hat if Gary Locke had never gone to Yale, never gotten a law degree and never entered politics? He might have been whistling happily through his days as an electrician or plumber. He's one of those guys who loves nothing better than fixing things that don't work right. Fortunately for the people of Washington State, Locke heeded the call to public service and got himself elected governor in 1996, overcoming intense Republican efforts to paint him as a bleeding-heart liberal.
Once in office he didn't disappoint the voters who saw him as a pragmatic centrist with progressive ideas. During his first term as governor Gary Locke instituted innovative reforms that would ultimately cut welfare rolls by 44%, saving enough tax dollars to revamp a failing educational system into the nation's fourth best. By the end of his first term Gary Locke's approval rating had soared to 70%, the highest in a quarter century. In 2000 the Republicans threw up their hands in despair and Locke won reelection by a historic landslide.
Unfortunately, the start of Locke's second term coincided with the tech crash and the ensuing economic slump. It hit tech-dependent Washington especially hard. The governor's approval rating plunged to 29%. In the two hardscrabble years since, Gary Locke rolled up his sleeves and showed that he's no fair-weather leader. Even during the grimmest days he kept pushing his budget-cutting and education reform agendas. He went on trade missions to help local companies sell more overseas.
By early 2003 Locke had gained enough national stature to be picked to deliver the Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union Address. When summer arrived the economy was on the mend and Gary Locke was looking golden for another term. That was when he showed that his mantra about giving kids a good start applied to his own by announcing that he would not seek a third term. He and wife Mona wanted to provide their two grade-schoolers a more "normal" family life back in their Seattle home.
When we pressed him, Locke left open the possibility of returning to politics at the national level if he were drafted into service as, say, a cabinet secretary or a running mate for a presidential contender. He couched it in terms of his duty to answer the call to “serve my country”. His likely response can best be judged by a three-decade political career that has consistently put public service ahead of private interests.
Locke's ties to Washington go back to a paternal grandfather who had immigrated to Olympia at the turn of the century and worked as a houseboy before returning to China to start a family. His son James returned to Washington and fought under General Patton. Gary was born January 21, 1950 in a Seattle veterans public housing project called Yesler Terrace.
Gary worked at his father's grocery store but earned the rank of Eagle Scout and graduated with honors from Franklin High in 1968. He worked his way through Yale, earning a poli sci degree in 1972. Three years later he got a J.D. from Boston University Law School and became a King County deputy prosecutor. In early 1981 he took off for five months to work as an attorney for the state legislature. That experience opened Locke's eyes to the potential for public service through elected office.
His crime-fighting record helped him win a state house seat in 1982. Locke's star rose rapidly through hard work on the judiciary and appropriations committees. He chaired the latter from 1988 until 1993 when he was elected chief executive of King County. That office gave Gary Locke a chance to prove his knack for upgrading social services while enforcing fiscal discipline. Locke might have stayed in that job several years longer but for a sex scandal that prompted popular Democratic governor Mike Lowry not to seek a second term despite a likely victory. Locke stepped into the breach.
Locke's popularity is boosted by his pretty wife, the former Mona Lee. Before their marriage in October of 1994 she was a news reporter at Seattle's KING-TV. She gave birth to daughter Emily in 1997, then son Dylan in 1999. As First Lady Mona has won raves by championing the causes of early learning and quality childcare.
Gary Locke has never publicly expressed interest in running for national office. Supporters see no other progression for the lifetime civil servant. They dismiss the race factor by citing the fact that only about 6% of Washington voters are Asian, not very different from the 4% figure nationally. Some even feel that Locke's prospects for winning the presidency are better than that of any other minority politician. They cite his cleancut image combined with a sterling track record at the helm -- not to mention the likely support of the world's biggest software company: Bill Gates has shown himself to be a staunch supporter and friend.
Getting slotted into one of Governor Locke's crowded days is like hitting a moving target. When at last our call was put all the way through to the man himself, we were caught a bit off guard by Locke's voice. It is youthful and vibrant. The wide-open friendly tone signals that we are about to have a conversation free from stiffness and formality. Yet he resists glibness. Time and again Locke eschews soundbite answers to offer thoughtful analyses of problems and solutions. At times he sounds like a policy wonk -- a criticism to which he's no stranger. The interview leaves us with the distinct impression that the Governor spends his days mired knee-deep in issues instead of staying high and dry in white shoes. We are also pleasantly surprised to find that Gary Locke is no less willing to delve into how he met and married Mona, or his assessment of an Asian American's chances in running for President of the United States, or his relationship with Bill Gates.
GS: What was the initial impulse that made you give up the office of Chief Executive of King County to seek the Governor's office in 1996? GL: Having been in Olympia and worked on so many issues, especially education issues and [having been] chairman of the budget-writing committee in the legislature, I just came to understand the power of the Governor. I've always been interested in actual management, administration. It's one thing for the legislative body to pass policy but it's how you administer and implement that policy with all the latitutde that you have that can make all the difference between success and mediocrity in the policy. That's why when I left the legislature I wanted to get into administration. I was urged to run for county exec and really enjoyed that, had great success there. Nationally acclaimed programs, innovations. Suddenly Governor Lowry announced that he's not going to seek a second term so I was encouraged by so many friends and people from different interests to run for governor. Mona and I looked at it. We didn't have any children at the time. We had been married for a year and a half. We said, “Wow, this is the time to pursue that dream of running for governor because if an opportunity presented itself five or six years later, we might have a family and it would be very hard on a family with young kids to run for governor.” So it was the right time for us.
GS: As you were entering the race did you have a vision of what you wanted to achieve, what kind of changes you wanted to implement? GL: Really focusing on education issues, focusing on greater efficiency in government. The state of Washington is very unique. The state is responsible for 75% of the funding for every local school district. Not the community but the state is the primary funder of our schools. We subsidize the cost of educating our students. Our colleges and universities are state colleges and universities. Tuition pays a small fraction of the actual cost of educating the students. We wanted to get more students into our colleges and universities. To improve the quality of education from reducing class sizes to raising academic achievement, we had to find the money, not just from the growth of the economy, but also through efficiencies in other aspects of government. I'm glad to say that in my several years as governor our state has been twice ranked among the top 5 [best] managed states in America. Out of the 5 times that the award has been given -- it's not given every year -- the state of Washington each time has been declared the number one digital state government in terms of the use of technology to streamline and improve services in government.PAGE 2