Wednesday, July 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. Senate

Father was taproot for McGavick's grounding in politics

Seattle Times staff reporter

First in a series of articles exploring the lives and careers of Washington state's candidates for U.S. Senate.

Republican Mike McGavick began his quest to knock off incumbent Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell with a pledge of civility, a call to take the high road and a stern rebuke of negative 30-second television ads.

McGavick admits it's a lot like championing sunshine — not the stuff that electrifies voters and, in the course of a tough campaign, a difficult promise to keep. State Democrats already charge he has launched mean and misleading attacks.

So why talk about bipartisanship at all?

Part of the answer leads to McGavick's father, the last Republican state legislator to represent Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood since the Great Depression. Now retired, Joe McGavick considers himself a progressive Republican whose friendships include former Sen. Slade Gorton as well as some of the state's most prominent Democrats.

Many longtime politicos know more about Joe than his candidate son. And that's sometimes a mixed blessing.

When McGavick, 48, recently spoke before a group of Republicans on the Eastside, an older woman raised her hand and said: "Mike, I worked very hard to keep your father from being a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1964 because he wouldn't support Barry Goldwater. My question is: What kind of Republican are you?"

What the woman really wanted to know, McGavick said, was: "How far does the acorn fall from the tree?"

Considering his father's long political history, it's not a trivial question to ask.

Family steeped in politics

Joe McGavick, 71, grew up in Tacoma, not far from where his great-grandfather helped build Fort Steilacoom for the U.S. Army after the Mexican War of 1848.

After graduating from the University of Washington in 1962, Joe worked at Boeing and made an unsuccessful run for a state House seat in 1964. He won two years later, with his entire family helping on the campaign. As a young boy, Mike McGavick door-belled and left literature on porches.

The youngster also got to know Gorton, then a Republican leader in the Legislature and who often stopped by to talk politics with his father, along with other GOP luminaries and neighborhood activists.

In Olympia, Joe McGavick helped pass laws allowing state employees to unionize and granting more power to the Seattle mayor's office. During the session, he shared a two-person desk with Sam Smith, a powerful African-American Democrat from Seattle, and the two became friends.

"We did progressive stuff. It was a very special time," Joe said.


After losing his seat in 1968, he joined King County government under the new Republican executive, John Spellman. As chief administrative officer, Joe made a point of explaining the budget to a young Democratic councilman named Mike Lowry, who went on to become a liberal congressman and Washington governor.

"I think John Spellman and I felt good about our positive working relationship, and Joe was part of that success," Lowry wrote in a recent e-mail.

As governor, Lowry appointed Joe McGavick to head the Liquor Control Board, one of a string of political jobs that included a stint as chairman of the Washington State Board Against Discrimination.

As an Irish Catholic, Joe said he felt the sting of bigotry as a child and made sure his own three children grew up respecting the civil-rights movement.

Every year when the kids were young, Joe read Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech. To honor public service, he often played a recording of President John Kennedy's Inauguration Day address. Also on the turntable was the Chad Mitchell Trio, a leftist folk group famous for songs about draft-dodging.

At home, politics dominated dinner-table chatter.

"Public life and public policy was what we talked about," Mike McGavick said. "I thought that this was normal until I figured out that most people don't sit around and talk about this all day."

McGavick took an almost immediate interest in the subject, listening to his father and Gorton discuss the issues of the day, especially when the two families vacationed together on Whidbey Island.

"Michael was always trying to cling to grown-up cocktail-hour conversation," said his sister, Molly McGrath. "He was always trying to hang out and eavesdrop. He was more interested [in politics] than Slade's kids."

"Honestly, I think that's true," said Gorton, who estimates he first met Joe McGavick's son when Mike was about 8, towing a red wagon filled with his father's brochures.

"I was the same when I was his age," Gorton said. "I found it quite gratifying."

McGavick pins his first foray into politics when, at age 14, he volunteered for Gorton's re-election bid for state attorney general.

During a 1979 gathering at the McGavick home, Gorton was plotting strategy for his Senate run against Democratic incumbent Warren Magnuson when someone mentioned he'd need a driver for the campaign.

"I remember just sitting there going, 'Ah-ha!' I'm going to do that,' " McGavick said. He ended up chauffeuring Gorton, playing a key role in the campaign. After Gorton won, he followed the new senator to Washington, D.C., as an aide on foreign policy and military affairs.

Campaign chief

Gorton lost his re-election bid to Brock Adams in 1986 but staged a comeback two years later. Mike McGavick served as his campaign manager.

At the time, political observers lamented that the race, which pitted Gorton against Lowry, was one of the nastiest statewide campaigns to date.

McGavick says he repudiates the kind of negative ads he championed in the past. During a 2002 speech to the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, he told the audience: "We clearly need to raise the level of civil discourse in our community. If I see one more of those negative 30-second ads, I'm going to throw up — and I used to make them!"

In a recent e-mail, Lowry wrote: "I really do not know Mike. He is obviously a strong candidate. I will be supporting Maria in the general election."

An acorn in Reagan soil

Which brings us back to the question: How different is Mike McGavick from his father?

McGavick's answer: "The acorn always falls close to the tree, but this acorn landed in Reagan soil. My formative years in intellectual-political thought were when I was working in Washington, D.C., in 1981 through 1983 and I watched Ronald Reagan work to turn this country around, partnering with [Democratic Speaker] Tip O'Neill. I take away from that certain lessons about the role of government and bipartisanship that I have never let go of."

After leaving Gorton's office in 1990, McGavick worked in the insurance industry and eventually became president and chief executive of Safeco.

At Safeco, McGavick retained the title of chief diversity officer to symbolize his personal interest in increasing minority customers, business partners, vendors and employees.

He convened an advisory board to come up with a 10-year diversity plan. When the board of directors adopted it, part of his salary was tied to its success.

He also led an effort to fund minority scholarships at the University of Washington after Initiative 200 banned racial preferences in public-school enrollment. (McGavick was not living in the state when I-200 was approved in 1998 but said he would have voted for it).

Racial equality

His father was devoted to racial equality, McGavick said, "and that was a devotion that his children were expected and taught to share."

However, McGavick disappointed some gay and lesbian employees when Safeco refused to support an anti-discrimination bill passed by the Legislature this year. McGavick said the measure's proponents never formally asked for Safeco's endorsement, and the company "only got involved with issues that affect the business one way or another."

Besides Mike McGavick's stated desire to avoid inflammatory language against political opponents and a concern for civil rights, no one knows how much Joe McGavick would influence his son if he wins in November.

His father, McGavick said, is a "borderline Republican."

And what about the McGavick now running for Senate?

"I'm just a Republican," he said. "I'll let everyone else decide what kind."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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