Governor Fix-It

Gary Locke's steady focus and determination restored credibility to Washington State government.

ne of the most insulting things ever said about former Washington Governor Gary Locke is that his decision not to seek a third term was prompted by the hundreds of letters and emails containing racial slurs and threats to kill his children received after he delivered the Democrats' response to President Bush's State of the Union Address in January of 2003.

     That theory disregards the innate strength and stubborn streak that make ox people poor targets for intimidation. Once an ox sets his course, he will follow it no matter the cost.

     Truth is, by early 2004 Mona Locke was pregnant with third child Madeline, born in November of 2004. The decision to have a third child, as well as to devote more private time to Emily, then 6, and Dylan, then 4, were the real reasons behind Locke's July 2003 surprise announcement that he would not seek a third term despite a lock on the nomination and another likely landslide victory. A warm and comfortable family life is one of life's pole stars for an ox, one that would have been eclipsed by another gubernatorial election.

     After leaving office on January 12, 2005 Locke joined the Seattle office of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP to work in the international law firm's China and governmental-relations practice groups. But he kept his lifelong ties to politics, agreeing in October 2007 to serve as Washington co-chair of Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

     While acknowledging his admiration for Barack Obama and John Edwards, Locke declared, “Only Hillary Clinton has the breadth of experience, the knowledge and the skills necessary to lead our country at a time when leadership is so sorely needed.”

     That endorsement wasn't surprsing. Locke had long been an ally of both Clintons. He had campaigned for the Clinton-Gore ticket, even joining a campaign bus caravan through Southwest Washington. In 1996 Locke and Mona sat with Hillary Clinton at the State of the Union Address and were overnight guests at the White House.

     But it wasn't glory and power that drove Locke to serve eight years as one of the most popular and successful governors in Washington history. He simply had a passion for making things work better. Locke has said he enjoys nothing better than fixing things. Had he 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. 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 difficult years that followed 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.

     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. He didn't even speak English until starting kindergarten.

     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 was 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, son Dylan in 1999 and Madeline in 2004. As First Lady Mona won raves by championing the causes of early learning and quality childcare. In early December 2008 Locke was among those named as potential nominees for Obama's Interior Secretary.

“Gary was born in a Seattle veterans public housing project called Yesler Terrace. He didn't even speak English until starting kindergarten.”


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