Mossback's Guide to the Governors

Washington is about to have a new chief executive—call her the Cinderella Governor. This week, she's taking the oath of office; next week, a court order could turn her into a pumpkin.

We've never had an election like this, or a debut like this, but contrary to popular opinion, we have had governors before. In my professional life, they've been a mixed bag—men and women of great strengths and, sometimes, great weaknesses. Over the past 30 years, I've written about them, interviewed some of them, followed a few around the state, and I've talked to lots of political observers, hacks, and journalists who have watched and assessed them up close. The following is a quick summary of conventional wisdom on each one, helpful, I hope, to readers looking for some context as we inaugurate a new era.

Dan Evans: A saint, except on election eve. If the state GOP ever had a Camelot, it was during the Evans era, which stretched over three terms from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. This was a time when the most progressive, reform-minded state officeholders were Republicans, led by Evans. No governor since has gained his bipartisan reputation as a statesman—which was easy, considering some of the Democratic sleazebags who then controlled the Legislature. And it is nearly impossible to imagine a Republican today who would be as green as Evans was. He even saved our state-funded hippie school, the Evergreen State College, which Gov. Dixy Lee Ray threatened to turn into a police academy. Lest you think Evans was all warm and fuzzy, he was, and is, a tough and clever partisan. He's currently spending political capital to get a revote for Dino Rossi, and his campaigns were known for late hits against opponents.

Dixy Lee Ray: Once notoriously depicted on the cover of the Weekly popping out of a garbage can, "Madame Nuke," as she was known, was the state's first woman governor. Elected as a moderate Democrat in 1976, her sharp mind and tongue—honed in academia—combined with unapologetic anti-environmentalism to alienate many of the people who voted for her, enough that she was dumped in the Democratic primary when she ran for re-election. I once talked with an old-time Dem operative who summed up her style this way: "She never forgot an enemy and never remembered her friends." Too bad, because she was probably the smartest governor of the bunch, even if her regime was one of the dumbest.

John Spellman: Who? The former King County exec was a moderate, mainstream Republican who lacked Evans' boldness or charisma. In fact, while blandness can work for some politicians—Gary Locke, Calvin Coolidge—with Spellman, it became a liability. Once, the governor went on vacation without telling the press, who didn't notice right away. Once they did, the cry went up: Where is the governor? The mystery was solved when he turned up in a remote corner of Eastern Washington—where no one recognized him. Memo to handlers: If the governor can spend a week in any part of the state without being recognized, he's got problems. Not surprisingly, Spellman lost his bid for re-election.

Booth Gardner: The plucky Pierce County Weyerhaeuser heir provided a breath of stylistic fresh air, fueled by deep pockets that took him from being a political unknown to the governor's office in a year. At an early campaign dinner in Snohomish County in 1984, I asked a jaded politico what he thought of Gardner's rookie performance. His sage advice: "He's got to make like a hooker—and pretend that he likes it." Gardner was a Bill Clinton Democratic centrist before most of us had heard of Clinton. His considerable charm was in inverse proportion to the number of people in the room. His state of the state speeches sounded squeaky and lame, but one-on-one he could be as inspiring as Bill.

Mike Lowry: Known for tax hikes and roving hands. The most liberal of the gubernatorial Democrats on this list, Lowry alienated many voters by winning on a promise to raise taxes only "as a last resort," then announcing a likely increase before inauguration day. Apparently, the "last resort" was only a bullet train away. The plus side for Lowry was his passionate, no-nonsense liberalism; the downside was that he wasn't strong enough to make some of his programs—like statewide health care—stick. His weaknesses also included a series of sexual harassment allegations that creeped out the voters and doomed him to a single term.

Gary Locke: Democrat Locke, famously profiled in this paper in a story titled "The Man Who Mistook his Life for the Legislature," was a wonky legislative insider. He was a visible and popular icon for Washington's Pacific Rim aspirations and a role model for immigrant offspring rising to the top against the odds. But Locke seemed determined to keep policies vague, devote state resources to giving Boeing billions in new tax breaks, and fending off the Tim Eyman antitax insurgency by imploring state bureaucrats to cut their paper-clip budgets.

It's too early to thumbnail Gregoire beyond saying that she and Dino Rossi—who still could become governor via a judge's order and/or a revote—have some mirror-image qualities. Rossi seems to be all charm and no substance. Gregoire is all substance and no charm. With a little genetic engineering, we might have a governor we can love.

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