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Personal reflections on Mike Lowry, passionate believer in people

Personal reflections on Mike Lowry, passionate believer in people
It would be laughable, in this era of unbridgeable political divides, to envision an elected official who nurtured his image as "liberal Democrat" while priding himself on being "the congressman from Boeing." But that was Mike Lowry, the former governor who died early Monday after suffering a stroke.

Because of our 50-year friendship, beginning when he headed the staff of the State Senate Ways & Means Committee and I was the Capital reporter for UPI, this Harp will be more of a personal reflection on Lowry than a catalogue of who he was and what he did.

He was this state's epitome of the progressive politician for 40 years. He believed in the environment and cared deeply about the needs of farm workers, causes he was still involved with at the time of his death at the age of 78.

Lowry was an urban politician proud of his rural roots, growing up in the Palouse community of St. John, and his education at Washington State University.

It was in his desire to get things done for job-creating big business that he was unusual for a Democrat. He brought his political power to work on behalf of Boeing and other large companies because he felt it was the state's role to help companies that provided high-paying jobs.

Thus while being viewed by small business as the enemy, he was generally held in high regard by big business, including Boeing, which quietly supported him in his successful bid for governor in 1992.

It was soon after the election that Lowry called me to meet for breakfast to talk about possible candidates to head the state department of trade and economic development . I thought it would be cool to meet with the governor-elect at the WAC, maybe Rainier Club or even the Four Seasons.
 
Then I learned that his favorite breakfast spot was the Denny's on I-405 north of Renton. Nothing too fancy for Lowry and thus it became the place we met regularly over the years.

Lowry wanted to know what I thought of Mike Fitzgerald as a potential director of the agency. Because Fitzgerald was a friend and a fellow Montanan who got his economic development start working personally, right out of college, for the governor, I said "he'd be great."

Fitzgerald, now president and CEO of the Denver South Economic Development Partnership, worked directly for or with nine governors during his years in economic development and told me in a telephone conversation this week: "I have never worked for anyone who loved their state more than he loved Washington state and its citizens."

"He understood and could articulate the role of the triple bottom line of successfully balancing the economy, the social agenda and environmental considerations," Fitzgerald said, noting that Lowry "was personally involved in Washington landing two of the biggest tech-industry coups in the country at that time."

He was referring to Lowry ensuring the state took the steps necessary, including things like new freeway interchanges and face to face meetings, to land Taiwan Semiconductor in Clark County and an Intel plant in southern Pierce County.

The antipathy of small business, particularly small-business organizations, was cemented from the outset of Lowry's single term as the state's chief executive (he didn't seek a second term partly because of the publicity that surrounded a sexual harassment action by a former press aide, which was settled).

That antipathy was particularly true after he guided legislative enactment of a statewide system of health insurance with premiums based on ability to pay, a law that put a lot of cost pressure on small businesses.

It was the anger of small business toward Lowry over the healthcare law, in addition to is his guiding the 1993 Legislature to double the business & occupation tax for service businesses, that led to my most amusing memory of him. I had sought his partnership with The Puget Sound Business Journal to put on a Governor's Conference on Small Business.

He agreed but as small business antagonism toward Lowry intensified, I grew concerned about the kind of animosity he might face when he appeared at the conference. So I met with him the afternoon before to express my concern and urge him, when he opened the conference the following morning, to just thank the business people for being on hand and wait until the end of the day to make positive comments about things he was doing for business.

"Good advice," he said as we sat in his office going over the agenda. So I was stunned when he opened the conference doing exactly what I had advised him against.

As a result he was pummeled throughout the day by negative comments about him, directly or by innuendo, from the array of speakers from the various sessions.

I was worried when he left quickly without attending the closing-session cocktail party. And more so the next day when I received an anxious call from the person in his office assigned to work with me on the conference.

"I am very worried because he called his entire staff together this morning, expressed his anger and said 'I am going to find out who was responsible for the embarrassment I suffered,'" the staff member told me.

I contacted Lowry and asked if we could meet in his Seattle office to review the conference.

As we sat down facing each other, I said: "Governor, I get the impression you are unhappy about the conference. If there was a problem, there are only two people who could be responsible. You are looking at one, and you see the other one in the mirror."

He flipped his arm up as one of those ear-to-ear smiles spread across his face and he said: "I don't have time to worry about yesterday's irritations, so don't sweat it."

Don Brunell, retired president of Association of Washington Business who often crossed swords with Lowry and other Democratic governors on business issues, told me not holding a grudge was a Lowry trademark.

Brunell offered the comment: "Lowry never personalized anything. He could blow his stack at you one day and be genuinely smiling the next."

Lowry served 10 years as the state's 7th district congressman and twice ran for the U.S. Senate, losing to Dan Evans in a special election in 1983, and to Slade Gorton in 1988. before returning to the political wars to run for governor in 1992. He won, defeating state Attorney General Ken Eikenberry to win his lone term.

After his '88 loss to Gorton, he returned to Washington state along with Dan Evans, who had decided not to seek re-election, and the two joined together to initiate the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition (WWRC).

"Since we came from very different political backgrounds we were soon dubbed the 'Odd Couple,' Evans recalled in an email to me. "I think we both enjoyed the title and both have seen a huge result from that small beginning."

"We were competitors, but far more importantly were colleagues, partners and good friends," Evans added.

Brunell praised Lowry as an elected official with integrity. "While most of them promised not to raise taxes and sometimes wound up doing so, Lowry said he would only raise taxes as a last resort." He did raise the B&O tax dramatically in 1993 but cut back on half the increase two years later.

Said Evans: There was never any question what Mike believed and he worked tirelessly on issues, always with peace, people and progress in mind. We lost a first rate political leader, a passionate believer in people, and I lost a good friend."

Fitzgerald said Lowry's favorite personal saying, repeated half a dozen times in private meetings with him, was from Thomas Jefferson, who talked of a goal of seeking to create "an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity."
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Washington GOP's record gubernatorial drought

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There was surprisingly little fanfare or discussion over the fact that Gov. Jay Inslee’s re-election extended his party’s record hold on the governor’s mansion so that when his term ends in 2020, it will have been four decades since a Republican was elected governor in Washington.

But both John Spellman, elected to what turned out to be a single term in 1980 as the state’s last Republican chief executive, and Dan Evans, who left office in 1976 after a record three terms, are convinced it’s more than running in an increasingly blue state that has denied the GOP the statehouse for a longer period than any other state.

Inslee defeated Republican challenger Bill Bryant, 55 per cent to 45 percent, with the GOP lamenting that there wasn’t much bad that could be said about a governor who hadn’t done a lot.

And as Evans quipped, when I asked him about what it would take for Republicans to win the governorship again, ”what we need is someone with Inslee’s looks and Bryant’s brains.”

In fact, although Washington is far more blue now than it was in either Evans’ or Spellman’s time, both had as much appeal to Democrats as to Republicans and that could help indicate the challenge for a rightward drifting state GOP.

Both Evans and Spellman were strong protectors of the environment. The State Department of Ecology was created during Evans’ term, as well as legislation to protect shorelines. And Spellman became the darling of environmentalists while raising the ire of everyone in his party, from the president’s energy secretary to members of Congress and legislators, over his decision to prevent construction of the Northern Tier Pipeline project.

And neither shied away from taxes. Spellman told me, during an interview in 2011 on the 30th anniversary of his inauguration, we passed more taxes in my four years than they have before or since. One of the challenges in seeking to get re-elected was that I said I would raise taxes only as a last resort and some people took that to mean I wouldn’t raise taxes.”

Spellman paid the price for raising taxes and defying special interests in a tumultuous term marked by a serious recession and a hard-right Republican Party, losing in 1984 to moderate Democratic businessman Booth Gardner.

I asked Spellman, who turns 90 next month, what kind of governor he had been and with a twinkle in his Irish eyes, he replied “I was a darn good governor.” And beyond the tumult of his times, including what he’d suggest may have been the worst economic period the state has experienced, there’s much to suggest in retrospect that may be an accurate assessment.

For his part, Evans, who just had his 91st birthday last month, was and remains a fan of a state income tax, as long as it’s part of “tax reform,” saying in an interview “I killed the income tax for two generation by getting a vote on it.  After that, the no-tax pledge became required in campaigns.”

“If we had prevailed with tax reform and the income tax component, we would be $4.5 billion better off in this state,” Evans added.

The governing philosophies of those two may indicate how close to ideologically blue a GOP gubernatorial candidate might have to be to break the Democratic hold on the state’s chief executive job.

Of course the Republican candidates have been competitive in some recent elections, with Dino Rossi losing to Christine Gregoire in 2004 only after a recount confirmed her victory, and Rob McKenna seen as losing to Inslee four years ago primarily because of some campaign missteps.

Spellman, handsome and personable with a winning smile, was an attorney, graduate of Seattle University then Georgetown Law School, whose ever-present pipe would be lit and relit during lengthy discussion sessions.

Because one of his legal clients was the United Steelworkers Union local, he had support from a lot of labor-union members as he successfully campaigned to become the first King County Executive. In fact,  my first meeting with Spellman in 1967 was when my steelworker uncle introduced me to him at a cocktail party in downtown Seattle after explaining to me what a fair and fine man this was who I was about to meet.

The passage of years has dimmed the remarkable courage Spellman evidenced in holding firm to his decision not to permit a pipeline to be constructed under Puget Sound despite pressure from a Republican administration, his own congressional delegation and the legislature.

That conviction brought him national attention in the form of a People magazine April 1982 profile of the little-known elected official who was “bucking president and party to turn an oil pipeline into a pipe dream.”

The profile went on to discuss how “one of the nation’s mightiest public-works projects, the $2.7 billion, 1,490-mile Northern Tier Pipeline designed to carry Alaskan crude oil from Puget Sound to Midwestern refineries, is being blocked by a single man, Governor John Spellman of Washington.”

And given the current political controversy about what attitude should guide this country’s view of international trade, Spellman’s thoughts on its importance would put him in the thick of any discussion on the topic today.

Spellman was an early believer in the importance of establishing relations with foreign nations and is proud of initiating relationships with Schewan Province in China and furthering relations with Japan during his term.

“Both world trade and world peace were in play then, as now, and relationships are very important in international affairs,” said Spellman in our interview. “The relationships we have are extremely important to the world in terms of peace and tranquility and trade, but trade is third among those in importance.”

I asked Spellman during our telephone interview for that 2011 column how it felt to lose his re-election bid.  “It wasn’t devastating. Maybe to some of my kids it was, but not to me,” Spellman replied. “I knew I had done a lot of things that weren’t calculated to make getting re-elected easy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dan Evans' leadership role in resettlement of Vietnam refugees 40 years ago recalled

As Vietnamese refugees huddled by the thousands in processing centers in this country in the days following the fall of South Vietnam 40 years ago this month, then-Gov. Dan Evans made Washington the first state to extend a welcome to an eventual several thousand refugees in what was undoubtedly one of the state's finest hours.

Now the outreach and leadership role Evans played are being celebrated next Monday evening at Kane Hall at the University of Washington with a 40-minute screening of the Academy-Award nominated Last Days in Vietnam.The screening will be followed by a conversation including Evans and Ralph Munro, later the long-term Washington Secretary of State but then an intern in Evans' office who was dispatched to Camp Pendleton, CA, the West Coast processing center for the refugees.

Ralph Munro with Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton 

It was in April of 1975, with the North Vietnamese army closing in on Saigon, that the 5,000 remaining Americans hurried to get out. And because of the 11th-hour bravery of some Americans, 135,000 South Vietnamese managed to escape and many made their way to processing centers in the U.S., including Camp Pendleton.

Munro remembers viewing the sprawling tent-camp for the refugees, meeting with some of them, then meeting with the Camp Pendleton base commander, who asked: "Do you want these people?" Munro says he responded "Yes. I think we do."

 

Munro recalls that Washington's interest in caring for the immigrants came about when Evans heard that California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown made it clear he was not going to permit the Vietnam refugees to be received into his state.

 

So Evans dispatched Munro to California with the admonition, "If you see that S.O.B. (and he didn't abbreviate the profanity, though Evans was never known to swear) Brown, remind him what it says on the face of the Statue of Liberty."

 

Munro recalls his first view at Camp Pendleton of the refugee encampment: "The sun was starting to set and I came over this hill and I just saw thousands of tents."

 

Once he connected with the refugees at their camp, Munro got on a loudspeaker and offered that those who wanted to do so could come to Washington and many quickly stepped forward.

Evans laughs "a lot of them probably thought they were going to Washington, D.C."

While the transit of the refugees was being arranged, Evans' office was contacting churches, community groups and people who might work with a single family. "We found more volunteers than we could handle," he said in a phone interview.

So the first 500 began making their way to Seattle, then 1,500, and on May 8, 1975, Evans personally carried a letter to President Gerald ford formally advising him that the state was agreeing to be involved in the resettlement effort.  

Evans recalls that President Ford soon created the Presidential Commission on Refugees "and we were able to bring the commission the experience we had with the refugees and that helped create the methodology for dealing with the refugees."

He notes that ironically, despite Jerry Brown's desire to keep the Vietnamese refugees out of his state, today California, along with Texas and Washington, are the three states with the largest population of Vietnamese.

So that Monday evening gathering, sponsored by KCTS9 and the Seattle Times, will wind up with a community recognition of Evans and the role he played.

But Dan and Nancy Evans' personal story within the broader story of outreach to the Vietnamese is perhaps even more compelling than the welcome of the eventual 1,500 refugees to a new life and newopportunity in this state.

Evans recalls one family they came in contact with when they went to visit the refugees at Camp Murrray, the state's National Guard headquarters south of Tacoma. It was the Nguyen family, husband, pregnant wife and their five children.

When the sixth child was born, they named him Evans in honor of the governor whose state welcomed them.

"We got to know the family and followed them and saw their focus on education for their children," Evans recalls. "The outcome was the first five were all valedictorians of their high school classes."

"Then as we waited for the invitation to Evans' graduation and none came, we contacted the parents and learned that they were reluctant to invite us because he was not the valedictorian," Evans chucked. "But he was in the top 10 in his class."

Evans recalls that there were two shrines in the Nguyen house. "One was a religious shrine," said Evans. "The other one was in the living room where six UW graduation certificates were displayed."

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Reading an old Dan Evans speech stirs a sense that change isn't always improvement

Occasionally we run across something from yesterday that causes a sense that change isn't necessarily always for the better. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the political realm.

 

That thought occurred to me a few days ago when I had the opportunity to read a speech by former Governor and U.S. Senator Dan Evans to the January 1995 Economic Forecast conference in Seattle.

 

It was the day after Republicans, as a result of the transformational election of 1994, assumed control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years and, with three dozen new GOP legislators, the state House in Olympia.

 

Evans, who himself had bucked a Democratic landslide in 1964 to win the first of his three terms as governor, referred, at the opening of that speech, to "day two of a new era," then joked, "Or is it the Newt era?" That was a reference, of course, to the new House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had orchestrated the overwhelming takeover of the House of Representatives by Republicans.

 

I got a copy of the speech from Neil McReynolds, then a top executive at the old Puget Sound Power & Light Co., and chair of the board of the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County, which put on the event at which Evans was keynoter.

 

McReynolds, who had been Evans' press secretary in Olympia when he and I met in the late '60s, is constantly running across decades-old documents in his files and, finding this one while we were visiting, he thought I might find the speech interesting.

 

Politics has provided several swings since that Evans' speech when Republicans were coming to power halfway through Bill Clinton's first term. But maybe the swings, either to the left or right, haven't always made things better.

 

What I found most interesting in reading Evans' talk was the reminder of him as an elected official who was impossible to pigeonhole ideologically. As governor and later as U.S. senator, he avoided ideological rigidity and found good ideas might sometimes spring from the Democrat side of the political aisle. And that dumb ideas could sometimes be offered by his fellow Republicans.

 

Thus at a time when polarized political positions characterize decision-making, reflecting on Evans, and actually many who were like him, including Washington's late Democratic Sen. Henry M. Jackson, make it obvious that politics doesn't have to require ideological polarization.

 

Before outlining in that speech a series of ideas "to propel Seattle and King County into world-class economic status," Evans blasted "talk show hosts screeching about waste in government," proponents of term limits and a balanced-budget amendment, environmental extremists, and excessive regulations that stymie growth.

 

And he also took to task the nature of campaigning. So in what could be a comment about the unfolding 2012 election rather than a reflection on 1994, Evans noted "We have just concluded the nastiest election in my memory. Virtually all campaign advertising was enormously distorted and negative."

 

"By constantly trashing our political leaders, we also breed disrespect for our own system, of government," Evans said. "The result is a new political landscape dotted with constitutional amendments and initiatives designed to protect citizens from 'evil' politicians."

 

Of two ideas whose proponents have continued to seek traction since that "new era" that Evans referred to as dawning, he told that 1995 business audience: "The balanced budget amendment is a loony idea that is meaningless until we decide how to keep a national standard set of books so we can measure balance."

 

And of the idea of term limits, Evans offered: "As a voter I am outraged by those sanctimonious term limiters who would steal from me the freedom of my vote."

 

But in addition to hitting "those talk show hosts who cater to the base emotion of people," he took to task "the politicians who blithely promise what they know they cannot deliver," and "those rigid environmentalists who will see you in court if they don't get all they seek."

 

Thus he has always been a leader in what I and many feel is an unfortunately disappearing breed, those who view ideas on their merits rather than insisting that any new idea must be vetted based on where it fits ideologically.

 

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