AFTER FIVE QUIET, scandal-free years of living in the governor's mansion, Gary Locke will ask voters statewide to mark his name at the ballot box for a second time this November. Locke's awesome approval ratings suggest Washingtonians are happy not to have a conservative wacko herding them into church or a big-mouth liberal threatening their wallets. The governor's hands-off approach seems to suit the voters just fine.
But how deep is Locke's support? Although around 57 percent of Washingtonians in political pollster Stuart Elway's survey last December say they like Locke, his critics, both right and left, warn these high poll numbers may be misleading: The public may quietly yearn for someone who takes risks to tackle big problems. That's why a liberal like Don Hopps, former aide to ex-Governor Mike Lowry, believes Locke's support is "a mile wide" but only an "inch deep." Hopps calls the governor "mush" and adds, "I don't think he's done anything on the major issues, and I think the public knows it." Hopps believes the governor would get dumped if he faced a Jesse Ventura-style independent insurgency or a popular Republican.
GOP consultant Bret Bader thinks he has just such a candidate in conservative hot-talker and initiative-wizard John Carlson, whose campaign he's managing. "There's a hunger for someone to shake up the system," Bader says.
The governor himself says he hates labels like "liberal" and "conservative." His supporters are proud that his philosophy is so middle-of-the-road. Blair Butterworth, Locke's campaign spokesman, says that the governor "never has been a strong ideological leader." We live in a political climate in which politicians get the most done when "they break down problems into digestible bites," notes Butterworth. In addition to Locke's mastery of the incremental change, Butterworth says it is Locke's "self-consummate middle-class values," that make him popular with the masses.
There's no doubt Locke has established himself in the voters' minds as a family man. When people think of him, he's usually attached to his wife and two children like a figure in a string of paper dolls. The beautiful Mrs. Locke, former TV news reporter Mona Lee, and two toddlers, Emily and Dylan, who are every bit as cute as Caroline and John-John were once upon a time, make for great family portraits. Locke's children are the darlings of Olympia, and the governor doesn't conceal that they inspire him to reach out to the state's working families.
Locke seems to revel in being just an ordinary guy. He readily acknowledges that people frequently accuse him of having no charisma. He doesn't seem to care. People who have never met him may only have an image of a nerd with a bad haircut who keeps his head buried in books about policy.
In person, although he's very warm and passionate, he looks you straight in the eye and tells you things like "Education is the great equalizer," as if it were not a sound bite but a perfectly normal phrase to use in ordinary conversation when there are no cameras or crowds around. He talks seamlessly about all he's accomplished; touting, for example, that he's created a tutoring program for kids who have trouble reading or boasting that he's persuaded Asian countries to start buying various Washington crops. "I'm not a Jesse Ventura," he says. "I just like to get the job done."
Rumors have abounded since Locke was elected that he has a future in national politics. The latest version has him becoming a cabinet member if Al Gore is elected president. "The sky's the limit for Gary," says Washington Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt. Locke himself is characteristically modest on the subject. He says that his wife Mona wants to return to TV journalism when they do leave the governor's mansion. At that point, he says, he'll probably just become a "soccer dad."
And his supporters say that's why he'll be reelected: The joys and concerns of parenthood are the tie that binds voters of both parties in these days of high-tech prosperity and a mini-baby boom. By putting his kids before everything, Locke can relate to everybody. And as Locke seems to have figured out, all he needs to do is say the word "education" a lot and people will assume that their kids' future (i.e., their kids' future incomes) is in good hands. Elway's poll shows most people who like Locke say his focus on improving education is what makes him a viable candidate for reelection.
LOCKE WANTS MOST to be remembered as the governor who improved schools. Born to blue-collar immigrants in public housing, Locke says education enabled him to achieve the American dream. He didn't learn English until he was five years old and struggled his first few years in school. Eventually he blossomed, earning his undergraduate degree at Yale and attending law school at Boston University.
Characteristically, he hasn't called for any major overhaul of the education system. Locke has focused instead on improvements that most people wouldn't criticize: He has started a program to recruit tutors to help kids read; he's demanded state funding for "Promise Scholarships" to help middle-class teens go to college; he's called on the Legislature to fund the hiring of 1,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes; he has campaigned for better teacher training. Noticeably absent from the list is the powerful Washington Education Association's pet cause: pay raises for teachers.
Instead Locke is hot to get more computers into elementary school classrooms. And that's not all; he wants state universities to spend more money on high-tech classes. For students of all educational levels who live in rural areas, he wants to use courses taught over the Internet as a supplement to bricks-and-mortar classrooms.
Though some of his other proposed education improvements may seem unrelated to computer training, Locke's rhetoric suggests that his goal is to steer as many of our children as he can into high-tech careers. By steering children toward high-tech jobs, Locke is sowing prosperity for future working families while at the same time creating a labor force for the microchip barons. His Web site is plain-spoken on the urgency of both objectives, telling us that education must be improved because there are thousands of vacancies in the state's high-tech firms, with thousands more expected to be created in the next few years.
Locke doesn't deny that training children for the high-tech work force is his approach to economic justice. After all, education was the road he took from poverty to the governor's office (he also credits financial aid and affirmative action for helping him get where he is). That's why he says, "Education is the great equalizer" over and over again. But what about people does it equalize? His reforms will not eradicate poverty. And how will an emphasis on computers help square pegs who aren't cut out for the digital economy?
Don Hopps has strong feelings against the governor's education agenda. He argues that it's targeted to help kids who can get high paying white-collar jobs that won't be available to everyone. "He's substituting the color of education for social welfare progress," Hopps says. "His assumption is that if you just give everybody an education, they'll be middle class, and I just don't agree with that."
But Locke's supporters suggest that the public does view a good education system as the road to economic parity. Butterworth says Locke sincerely wants to better people's lives by educating their kids. "People get that," he says.
BUT WHILE LOCKE is using education reform to try to help working class people help themselves, he has not been very sensitive to the needs of extremely poor people, say critics. He brags that he has moved a third of the state's welfare rolls into jobs since implementation of Washington's welfare-to-work program, WorkFirst, in 1997. Jean Colman, director of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, says the transition has been a messy process that has hurt some of the people it was supposed to help. Her main gripe is that the state has been stingy with job training assistance and as a result, too many of her clients are being funneled into "McJobs" that don't cover their basic costs. She's also unhappy that when a WorkFirst participant does get tuition assistance, it only covers one quarter of classes at a community college. That's nothing, she says, compared to states that will pay for their welfare recipients to get two- or four-year degrees. And some of these states, she points out, have Republican governors.
Paul Berendt, chairman of the state Democratic party, bristles at the suggestion that Locke is unsympathetic to citizens living in poverty. "We are the party of economic parity," he says. Locke claims that his administration is doing the best it can do, spending $100 million to help people train for higher paying jobs than the night shift at 7-11. However, Locke "fundamentally disagrees" with Colman that the state should spend even more money to give WorkFirst participants a B.A. when it can't do that for other types of students.
LOCKE'S CAUTIOUS approach doesn't change any when it comes to the environment. Activists are getting antsy as endangered stocks of salmon dwindle. Saving them is going to mean a big change in way of life for many Washington residents. But environmentalists say there is one obvious way to help the salmon survive: Take out some of the dams that cut them off from spawning grounds. Oregon's Democratic governor John Kitzhaber announced earlier this year that the four dams on the lower Snake River that provide irrigation and power for a small community of farmers and businesses should probably be dismantled. Tim Stearn with the National Wildlife Federation has been holding public meetings around the region to find out how residents feel about taking out these dams. To his surprise, he says, there's a widespread feeling that dam removal is the appropriate and necessary price to pay to save salmon.
Stearn accuses Locke, who opposes dam removal, of "pandering" to farmers who live near the Snake River and to the Association of Washington Businesses, which sent Locke a letter asking him not to support dam breaching. The day after he got the letter, Locke made public his opposition to taking out the dams.
Locke says he's pushed for alternatives to dam removal. For example, last year he signed a bill that changed timber practices to protect streambeds. He also fought to secure an agreement with Canada that limits both countries' fish harvests. He's put the heat on farmers to limit the amount of fertilizer they put in the water. He's also made some of the dams easier for salmon to safely navigate. And Locke believes that one of the best things he's done for the environment is defend the sprawl-deterring Growth Management Act, which legislators often try to sabotage.
But growth management activists say his memory may be failing him. Before becoming governor, Locke was King County Executive during a time of tremendous growth. Tracy Burrows of 1000 Friends of Washington says with one exception, Locke "didn't go out on a limb" to rein in growth.
Activists aren't the only folks, however, who worry that Locke doesn't take risks when he needs to. Jim Kneeland, a moderate Democrat who likes Locke and is glad he's a centrist, still criticizes the governor for not fighting the tide of antigovernment sentiment that has brought about things such as Initiative 695, the law that reduced all license tab fees and threatens funding for buses and ferries. Kneeland, once an aide to former Governor Booth Gardner and now head of a public affairs consulting firm in Seattle, does not think Locke should have addressed the initiative directly, but should have foreseen it and tried to stave it off. As soon as Locke was elected, Kneeland argues, the governor should have "educated" people to understand that the transportation system needs well-funded buses, ferries, and other alternatives to cars to keep all workers mobile and to keep businesses in the region. The initiative might not have passed so easily if the governor hadn't "come late to the game" to speak out for an integrated transportation system, says Kneeland.
The governor refuses to take blame for the passage of I-695, since he publicly opposed the initiative. Locke says former governors have assured him that there was no way he could have dissuaded voters from passing I-695. He claims that he does stand up for his beliefs. "The responsibility of the governor is to tell, when asked, how he or she feels," says Locke.
Berendt agrees. "This is not a governor who's afraid to stand up for his beliefs," he says, adding that it's "erroneous" that the governor's job is to change voters' minds about issues.
But Kneeland says the larger problem is that the public distrusts government too much to ask for direction; too many voters just assume that Olympia's policies are all geared to swindle folks out of tax dollars. He says the governor should have taken the lead in showing people how government really works. But Locke, Kneeland says, has been too busy watching his popularity ratings to be "out on point on a lot of tough issues."
REPUBLICANS HAVE NOTICED. Bret Bader, campaign manager for John Carlson, the leading candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, asks, "What does [Locke] stand for? Nobody knows."
By contrast, Carlson is not likely to be described as lacking in passion. He started a conservative newspaper on the University of Washington campus and founded the Washington Institute Foundation, which pumps out studies showing how to get rid of taxes and unions. His veteran status as a KVI talkshow host puts him firmly in the crime-fearing, government-hating camp. As a citizen he's already created three laws through the initiative process. Initiative 200 did away with affirmative action in government hiring and public school admissions, Three Strikes You're Out mandated life sentences for people who commit three felonies, and Hard Time for Armed Crime set tough guidelines for punishing criminals who use weapons. All three initiatives were successful, and Republicans insiders are pumped that Carlson is willing to rabble-rouse his way all the way to the governor's office. To them he's a refreshing change from past GOP gubernatorial candidates who were too lackluster or too fringe to garner a majority of voters. Bader believes that mainstream voters are ready for a leader with a bold agenda "that matches theirs." So far, Carlson hasn't struck out once giving the people what they want.
Butterworth isn't too worried about Carlson, though. "We don't like divisive people to be our leader," he says.
Locke has proven that he's not just a nice guy but also a good neighbor; he comes into your house only when invited, doesn't wear out his welcome, and stays out of your hair the rest of the time. The Democrats hope to cast Carlson as a nightmare neighbor who would come banging on your door at inconvenient times screaming about right-wing issues.
Butterworth says Democrats used to give dynamic, ideological candidates the nomination, and they often lost. The more moderate approach Dems have taken appears to have paid off for them. When the ballots are all counted, Locke may have demonstrated that he is, as Berendt calls him, "an extraordinary leader for our ticket." Well, a winning one anyway.
Ever wonder what Gary Locke could do if he had a spine?