The Locke Box

Its now apparent: Gary switched parties.

SOMETIME THIS SUMMER, Gov. Gary Locke will announce whether or not to run for a third term. That decision will likely determine the gubernatorial race in 2004. If Locke runs, he'll walk.

Why is Locke likely to have such an easy time?

Partly it is his good fortune to have weak enemies.

The state GOP has virtually no credible candidates to throw into the race. Like an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery, potential Republican challengers are falling to the butler's knife one by one. The potential heavyweightslike congressional Reps. Jennifer Dunn and George Nethercuttare taking a pass or looking at a future U.S. Senate seat. Western Wireless exec John Stanton and state Sen. Dino Rossi of Issaquah seem reluctant to even be seen considering a run. And last week, as Locke announced his unprecedented, bipartisan $3 billion Boeing giveaway, one of the GOP's more intriguing prospects, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, took himself out of the race.

Reichert might have been the last, best hope for tackling Lockeat least from the right. The sheriff is charismatic and known in Puget Sound country for his high profile on the Green River Killer case and for standing up to those hippies during the WTO protests. Yet far from being just another tough-on-crime cop, Reichert possesses some of the warm, articulate, feel-your-pain mojo that helped Bill Clinton so much. And it doesn't hurt that he's handsome, which potentially would be helpful with suburban woman. Unlike Clinton, though, he's a straight-arrow conservative whose charm rests on appearing to be a nonpolitician politician. He's exactly the kind of prospect the GOP hoped to grow by returning the sheriff's office to an elected position: Though nonpartisan, the sheriff's office is a countywide law-and-order pulpit right in the heart of the state's most liberal terrain.

GOP STATE PARTY CHAIR Chris Vance still hopes to field a strong candidate against Lockesomeone who can do better than John Carlson or Ellen Craswell, previous opponents who were ignominiously stomped during Locke's first two runs.

But why bother? Gary Locke is the best Republican governor Vance is going to get. The only embarrassing part is that he belongs to the other party. If Republicans can get over that small detail, they might as well sit back and be happy.

With Locke's alliance with the state's big-business interests, his embracing of the no-new-taxes approach to the state budget, with his willingness to cut welfare programs and teacher raises, one wonders why the GOP just doesn't funnel its money and energy into other races and nominate Locke for the Republican gubernatorial ticket, too. The biggest rap against Locke over the years is that he hasn't been a leader, but now that he's determinedly clutching the banner of the GOP agenda, he's getting positive reviews and seems to have found new life. Seattle Times editorial columnist Joni Balter admires the way he's come to the fore, and in a phone call to Mossback, initiative king Tim Eymanthe state's effective governor during much of Locke's reignadmitted a kind of slack-jawed admiration for the governor's political and sales skills during the recent Boeing session of the Legislature (see "Let Go of Boeing," p. 11).

On KUOW-FM's Weekday show last week, host Steve Scher grilled Locke about the Boeing deal. Locke stuck to his talking points, methodically laying out all the advantages of the tax breaks and incentives in his enticement package. Making the competitive climate better involves making Washington the cheapest place for Boeing to do business; cutting business taxes will create jobs and spur the economy.

AS HE MADE HIS CASE, Locke sounded as if he were channeling President Bush's State of the Union address last January instead of rebutting it. His argument for economic growth isn't a Democratic argumentit's Bushanomics: cutting the taxes of the haves to boost economic activity and create jobs. Meanwhile, starve government in order to cut back benefits and entitlements that hurt our "competitiveness." Political writer David Broder described the thinking behind the GOP strategy in a column last week: "In short, the goal is a system of government wiped clean, on both the revenue and spending side, of almost a full century's accumulation of social programs designed to provide a safety net beneath the private economy."

Sound like any state you live in? Certainly, the Locke-led legislative session hews to this strategic line, and the Boeing deal embodies it because it is made at the expense of the have-nots. Old-time Democratic Boeing boosters would have included something in the package for everybodyand I mean everybody.

Apparently, being a "compassionate conservative" means feeling sorry for the folks you step on en route to "recovery."

THE ONLY CREDIBLE challenge to Locke can come from the left. Former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge is in the race as a Democratic challenger, but where the hell is he? No money, no traction, no message. Some of the unions are disgustednotably the teachersbut Locke's calculation, of course, is "where are they going to go?" And he's right.

Our only hope is that the governor decides he's through with Olympia and takes a paying job with Boeing. That would throw the race open right and left and give voters a new set of choices. Otherwise, we're stuck in a Locke box for the foreseeable future.

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