1993, Locke was elected King County executive. There Locke smoothed off what had appeared to be classic Seattle liberal edges and worked to present himself as a master manager with a middle-of-the-road ideology.

That, many people close to him say, was where he naturally would have fallen.

"He's more of a manager than a bold leader or a visionary," McDonough said.

Senate Majority Leader Jim West, R-Spokane, agrees. "He's constantly thinking and constantly measuring, so the clock has to run out before he makes a decision," said West.

Locke joined the 1996 governor's race when incumbent Democrat Gov. Mike Lowry announced he would not seek a second term.

In a crowded Democratic primary, Locke easily won the nomination and in November went on to trounce Republican Ellen Craswell, a conservative former state senator.

He won his re-election in 2000 by an even bigger margin against talk-show host John Carlson.

The two legislative sessions that showed Locke at his strongest were his first as governor in 1997 and this year as he set the stage for a major budget battle as well as championing a package of incentives for Boeing.

In his first session Locke faced an all-Republican Legislature and set a record for number of vetoes as he wiped out a large chunk of the Republican agenda.

Vance says Locke failed as governor and thinks that's why he decided not to run for re-election again.

"The education governor passes zero education reform. Gary was a complete failure as governor and this state is a mess because of complete lack of leadership," Vance said.

Criticism of Locke comes from the left as well.

"There was no environmental agenda to speak of," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham. "Did he ever say, 'We're going to clean up Puget Sound, we're going to create more parks, we're going to take on this growth thing?' There isn't a single thing like that."

Tough political times

Former Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican and the only governor to be elected to three consecutive terms, knows the anguish Locke must have felt in coming to his decision not to seek a third term. Evans said when he decided to run a third time he called a meeting of his cabinet at 9 a.m. and a news conference at 9:30 so his hand was forced to make a quick decision.

He said Locke's legacy might be the way he has represented the state in the national and international arena.

"It's partly because of his background and that the state depends so much on foreign trade," he said. "He's a first-rate guy with not a whiff of a problem with the administration. He'll leave with integrity and has certainly maneuvered us through terribly difficult political times. What Gary did with the budget came closer to gaining bipartisan approach than any time in his gubernatorial career. Republicans thought it was just swell."

Larry Cassidy, a Vancouver businessman and member of the Northwest Power Planning Council, said Locke should be given credit for "crossing the aisle," trying to improve education and the environment at the same time as working with businesses.

Cassidy had scheduled a re-election fund raiser last night in Vancouver and had raised about $40,000, money that Locke said he would return.

Some critics say Locke is to blame for the rise of tax rebel Tim Eyman, whose initiatives have wreaked havoc on the state budget.

"My complaint of the governor is that someone in this state should have taken on this guy Eyman four years ago and taken him to the wall," said Don Brazier, a former legislator who is writing a legislative history. "Gary should have faced up to this guy and gone after him. He's done more damage to the state than anyone else in history."

Clyde Ballard, a Wenatchee Republican who retired last year as speaker of the House, warned Locke in 1999 that voters would approve Eyman's Initiative 695 unless the governor pushed through cuts in car tabs.

"He just wouldn't do it, and I think that was really a turning point for the initiative process," said Ballard. "If he had taken a gutsy move, we wouldn't have had the number of initiatives we do now."

But Bryan Jones, a political scientist at the University of Washington, said Eyman's failure to place any initiatives on the fall ballot may signal that the anti-tax, anti-government movement he personifies is losing steam. If that's so, he said, Locke may deserve much of the credit.

The governor has embraced some of the movement's priorities — balancing this year's budget without general tax increases, for instance — while deflecting some of its worst ideas, Jones said. In 1999, when the Supreme Court threw out Initiative 695, Locke pushed through the Legislature the portion of the measure that cut the car tax but not a provision that would have required voter approval of all new tax and fee increases.

Jones went on, "Alienating the core Democratic constituencies may have been necessary to get something done."

Staff reporters David Postman, Susan Gilmore, Eric Pryne and Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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