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Sunday, August 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Official amps up low-profile post

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — While Gov. Gary Locke was fielding phone calls recently about the East Coast blackout, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen was 270 miles away hammering an electric guitar and singing "doo wah diddy diddy dum diddy doo."

Both men were doing their jobs. Locke runs the state. Owen, who takes command in the governor's absence, is mostly left to his own devices.

In this case, Owen was in the Tri-Cities area playing with a nonprofit group he founded, Strategies for Youth, which mixes oldie rock hits with an anti-drug and -alcohol message. Owen, a short, energetic man who wears a dress shirt and tie even when belting out "Born to be Wild," travels the state with his wife, performing.

It's one example of how Owen, who plans to run for a third term next year, has greatly expanded a little-known office that has few official duties.

Since he was first elected in 1996, Owen's budget has increased more than 70 percent, adjusted for inflation; his staff has more than doubled to six, and he's taken on foreign-trade trips. During this budget cycle, for the first time in state history, the lieutenant governor's two-year budget pushed past the $1 million mark, even while other agencies saw their budgets cut. Owen earns $75,865 a year.

Some people think Owen has unnecessarily expanded his office.

"The position is part time, it's overpaid," said Shawn Newman, a former candidate for lieutenant governor and an attorney with CLEAN, Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now.

In the 2000 election, Libertarian Ruth Bennett campaigned on a promise to eliminate the office, saying it costs more than it's worth. She lost.

Owen's nonprofit group, Strategies for Youth, took in about $33,000 last year. His wife, Linda, draws a salary as the organization's vice president. Owen said she is authorized to have a salary of up to $20,000 but takes about $6,000 to $8,000.

A worker in the Lieutenant Governor's Office — whose position is funded with a federal grant — does research for the group that Owen includes in his school presentations and other speeches.

In addition to his drug-prevention efforts, Owen has made extensive forays into international trade, reactivating a mothballed committee on economic development and going on missions to Singapore, China, Great Britain and Peru, with one planned to Taiwan. The trips are paid for by the countries extending an invitation or by the businesses with representatives who travel with him.

Owen said his job has expanded because he gets so many requests to speak, do trade missions, attend ceremonies and give his anti-drug performances.

"We're responding to demand," said Owen, 53, who wears a large, gold ring embossed with the state seal. "You either say no or you deal with it."

Newman doesn't buy that argument. "He probably does a good job at what he does; I just think it's a part-time job," he said. "If you want to create a fiefdom, you can."

Long tenures

The elective job of lieutenant governor has sometimes seemed more like a lifetime appointment. Victor Meyers served in the office for two decades, John Cherberg for 32 years. Joel Pritchard — Owen's predecessor — left after eight years as a sign of support for term limits.

Official duties consist of presiding over the state Senate when it's in session, filling in for the governor and serving on a handful of committees and commissions, including the state Finance Committee and the Medal of Merit Committee.

Pritchard took a low-key approach to the office. He bought a used Mercury as his first official state car, and the budget and staff did not increase during his tenure. "He was a minimalist. He didn't try to expand the scope," said Maurice Hausheer, Pritchard's staff director.

Owen has been involved in state politics for 27 years, winning a seat in the state House in 1976 and later moving to the Senate.

He began eyeing the lieutenant-governor job while serving in the Senate.

"I got to watch John Cherberg," Owen said. "He was a very distinguished person who clearly had a lot of respect from everyone.

"I said, 'I think I can do that.' And if I had that position I could focus on things I want to focus on and have an enjoyable job."

Owen ran for the office in 1988 and lost. He tried again in 1996 and won.

From the start, he decided the war against drugs should be a big part of his job, but he has a hard time explaining why. Owen said he was never exposed to drugs and doesn't have friends or family members with drug problems.

Although he was convicted of driving while intoxicated in 1983, "it wasn't something I did on a regular basis. It was a mistake I made," he said.

It's not an incident he advertises, and he doesn't think it influenced him to start Strategies for Youth.

"I just always felt drugs were a God-awful thing," he said. "Whether it was pot or heroin, it was just not a good thing for people."

Road-show performances

About a dozen times a year, Owen and his wife hop into a large Ford van donated by the Washington State Law Enforcement Association to perform before various groups, mostly schoolchildren.

Strategies for Youth, founded by Owen in 1989, combines old rock hits with a slide show that bombards the audience with photos, film clips and statistics on drug and alcohol use.

He recently performed in Burbank, in Walla Walla County east of Pasco, before a group of teachers who munched on sandwiches in a high-school cafeteria while Owen did his thing.

His regular band members weren't available, so several local musicians joined him. They wore Hawaiian shirts. Owen still looked like a lieutenant governor, down to his shiny black shoes.

The group, which had practiced together only once the night before, missed a few cues. Feedback buzzed through the speakers, and the singers stumbled through some lyrics.

In between songs, Owen rattled off statistics on drug and alcohol abuse and lectured on the evils of advertising that targets children.

Teachers said they liked the show. Eleven-year-old Jessica Danch, of Kennewick, watched raptly for a little while but ended up working on a hooked rug. "I thought it was OK," she said after it was over.

Owen and his wife said they want to do more performances, if time permits.

The shows are financed by grants, donations to the nonprofit group and admission fees paid by the organizations that ask him to perform.

IRS records for the 2001-02 fiscal year show the group grossed about $33,000, including roughly $19,000 from a charity golf tournament.

Owen's wife, vice president of the group, said companies, including Pemco and Boeing, have contributed to the cause. Both those firms also donated to Owen's 2000 re-election campaign.

Strategies for Youth, Owen said, is a way for him to deliver an anti-drug message "without the state having to pay for it."

On the road for trade

Owen said his office got involved in international trade because there was a void that needed filling.

"We turn down trade groups all the time," he said. "I talked to the governor about it because I didn't want to step on his toes, and he said 'We can't do them all. Go for it.' "

Locke's office said Owen's efforts to promote international trade are appreciated, but he has not been asked to pursue a greater role. "We have not asked him to do this on our behalf," said Roger Nyhus, Locke's spokesman.

Owen said that his diplomatic efforts, like Strategies for Youth, don't cost the state money.

For example, he expects business will pick up the cost of a diplomatic gathering in Eastern Washington next month — a two-day event that is to include golfing, a boating trip on the Columbia River and tours of local wineries.

The Lieutenant Governor's Office got the event started by inviting diplomats from a host of foreign countries. "This is a historic event," Owen told a crowd of reporters in Yakima at a news conference.

Representatives from 45 countries plan to attend. The majority of them are honorary consuls who live and work in Washington and are appointed by their home countries to represent their interests.

Owen's office said it's hoped that the diplomats will tout the local economy and the pleasures of vacationing in Eastern Washington to their home countries.

He spent several hours in Yakima recently organizing the event with local officials, with several staff members in tow to go over schedules and brief the locals on how to address foreign dignitaries.

They should be called "consuls," to rhyme with "tonsils," advised Glenn Dunnam, Owen's chief of staff.

Owen recently returned from a trade mission to Peru.

Again, that trip was financed by businesses interested in doing business in Peru, at a cost of $1,300 per person, not including airfare.

A slideshow of the trip documents the delegation hanging out with locals in native costume, meeting with government officials and visiting ruins of Chan Chan and the City of Gods at Machu Picchu.

The trade missions aren't vacations, said Antonio Sanchez, an Owen staffer who handles international relations. "We're not going to come back with a poster and say, 'Here is the wall of China,' " he said. "Our goal is to come back with something in hand."

Paul Sommers, a senior research fellow at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs, said it's difficult to determine the effectiveness of trade missions. But they can't hurt and might help, he said.

"There is no denying that people have a good time on these trips. That's part of the attraction," he said.

The state delegation traveled to Peru at the invitation of that country's president, Alejandro Toledo, whose popularity has been plummeting at home, in part because of his expensive habits.

Sanchez said one Washington company came back from the trip with business commitments and another firm may end up refurbishing Toledo's private jets.

Reluctant to say no

Owen, whose office has a display case full of gifts from foreign dignitaries, said his job plays a vital role in trade and economic development. "In our opinion it (international trade) is a very important part of our state because we are such a trade-dependent state."

If he went home when his official duties are done, Owen said, he'd be ignoring the demand for his services.

"We can say no. But we'd be saying no to the people of the state of Washington," he said. "I think that's wrong. I don't believe people elect you to say no."

House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, said Owen has an important job and that she's not worried about the jump in the office's budget. The percentage increase is big because his office is small, she said. "I do not see it as an alarming increase."

David Olson, a political-science professor at the University of Washington, said Owen is not much different from Cherberg, who held the office for 32 years.

"All the lieutenant governors have their special projects," he said. "Cherberg had a number of causes he carried forward," including trade missions.

Likewise, Pritchard was heavily involved in literacy programs, said Hausheer, the former staff director.

Newman, the former candidate for the office, thinks it could be eliminated.

"I think his argument that it's a vital function of the Lieutenant Governor's Office to engage in international trade is just not a vital claim," he said. "We have a state agency (the Office of Trade and Economic Development) ... we have experts who do that."

In addition to Locke and Owen, the secretary of state goes on trade missions.

It's true Owen's $1 million, two-year budget may be minuscule in relation to the state's $23 billion budget, but given the economy, "our elected representatives need to tighten their belt," Newman said. "Maybe in the scheme of things it's not that big a deal, but to the average voter, that's a lot of money."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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