FOR MOST OF THE YEAR, it looked like the governor's race was going to be a well-financed battle between an uninspiring incumbent and a faceless bureaucrat. The snarky but popular Governor Gary Locke and state Republican chair/suit Dale Foreman seemed to be headed for a brawl that promised to be as interesting as a rheumatic King Kong facing off against a Godzilla who'd left his dentures on the sink.
Then things got hot last week when KVI radio talk host John Carlson, 40, announced his candidacy at an electrified rally in Bellevue's Wintergarden. Often mentioned as a candidate for statewide office, Carlson surprised everyone by seeking the big executive job not only because he lacks administrative experience but also because it appears he's sticking it to his friends.
Foreman said Carlson called one day to offer his support and called back the next to say he was running against the state party chairman.
At first Foreman tried to fight back, albeit gently. "He's a good friend and a good man," Foreman said last week, "and a very capable radio broadcaster—I hope he will remain one."
Republicans are known for eating their own. But Carlson denies betraying his old friend Foreman. He says he'd conferred with Foreman almost on a daily basis, discussing his candidacy, and was surprised to read Foreman's charges.
The Foreman campaign released a letter signed by Senator Slade Gorton, members of Congress Jennifer Dunn and Doc Hastings, and state House Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard saying Foreman had the best chance of beating Locke. In a separate statement, Gorton covered his skinny ass by saying Carlson was a longtime friend who has "successfully proven his ability to lead Washington state on important issues."
Five days after Carlson declared, Foreman threw in the towel. He withdrew as a candidate for governor and stepped down as state Republican Party chair.
Does this mean the end of Foreman's political career? If so, Foreman leaves a real legacy: He did a yeoman's job holding together a splintered party that hasn't elected a governor in 16 years. And now, he's made the ultimate sacrifice, falling on his own sword rather than subjecting the party to a bitter primary battle. Foreman also did the sensible thing: After all, he lost the 1996 Republican gubernatorial primary to ultraconservative Ellen Craswell. Faced with a primary race against the telegenic, dynamic Carlson, Foreman wisely withdrew, making every Republican consultant in the state smile.
"I'd hoped this race would be run without a primary," says Brett Bader, GOP political consultant. "In '96, we had so many candidates, and we nominated one of the weakest."
Now Carlson faces only token opposition from State Senator Harold Hochstatter. This will allow Carlson to focus on the real opponent: Governor Gary Locke.
The boyish Carlson looks like your favorite nephew, the one who always wears a tie and is nice to his mother. But he's an experienced and ambitious political animal, and a skillful communicator and debater. He's founded a conservative think tank, guided three significant statewide initiatives to success, and writes a syndicated column. But there have been some notable hiccups along the way—high-profile firings that have made him heroic to some and unpredictable to others.
The Seattle Times dropped him as a columnist because he kept scooping his own work (and therefore the Times) on his radio show. In 1998, when he was the paid campaign director of the anti-affirmative action I-200 and wouldn't quit using his show to promote it, Fisher Broadcasting (the futzy old flour mill that owns KVI and KOMO) fired him. Fisher got nervous when 2,500 high schoolers, most of them black, marched around the radio station with signs that said "KKK: KVI, Karlson, KOMO."
Carlson's radio fans blamed his troubles on the "liberal media," but the 59 percent passage of I-200 won him national renown, tremendous cache in the state GOP, and eventual reinstatement at KVI. Being able to come back is very important for a politician.
His biggest problem is that his proven skills are political, not administrative. Can he govern as well as he can talk? This question is already being asked in snippy local editorials.
Can Carlson win? He's likable and an expert at populist organization, and most observers think he'll be a formidable campaigner. With his reported friendship with felonious GOP sugar daddy/food mogul Tom Stewart, he can get the money. He's won over conservatives with his talk show and made gestures to the middle, as when he spoke to the gay Log Cabin Republicans in August, showing what president Marrel Livesay called "openness and kindness to us."
If he's nominated, he must define himself and not let Democrats define him as a hard-right goofball, all the while keeping the hard right in his own party happy.
The GOP's grass roots and leadership have been controlled by social conservatives for 20 years, and their propensity for nominating born-again losers has lost them recent statewide races. Locke easily whacked Ellen Craswell in 1996; Patty Murray did the same to Linda Smith in 1998. The Craswells have left the party, and Smith wandered off to India on a Christian spiritual quest.
"The extremists are in disarray, because they don't have a standard-bearer," says Chuck McClellan, the state coordinator of Mainstream Republicans.
Hoping to be that standard-bearer is Moses Lake ultraconservative maverick Hochstatter, who joined the ranks of the also-announced last week, garnering Ellen Craswell's endorsement but not much else.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Gary Locke is well financed and running poll numbers of over 60 percent. The hot economy, his national status as the first Asian-American mainland governor, and two babies with mediagenic wife Mona in the nursery of the governor's mansion seem to trump his being the honoree at a questionable Redmond Buddhist temple fund-raising event and some careless 1996 campaign violations involving the notorious John Huang.
Locke took a big hit for his toothless opposition to I-695. Critics say he could have deflated Tim Eyman's efforts before it got to the ballot by addressing the unpopular car-tab tax in the 1999 legislative session. He might, they say, have called a special session after the measure qualified for the ballot to get a less flawed alternative before the voters. His worst mistake was his eleventh-hour promise to fix everything after the election if the initiative failed. Unfortunately, he left out the details, and voters wondered why they should believe him after he'd been ignoring them on the subject for a year.
"We see a politician who's unwilling to spend political capital on things he believes in," says Bader.
Is Locke vulnerable? He's definitely more so than he was a year ago. He has lots of cash and a popular incumbency, but his term is almost devoid of real accomplishments. And as Slade Gorton has shown Republicans time and time again, you don't have to carry Seattle to win statewide.