Will Locke seek a third term? First things first, he says

Washington Gov. Gary Locke speaks during a Tuesday news conference at the Boeing commercial building in Renton about traveling to Beijing this week to celebrate the 30 years The Boeing Co. has done business in China.

The Associated Press

David Ammons
The Associated Press,
The Olympian

OLYMPIA, WA - 12/1/02-- Gov. Gary Locke is mulling whether to run for a third term, but first he has to conquer a mountain of challenges that face the state on his watch.

The Democratic governor, now marking his 20th year in public life, is very sober these days, and for good reason:

-Voters torpedoed his multibillion-dollar transportation plan, despite his unprecedented use of political capital. And now he gets to sift through the wreckage and figure out what to do next.

-The economy is limping, and the state budget is hemorrhaging red ink. Locke must devise a way of patching the $2 billion budget hole -- roughly 10 percent of the budget -- and is looking for ways to spur the economy.

-Before the session is over, he has to decide whether he can stomach taxes, expansion of gambling and other unpalatable choices.

"This has to be the worst," he says when asked to compare this winter's challenges with others he's faced in his long career.

Oh, and that bid for a third term? Pals assume he's going again, but the governor insists he hasn't decided, and won't until next fall.

"It really will be a family decision -- what's best for our family, what's best for (children) Emily and Dylan," he says.

Asked about a delicious report that he and Sen. Patty Murray would try to switch posts in 2004, he laughs and says: "I'm not a big fan of redeye flights every weekend."

We'll take that as a no, and go back to the original question: Which way is he leaning when it comes to running for governor again?

"I can't tell YOU that," he teased a reporter.

Keeping options open

Many of Locke's friends and associates figure he'll run again -- but wouldn't bet a lot of money on it.

"His leanings probably change daily," says Blair Butterworth, his longtime friend and campaign strategist. "Right now, he's tired as hell and has a cold ... and may see the glass as half empty or not there at all" as he deals with the latest mountain of problems.

"But my presumption is that he's gonna run."

State Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt agrees: "I'm operating under the assumption that Gary is running again. He's had some fund-raising events. He has stumped extensively for other Democrats. Every sign I see is that he is preparing for a hard-fought session and gearing up for a re-election campaign."

Locke's adviser and former campaign director, DeLee Shoemaker, says the governor hasn't squarely faced the question of whether he wants a third consecutive term, which only Republican Dan Evans managed to pull off.

"He's keeping his options open," she says.

GOP Chairman Chris Vance, who says retaking the governor's office after an 18-year shutout is one of his highest priorities, says he's convinced that Locke is on the fence. It's a tough time to be governor: Newspapers, legislators and other critics are constantly attacking Locke as a weak leader, he says.

"There is this firmly held belief by the people of this state that we are without leadership, drifting and rudderless," Vance says.

Bullfeathers, says Butterworth.

"Voters are incrementalists and they like Gary Locke," he says. "He is extraordinarily in tune with the tax tolerance level of voters, which is pretty edgy. People aren't looking for miracles ... or big dreams and big spending. Gary Locke perfectly suits the times."

Locke says he's still having fun. Without prompting, he launches into a riff on his years in the executive suite, including his work on education, Promise Scholarships, welfare overhaul, and wiring the government.

Friends say Locke has good days and bad days, but that he still likes the job on balance. Shoemaker says Locke is the kind of policy wonk who actually seems to be energized by tough problems, since it draws to his strong suit of managing and problem-solving.

The session test

Some legislators say Locke is no doubt waiting to see how he does with the upcoming legislative session before deciding if he's game for another campaign.

Last year he enjoyed Democratic majorities in both houses for the first time in his tenure. That lasted only 12 months. Now it's back to divided control -- Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House.

Asked to predict whether Locke runs again, Senate budget Chairman Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, said: "A lot will depend on this legislative session. He has to repair the image issue of leadership."

The new Senate Democratic leader, Lisa Brown of Spokane, says Locke was fairly hands-off in his early years, but is becoming more skilled and more engaged in the rough-and-tumble of Olympia. He's superb at handling "external crises" like the Sept. 11 attacks, drought and energy, she says.

The Legislature and governor share blame for not being able to solve some of the state's toughest problems, including transportation, Brown says.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, doesn't see the legislative session as a deal-breaker for Locke. "I hear a different rumor every week, but I personally think all roads seem to lead to him running again."

One hellacious winter

Locke has lived through some rough patches -- and he knows that voters sometimes make incumbents pay for the difficult choices they make.

As a 30-something lawyer from Seattle's Central Area, he arrived in the state House in 1983. Democrats were newly in the majority because Republicans had jacked up taxes in a painful series of special sessions as the economy went into the Dumpster.

By the next recession, in 1993, Locke was Appropriations chairman and wrote a budget that required spending cuts and $1 billion worth of taxes and fees. He headed off to successfully run for King County executive that fall -- the very year voters slapped on spending restraints via Initiative 601.

His Democrats paid the price, losing the House majority the very next year and also lost the state Senate in 1996.

Thus it's safe to say he's handling the upcoming budget battle gingerly, both as titular leader of his party and to preserve his own hide.

"It's going to be a challenge for everybody," Locke says. "These are incredibly tough times for governments, both state and local, but also for families throughout our state. But we've been through tough times before, and we've always emerged stronger."

Shoemaker adds that Locke understands well, particularly after the landslide defeat of the transportation referendum, that people are "tax-sensitive."

For now, Locke is writing a no-new-taxes budget, as required by law. He apparently doesn't intend to follow up before the session with his real druthers, a plan with some restorations and some add-ons and a revenue package to pay for it.

The strategy seems to be to let the gravity of the cuts sink in. He plans to go on the road with the Town Hall meetings to describe the situation. Eventually, the speculation goes, he'll work with lawmakers on a budget more to his liking.

"Collaboration" is a word you'll hear over and over.

The downside, of course is that he'll take even more criticism for his leadership style, for not laying down his plans at the front end of the process.

The same dynamics hold true with the other mega-issue of the session: transportation. He's assembling some of the major players for a brainstorming meeting later this month, but doesn't have a Locke Plan to advocate.

Yup, more collaboration.

His to lose

So far, Republicans don't have a candidate to take him on. Congressman George Nethercutt of Spokane is looking at the race, and some activists like King County Sheriff Dave Reichert. Until the corporate corruption scandals broke, the party was courting rich business leaders to run, but they've cooled to that. Vance himself is mentioned, and some activists say the nominee could come from the Legislature.

Phil Talmadge, former Supreme Court justice and state senator, is running for the 2004 Democratic nomination regardless of what Locke does.

Attorney General Christine Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims and others are eyeing the race if Locke opts out.

Independent pollster Stuart Elway says Locke's popularity ratings are at their lowest ebb, but that he's still the most popular pol in the state, with a positive rating of over 50 percent.

"It's always difficult to unseat an incumbent," he says. "A primary challenge is very difficult, and you can't beat somebody with nobody. The Republican nominees against Locke haven't been very strong."

Locke's Hamlet number doesn't involve worrying about whether he'd win, but whether he wants to do the gig another four years, says Butterworth.

David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered the statehouse since 1971. He can be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia, WA 98507, or at dammons@ap.org.


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