In the Northwest: As a leader, Locke looks an awful lot like a loser
At a time when our state seems paralyzed, its would-be movers and shakers shake their heads at how hard Gov. Gary Locke seems to work for one cause after another, only to see it lose.
It goes to a central problem: Gubernatorial leadership in the Evergreen State seems to have become an oxymoron.
At last weekend's Washington News Council dinner, which toasted five former governors, one roaster came up with a one-liner something like this: It's unfortunate our current governor can't be with us tonight but he's busy selling watches in Mukilteo.
Alas, she decided not to use the line.
Tim Eyman, who wasn't there, would have basked in the laughter. The reaction on the face of Locke, seated at a front table, would have been priceless.
Look at what's happened so far in the governor's "annus horribilis."
Locke went to the mat to get the Washington Legislature to enact a gas tax increase for transportation without taking it to the fall ballot. He was rolled by a fellow Democrat, House Speaker Frank Chopp, who insisted on a public vote.
The governor then took to the rubber chicken circuit on behalf of Referendum 51, recruiting and teaming with former GOP Sen. Slade Gorton. With a $5 million budget, this dream team persuaded just 37 percent of the state's voters to go along with the gas tax boost.
Locke put it on the line for a prescription drug plan in the Legislature last spring. It was scuttled by a half-dozen Democrats in the House aided by that richest and most relentless of lobbies, the pharmaceutical industry.
On the environmental front, Locke and his administration supported a proposed ban on and recall of products containing mercury. It failed to reach the floor of either chamber in our Democrat-controlled legislature.
And then came Eyman. Here, Locke has been absent from battle.
Starting with Initiative 695 in 1999, the car-tab tribune is four-for-five in measures he has put on the ballot. Eyman was back with another initiative this week, as usual trumpeted by TV sound bites and a largely loving Associated Press story, with scant assessment of consequences.
Against this onslaught, what has Olympia projected? Confusion, Pilatelike washing of hands, fear of voters, fear of Eyman and fear of making decisions.
Curiously, voters' wrath last week was visited upon one state agency -- the Washington Department of Transportation -- which has new leadership, more accountability and is striving not to repeat past screw-ups.
The electorate's surliness can't all be laid at Locke's feet. He must, however, bear responsibility for fumbling from the top.
Governors can and do lead, sometimes by leaning on people. In Massachusetts, a big factor behind Republican Mitt Romney's win was public belief he could crack the whip over a mossbacked legislature.
At a Town Hall forum on health care earlier this year, I heard how fellow Democrats thwarted Locke on prescription drugs. The forum's keynoter, however, was Oregon's Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, who successfully pressured his state's Republican-controlled legislature to enact a plan to bring down high drug prices.
The West's best governors of recent years have known to use the bully pulpit.
Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus persuaded potato magnate J.R. Simplot to take the lead in treating wastes that industry was pouring into the Snake River.
Here, three decades ago, Dan Evans went to the voters with a proposed state income tax -- and was handed his head -- but used a statewide TV speech and appearances in recalcitrant lawmakers' districts to bully the Legislature to enact landmark environmental laws.
Every so often I hear the following argument from Eyman over the phone: If you have an appealing proposal (initiative) voters are going to go for it. A pricey "no" campaign won't switch many voters, nor will author Eyman's own negatives dent its support.
He does keep winning so maybe he's right. But hold on -- not necessarily. Events elsewhere suggest that clear, credible leadership can make a difference.
A few years back, big business, real estate and corporate agriculture interests in Oregon were on the verge of persuading voters to repeal the state's landmark land-use law, enacted in the 1970s under maverick Republican Gov. Tom McCall.
Long out of office, near death from cancer, McCall rose from his sick bed with an appeal not to let forces of sprawl carry the day. The repeal bid failed.
Here, by contrast, Locke has allowed Eyman to operate in a vacuum and blow huge holes in budgets of state and local governments.
Upcoming is a $2 billion-plus budget deficit, and new Eyman initiatives to dictate the state's agenda. Locke hasn't said whether he'll run for a third term in 2004. Obviously, no governor who can help it wants to be perceived as a lame duck.
It is, however, hard to think of a lamer performance than what we've witnessed in the past year.
An articulate progressive Democratic gubernatorial challenger, Phil Talmadge, is already in the field and has jousted with Eyman. The Republicans may surprise us in '04 by jettisoning negativism in favor of a viable conservative program of a sort used by successful GOP governors elsewhere.
Looking at Locke, I recall a motto directed at politicians by the bipartisan Concord Coalition in the 1990s when it demanded action on the burgeoning national debt:
Lead . . . or leave.
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