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Lowry, Michael Edward "Mike" (b. 1939)
HistoryLink.org Essay 8600
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Michael “Mike” Lowry served 21 years in elective offices in Washington state -- 1976 to 1978 in the King County Council; 1979 to 1989 representing the 7th District in Congress, and 1993 to 1997 as governor. A vociferous, table-pounding liberal, he came from a family of New Deal Democrats in the Palouse, and he was respected by friend and foe because they knew where he stood. He was variously described as “mercurial,” “frumpy,” earthy,” and “irascible” (Anderson). In 1995, a former staff member charged him with sexual harassment and he did not seek re-election as governor. He has since been active in a range of public-sector projects, primarily in migrant housing and the homeless. He also has served in various volunteer capacities, such as co-chair of the King County Charter Review Commission and co-chair of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. Lowry and his wife, Mary, reside in Renton.
Child of The Palouse
Michael Edward "Mike" Lowry was born on March 8, 1939, in St. John, Washington, a small farming town in Whitman County’s Palouse region, about 40 miles south of Spokane. His father, Robert Lowry, was born in 1909 in Missouri, “dirt poor,” and came west with his family at age 7, “riding the rails,” and the family alighted in St. John. Lowry’s mother, Helen White Lowry, was born in 1913 in St. John; her family had migrated from California around the turn of the century. Robert and Helen met, married, and had three children: Beth Ann (1936-1989), Mike, and Sue Ellen, born in 1953.
Robert Lowry worked at the Sperry Mills grain elevators, eventually becoming manager. When Mike was 7, the family moved to Endicott, 16 miles away.
The Lowrys were “New Deal Democrats” and “the dining room wall had a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the folks talked politics all the time. Whitman County was pretty Republican and Dad would get a kick out of them, getting the rural electricity, the FDR programs that absolutely saved the whole area. They loved those FDR programs” (Lowry). (In response to the 1930s Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt [1882-1945] instituted a range of economic-stimulus initiatives that many conservatives denounced as “socialism.”)
Lowry lettered in three sports in high school, which was easy enough to do, he said, because there were only 14 students in his 1957 graduating class.
College and Beyond
He majored in political science and general studies at Washington State University in Pullman, only 35 miles from Endicott, and “didn’t realize there were other places to go to college” (Lowry). He was senior class president but he aspired to a career in naval aviation upon graduation, rather than politics. He had signed up in 1961, but a physical exam after graduation in 1962 revealed unacceptably high blood pressure and he was rejected for military service. The country was deep in the Cold War, the Vietnam War was in its early stages, and Lowry “was disappointed.”
He worked a few months for Dun & Bradstreet, the financial information company, then for three years as a salesman for Allyn & Bacon, a textbook publisher, covering the Pacific Northwest states, Montana, and the three western Canadian provinces. “I was living out of a suitcase, but I really liked that job,” Lowry said. He then worked briefly for a Seattle building contractor before devoting himself to politics.
Lowry’s first presidential vote went to John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and his New Frontier. “When I came out of WSU, I was ‘my country right or wrong,’” he said. “But about 1964, I was looking at Vietnam and thought, ‘This is a huge mistake’” He volunteered in the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), the campaign of Karl Hermann, running for state insurance commissioner, and the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of state Senator Martin Durkan Sr.
Marriage and Politics
In 1968, Lowry married Mary Carlson, a Bellevue resident and 1966 University of Washington graduate in history he'd met through a bridge-playing group. Their daughter, Diane, was born in 1974.
Senator Durkan, one of Olympia’s most powerful politicians as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, offered Lowry a job staffing the committee after the failed 1968 gubernatorial campaign, a post Lowry held for five years. Durkan (1923-2005) was Lowry’s first political mentor (“absolutely”) and he schooled Lowry not only in budget matters, but on poverty and farmworker issues as well, concerns that would drive Lowry throughout his public career. Durkan was considered a conservative Democrat, “but he was a leader in the Senate in 1970s on the farmworkers,” Lowry said. “There was a natural gravitation for those issues. He also reached across the aisle to help establish the state's environmental regulatory system” (Chesley Interview).
In the legislative off-season in 1970, Lowry paid more political dues by organizing Young Democrat chapters at colleges and community colleges around the state. In 1972, he managed Durkan’s second campaign for governor, but Durkan (and future-U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott as well) lost the primary to Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011). Some political observers blamed Lowry for the loss but, Lowry recalled, “Durkan never said that. Rosellini came in 90 days before the primary, moved to the right, and took Durkan’s constituency.” Rosellini lost to Dan Evans (b. 1925), who won an unprecedented third term as governor.
Lowry ran for his first public office in 1973, challenging King County Executive John Spellman, who was seeking a second term. Lowry was a long shot, but won the Democratic primary. As expected, Spellman (b. 1926) won re-election, but Lowry drew a respectable 42 percent of the vote, more than the polls had projected, and it whetted his political appetite. “Spellman had a great reputation at that time,” Lowry said.
The Lowrys had lived in apartments during their early years, but moved to Renton’s Kennydale Hill in 1973 and have remained there since.
Lowry stayed with Durkan through the 1973 session, then worked two years as a lobbyist for Group Health Cooperative. “I needed a job,” he said.
King County Council
In 1975, he ran for the King County Council District 6 seat held by Republican Tom Forsythe, “a nice guy,” Lowry recalled. He campaigned on a platform that included, among other issues, farmland preservation, public financing of county elections, a local income tax for schools, land-use planning, and better public transit. He easily defeated Forsythe.
The previous, Republican-controlled county council had been slow to assert itself and Spellman had experienced little trouble reforming and streamlining county government. Lowry -- at 36 the youngest member -- gave the council its first Democratic majority and the once-sleepy body woke up to discover some ferment. Some of Lowry’s ideas were “not only radical, but also nearly revolutionary” (Corsaletti).
But Spellman had little trouble with Lowry. “I had a good working relationship with John,” Lowry said. “We could work together and we got things done.”
While campaigning for the King County Council and during his tenure as a member, Lowry showed his interest in environmental issues. His 1975 candidate statement published in The Seattle Times, Lowry wrote, "I am seeking county office because of the direct relationship of the County Council to the need for sensible regional economic development and the correlation between environmental concerns and the need for higher employment ..." ("County Positions"). In 1976, Lowry traced water pollution in the Fall City and Upper Preston area back to septic system failures and suggested the county seek federal funding to improve water quality.
Trouble in the Ranks
Lowry, in fact, often had more trouble with his fellow Democrats on the council. In 1977, council member Bernice Stern (1916-2007) expected to take over as council chairwoman, but Lowry challenged her and, with the votes of Republicans Paul Barden and Tracy Owen, defeated Stern, 5-4. The ploy angered Stern and left a residue of ill will. Stern became chairwoman the following year, but she later recalled: “I certainly was mad as hell at him” ("Stern, Bernice ..."). Lowry said later: “I never felt that way,” but added that he "felt bad" about the ensuing rancor.
A few weeks later, Lowry courted controversy again when he spearheaded a move to merge Metro, the sewage and transit agency, with King County. Seattle was losing population, the suburbs were booming, King County was a snarl of more than 200 governmental units, and the need for a regional umbrella was well-recognized. But Jim Ellis (b. 1921), considered “the father of Metro,” some suburban mayors, and other officials didn’t like Lowry’s plan, and the battle was intense. When the proposal was put to the voters in 1979, however, they rejected it by a 3-to-1 margin. Metro’s council was declared unconstitutional in 1990 and in 1992 voters approved Metro’s merger into King County.
In 1978, Lowry ran for the 7th District congressional seat held by Republican John E. “Jack” Cunningham III (b. 1931), who had won the seat for the otherwise heavily Democratic district in a 1977 special election. Lowry defeated Ron Robinson, a teacher’s union official, in the Democratic primary, and the general campaign was bare-knuckled and expensive. Lowry raised nearly $200,000 but Cunningham spent $500,000, “a huge amount of money back then,” Lowry said. He also openly courted the district’s sizable gay and lesbian community, which was beginning to assert itself politically. Lowry won, 67,450 to 59,052.
Mr. Lowry Goes to Washington
He transferred his campaign staff to Washington, D.C., with campaign manager Tom Hujar shifting to administrative assistant. Lowry did not rely heavily on his staff and David Bley, a former congressional aide, once said, “Mike’s inner circle is Mike” (Simon, Postman, Serrano). Lowry preferred “people he knows and that he can trust,” said his new press secretary, Duff Wilson, one of the few noncampaign staffers (Katz). Wilson would stay with Lowry one term before returning to journalism and a later career at The New York Times. Lowry’s staff was characterized as “widely criticized for infighting and inaccessibility” (Boren), but Wilson recalled, “I don’t think there was more infighting than usual.”
Whatever staff problems, real or contrived, Lowry coddled his constituency. “In an exception to the franking rule [limiting free congressional mailings],” Wilson recalled, “Lowry sent out postcards all over the district, setting up community meetings. After that first narrow election, he won by big margins.” Lowry agreed. “We did a tremendous amount of that, 50 community meetings a year. We’d get 50 to 200 people. I enjoyed them very much. We really did get input from people.”
Lowry said later that his lack of reliance on staff “may be correct, but I felt pretty good about the way things went for us in Congress. ... Though it probably would have been helpful at the beginning to have hired an experienced staffer from D.C" (Chesley Interview).”
A Quick Read
Lowry, however, "knew how to operate.” He initially was appointed to the House Banking and Merchant Marine Committee, focusing on port affairs and housing, and ultimately chaired the oceanography subcommittee. He also became active in the House Democratic Caucus, the prestigious Democratic Study Group, and cultivated House leaders. California Rep. Phil Burton (1926-1983), one of the most powerful members of Congress, “definitely was a mentor,” Lowry said. Burton said of Lowry: “He’s always around here pushing ahead on something” (Connelly).
Lowry’s first legislation, in 1979, was the nation’s first proposal to provide restitution for Japanese Americans and Aleuts -- more than 110,000 of them -- interned in prison camps during World War II. His measure failed, but out of it came the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, of which former Washington state Congressman Hugh Mitchell (1907-1996) was a member. Congress finally passed the Japanese American Redress Bill in 1988, allotting $20,000 to each internee. “One of the things I feel good about this country,” Lowry said. “We have made some real progress on racism.”
Lowry may have learned the political basics on compromise, but he had no trouble breaking ranks on occasion, even with the Northwest Power Bill. Since 1976, delegations of the four Pacific Northwest states -- Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana -- had been painfully constructing a measure to ration and manage the electricity from the federal Bonneville Power Administration’s Columbia River dam system. Alarming energy shortfalls were projected, 13 nuclear power plants had been penciled in, and five had moved past the drawing board -- the five plants of the Washington Public Power Supply System. Lowry claimed the proposal favored the investor-owned (private) utilities and the aluminum industry at the expense of the consumer-owned (public) utilities. He urged more federal spending on energy alternatives, on conservation, and public transportation to reduce the country’s dependence of foreign oil, issues that would remain intractable decades later.
Against the Grain
“I really upset people on that,” Lowry recalled, with his trademark chuckle. “But we got some good fisheries-protection components into the bill.” Congress finally passed the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act on December 5, 1980, authorizing creation of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) signed the bill in one of his last presidential acts.
When Lowry ignored the delegation’s -- and his own staff’s -- consensus on another fisheries-enhancement measure, “the steelheaders had a banner saying, ‘gaff Lowry,’” he recalled, with another guffaw. “The sport fishing groups later came around. We’ve made great progress” (Chesley Interview).
In 1980, Lowry was challenged by Ron Dunlap (b. 1937), a three-term Eastside Republican state representative on the rise. It was the landslide year for Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and Dunlap outspent Lowry 2-to-1, but Lowry won handily, 112,848 to 84,218.
“It was a good campaign,” Dunlap recalled. “I have a lot of respect for Mike Lowry ... . He truly believed that the answer to a whole lot of problems was more government, which I didn’t. We had some great debates.” (HistoryLink).
Lowry would go on to easily win re-election three more times -- by margins of 70 percent or more -- in 1982 and 1984 against Bob Dorse, and in 1986 against Don McDonald.
Vocal Reagan Critic
Reagan’s “New Federalism” brought a sharp reduction in domestic spending, a massive defense buildup, and aid for Nicaragua’s Contra rebels and other rightwing causes in Central America. Lowry, labeled “a liberal maverick” from the start (Boren), was among the president’s more bombastic critics. He called Reagan’s $1.6 trillion military budget “insanity” (Glover). Of those who acquiesced to the Reagan-conservative juggernaut, he said, “Democrats in Congress are too worried about being reelected” (Honig). In 1981, he joined a dozen other Democratic congressmen in a federal lawsuit, seeking withdrawal of U.S. advisers from El Salvador. “This is exactly the way we moved into Vietnam” (Connelly).
“We’re right and they’re wrong!” was his oft-repeated, arm-waving battle cry, repeated inevitably at his annual shrimp-feed fundraiser. First held in 1981 at the Capitol Hill mansion of Kay Bullitt (b. 1925), a liberal activist, member of the Bullitt clan, and devoted Lowry supporter, the shrimp feed became an annual political event that attracted the political great, near-great, the hopefuls, and others looking for a job. In 1990 (when Lowry was between incumbencies), Seattle Post-Intelligencer political reporter Neil Modie wrote, “Speaking of the Lowry shrimp feed, how many former elected officials could draw a crowd of nearly 1,000 people and raise more than $40,000 at a party when they're not even running for anything -- at least not this year?”
Seattle Times political writer David Postman said in 2006: “When I arrived in the state in 1993 (the shrimp feed) was described to me in almost mythic terms.”
The feed was passed on to King County Councilman Bob Ferguson in 2006.
Up the Ladder
In October 1981, Lowry’s efforts earned him a seat on the key Budget Committee. He was the first Washington state congressman on the panel since Brock Adams (1927-2004), who was named chairman when it was created in 1975. Lowry wasn’t anti-business, he said, but wanted a “competitive system” with fewer “government subsidies,” such as the “Chrysler loan guarantee” (Honig). (In 1979, Carter approved a $1 billion federal bailout to save Chrysler from bankruptcy).
But Lowry was a situational maverick and had no problem swapping favors with military-friendly Southern legislators. And he used his banking committee seat to muster support for the Export-Import Bank, otherwise criticized by liberals as corporate welfare. The Boeing Airplane Company, which used the bank to finance its jet sales overseas, in fact, was the bank’s biggest customer. “I understand the importance of good-paying working jobs,” Lowry said. “I hope we can all agree on that” (Chesley Interview).
If Lowry occasionally was the contrarian in the state’s delegation -- with the Northwest Power Bill, Indian fishing rights, or federal funds for Seattle’s controversial bus tunnel -- he played a major role, along with liberal Republican Rep. Joel Pritchard (1925-1997), in creating the Cougar Lakes Wilderness. They and the rest of the delegation -- five Democrats and five Republicans -- then combined forces in 1984 to shepherd the Washington Wilderness Bill of Senators Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) and Slade Gorton (b. 1928) through Congress. It included Cougar Lakes and created more than one million acres of wilderness in Washington state.
Lowry joined members of the Washington delegation, who banded together with the Oregon delegation in July 1987 and joined the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups in a lawsuit filed against the Department of Energy. The case called on Energy to file an environmental impact statement before restarting the nuclear reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The following February, the Department of Energy announced that the plant would not reopen.
In the late 1980s, Lowry was involved in several other environmental issues. He opposed the Navy's plan to build a base at Everett on the grounds that, though the project and the base would bring money and jobs to Everett, it would also cause significant environmental harm to the shoreline and to Puget Sound. Lowry enthusiastically supported the creation of a national wildlife refuge on Bowerman Basin in Grays Harbor.
In 1988, Lowry, out of concern that President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) would pursue plans to open the northern Washington coast to offshore drilling, worked with Washington's congressional delegation to have the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary designated. Finally designated in 1994, the sanctuary stretched from just north of Grays Harbor to Cape Flattery and extended 25 to 50 miles off the coast. The designation protected extensive kelp beds, whales, dolphins, porpoises, fish, and seabirds from oil and gas development and required passing tankers, oil barges, and large ships to stay 25 miles offshore.
Mary Lowry and Diane -- then 5 -- moved to Washington, D.C., with Mike for his first term, returned to Seattle for his second, spent his third term in D.C., and returned home for good in 1983. “She had the good sense to not get carried away with the D.C. social life, but Seattle was a much better place to raise Diane,” Lowry said. Mary did find time, however, to earn her certified public accountant certificate and, while she was in D.C., was active in Peace Link, a group of congressional wives and others working for nuclear arms control. Peace Link was formed by Betty Bumpers (b. 1925), wife of Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers (b. 1925).
Filling Jackson's Shoes
Washington state’s political landscape shifted seismically on September 1, 1983, when Senator Jackson died suddenly, felled by a ruptured aorta. John Spellman, now governor, appointed Dan Evans (b. 1925), former Republican governor and then-president of The Evergreen State College, to temporarily fill Jackson's seat until a special election. The primary was only a few weeks away.
Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939), in his second term and fostering a national presence, entered the race immediately, with the backing of the Democratic Party establishment. But close on his heels came Lowry, a move which left some in the party with bitter memories. “I like Charley,” Lowry said. “But in the Senate, foreign policy is very important and I felt, frankly speaking, that I had positions on that that I wanted the country to have” (Chesley Interview).
There were 29 men and four women on the primary ballot and the top four vote-getters were Evans with 250,046 votes; Lowry with 179,509; former conservative broadcast executive Lloyd E. Cooney (1923-2013) with 133,799, and Royer with 103,304.
The month-long campaign was frenetic, fueled often with rhetorical excess on both sides, and a study in contrast -- Evans, the well-modulated engineer vs. the wild-eyed, arm-waving, bearded, terrorist-looking Lowry. It was a contrast that Evans campaign handlers Jim Waldo and Steve Excell enthusiastically exploited.
Lowry attacked Reagan’s tax cuts, his escalating military spending and belligerence, saying those dollars should to going to education, increasing jobs, and the country’s infrastructure, already crumbling. But events on the world stage intruded. On October 23, 1983, suicide bombers killed 248 Americans and 58 French in Beirut, Lebanon, and, two days later, American and a scattering of other Caribbean forces invaded the island of Grenada. Despite overwhelming public support for Reagan’s posture -- 80 percent, Lowry admitted -- he said, “[W]e cannot let this country go down this course” (Modie). Evans countered that Reagan wasn’t running that year.
“Democrats for Evans,” a group of about 25 prominent Democrats, further reflected some intraparty discontent. The list included Everett Mayor Bill Moore, developer Paul Schell, Bernice Stern -- still smarting from King County Council memories -- and University of Washington Regent Gordon Culp (1926-2006) -- one of the major participants in the Northwest Power Bill jousting. Evans won easily, 672,326 to 540,981, 55.41 percent to 44.59 cent).
Lowry skipped the 1986 Senate race, leaving Brock Adams to challenge Gorton, who had unseated the legendary Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) in 1980. Adams won.
Filling Evans's Shoes
In 1987, however, Evans announced he would not seek re-election and explained why in a damning article that appeared on April 17, 1988, in The New York Times Magazine. He bemoaned “a legislative body that had lost its focus and was in danger of losing its soul. ... I just can’t face another six years of frustrating gridlock.”
Despite that indictment, Lowry and Third District Representative Don Bonker (b. 1937) filed for the Democratic primary and Lowry, now bereft of his beard, beat Bonker narrowly to face the phlegmatic Slade Gorton. It was another contrast in style.
Lowry had an eight-point lead with about 10 days to election, but his campaign ran an inept negative ad (against Lowry’s own best judgment) and the Gorton camp responded with a “mudslinging” charge.” Lowry lost narrowly, 944,539 to 904,183. “My camp had an ad I absolutely should have nixed,” Lowry recalled. “It was negative, but not compared to today’s” (Chesley Interview)
On October 3, 1988, as the campaign was approaching its climax, Lowry had blacked out on a flight back to Washington, D.C. He was taken off the plane in Chicago. It turned out to be a bleeding ulcer.
Despite the virtual guarantee of a lifetime appointment in the 7th District, Lowry had quit his House seat to run for the Senate. Again in need of a job, he taught for three years at Seattle University’s Institute of Public Service. “Í enjoyed that,” he said (Chesley Interview).
In 1992, when Brock Adams did not seek reelection to the U.S. Senate, Lowry considered another attempt, but decided to run for governor instead, leaving the senatorial field to then-State Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950).
In 1989, Lowry joined with former Senator and Governor Dan Evans to for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. The coalition, a non-profit citizen group, worked to identify and secure state funding for land that needed to be preserved for wildlife habitat and recreation. In 1990, the coalition "persuaded the state legislature to create the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program," a state grant program administered by the Recreation and Conservation Office and funded by the state legislature to purchase land, restore wildlife habitat, and develop recreational facilities (Coalition website). Since 1990, the program has awarded $620 million in grants and has purchased more than 350,000 acres.
Lowry's efforts on behalf of the environment won him endorsements and awards. The League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club all endorsed his 1988 candidacy. In 1984 the Seattle Audubon Society named him an "Environment Friend" and, in 1990, "Environmentalist of the Year."
Governor Mike Lowry
In the September primary, Lowry easily defeated House Speaker Joe King (D-Vancouver) for the Democratic nomination, 337,783 to 9,648. He ran a bare-bones campaign, aiming to “cut the consultants, pollsters and ad writers and run the old-fashioned way, using people instead of PAC dollars” (Scates). Lowry defeated the Republican Attorney General, Ken Eikenberry (b. 1932), 1,184,315 to 1,086,216. He took only nine of 39 counties but won by nearly 100,000 votes.
The state’s new lieutenant governor: Joel Pritchard, Lowry’s old Republican Congressmate.
Western Washington Indians' treaty fishing rights were one of the more contentious issues of the 1992 election. Eikenberry wanted to fire then-director of the Department of Fisheries, Curt Smitch, over what he felt was Smitch's lack of resolve in limited tribal fishing (despite the fact that it had been guaranteed by the Boldt decision). Lowry argued that the Indian fishermen were not the problem. Instead, he told a reporter, "The key is protecting habitat ... . And that's the key to preserving hunting and fishing in the state" (Simon, "Angry"). To that end, Lowry also supported working with affordable housing groups, because having enough affordable housing was key to the success of the Growth Management Act, which would protect fish and wildlife habitat.
The country again was in a recession, the citizenry again was angry and ready for a tax revolt, and the state budget was $1.8 billion in the red. But Lowry tried to push an income tax anyway, despite the failure of five previous governors in this endeavor. He did win a tax increase and some health-care and welfare reform, but the Republicans regained control of the state Legislature in 1994 and rolled back Lowry’s tax and reform efforts.
It was a stormy term. His free-trader position angered the Boeing Machinists Union, a key part of his union base, and his attempts at civil-service reforms angered state employees’ union members. Several Democratic legislators were openly hostile.
In 1993, Lowry appointed his onetime political foe, Dan Evans, to the University of Washington Board of Regents. Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) would later reappoint Evans to a second term.
In 1995, Seattle political and civic leaders called on Governor Lowry to help build a stadium for the Seattle Mariners, after the citizens had narrowly rejected one plan. It was the Mariners’ historic “refuse to lose” season, when they won the American League West and reached the American League semifinals by defeating the New York Yankees in five games. Lowry called a special session of the legislature, which cobbled together a “mish-mash” funding plan, Lowry said. “On balance, I think it’s good for a large metropolitan area to not lose a baseball team ... . The [stadium] workers, 350 of them, were happy to have those jobs. Same with saving thoroughbred racing in 1994. Fifteen hundred jobs” (Chesley Interview).
Lowry ignited another controversy in 1995 when he plucked Annette Sandberg, 33, from the state trooper ranks to head the Washington State Patrol, the first woman in the country to lead a statewide law-enforcement organization. A Moses Lake native who had earned both a law degree and a master's degree while working as a state trooper, she attempted reforms but generated animosity in the ranks. She stayed on into Locke’s administration but resigned in 2000 “after six stressful years.” She was praised for her leadership, “though she also has been embroiled in criticism through the years from troopers and state leaders who have said morale plunged under her watch” (Ith).
In Lowry's view, “She did a good job” (Chesley Interview).
Lowry also pushed gay-rights legislation, as had Washington state governors going back to Dan Evans in the 1960s, and as did his successor, Locke. But the goal would remain elusive until 2006, when Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) signed the state’s gay-rights measure.
In order to address economic concerns without undermining the state's environmental safeguards, Lowry appointed a regulatory reform task force in August 1993 to streamline existing regulatory requirements, including environmental regulations. Karen Lane, the task force chair ,wrote in an editorial that the basic question posed to the group was, "How does one reduce the burden of government relations to citizens and businesses without jeopardizing our quality of life?" (Lane). The task force issued its recommendations in early 1994 and the legislature passed a regulatory reform bill in 1995 that reconciled the requirements of the Growth Management Act, the State Environmental Policy Act, and other legislation.
In his January 1996 state of the state speech, Lowry urged legislators to resist the election-year urge to cut taxes. Instead, he called for a budget that would, "maintain a healthy financial reserve and sound fiscal policies designed to meet major financial unknowns and keep the future bright." He outlined an agenda that included, "A higher minimum wage, a crackdown on domestic violence, more social workers to handle child-abuse cases, strong environmental programs, and more money for higher education and child care" (Ammons).
Stepping Down and Looking Back
Despite Lowry’s crisis-ridden tenure, the politics industry assumed he would easily win reelection in 1996. But in February 1995, Susanne Albright, a former deputy press secretary, accused him of sexual harassment. He denied the charges, his wife, Mary, staunchly defended him, and an independent investigation rejected the sexual harassment charge, though it said he had "touched her in ways she found offensive."
Lowry decided not to run again and the accusation “certainly was a major factor. I simply did not want my family to go through that. We did call for a totally independent look at it,” he said. In a retrospective in 2002, Lowry said his administration’s “greatest achievement” was maintaining social services and environmental commitments despite a huge 1993 budget deficit that required “very unpopular” tax increases and service cuts, but left the state with a “half-billion-dollar surplus.”
He said his biggest mistake was his “failure to pass a transportation tax increase” to solve the Puget Sound region’s traffic problems. “My failure to gain legislative approval of that transportation package is costing us dearly today” (Mills).
In 2000, Lowry ran for state Commissioner of Public Lands -- the agency that oversees five million acres of state-owned land and regulates timber industries. Despite wide name recognition, a solid record on environmental issues, and the endorsement of then-Land Commissioner Jennifer Belcher and most major environmental groups, Lowry lost to Republican Doug Sutherland, the Pierce County Executive, 1,154,048 to 1,052,366, a 4.36 percent spread. A Libertarian Party candidate, Steve Layman, collected 125,985 votes, 5.4 percent of the total.
Civic Service and Private Life
Lowry has since occupied himself with a range of public-sector activities, primarily in migrant housing. He heads Washington Agricultural Families Assistance, a farmworker home-ownership program, and Enterprise Washington, which develops jobs in economically depressed areas.
In 2003, Lowry brokered a deal for a $122 million plant near Moses Lake to turn wheat and barley into ethanol at a defunct sugar-beet factory. He also remains involved in homeless issues, locally with Sharehouse, which helps settle formerly homeless families, and nationally as a board member of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Both Lowrys are avid outdoor folk and, since 1989, Mike Lowry also continues to serve with Evans as co-chairman of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, which has expanded its mission to include family farms. He is co-chair of the King County Charter Review Commission, with Lois North, a Republican and another former King County Council member and civic activist. The commission reported its recommended amendments to the King County Council in 2008 and they were presented to voters in waves at each of the next three elections.
The Lowrys live in Renton and manage a family ranch near Kettle Falls, Washington (“some alfalfa, a little bit of timber we selectively harvest” [Chesley Interview]). Like other former governors, he regularly endorses or dissents as initiatives and other state and local issues arise.
Ross Anderson, “Gov. Mike Lowry: Who Woulda Thunk It?,” The Seattle Times, January 16, 1993 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Lou Corsaletti, “Mike Lowry’s Radical Ideas Serve a Purpose,” Ibid., November 16, 1975, p. A-21; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bernice Stern 1916-2007 (by Frank Chesley), http://www.historylink.org (accessed April 4, 2008); Dean Katz, “Lowry Hires Mostly Ex-campaign Aides,” The Seattle Times, January 2, 1979, p. A-14; Frank Chesley telephone interview with Duff Wilson, March 26, 2008; Frank Chesley interview with Mike Lowry, March 27, 2008; Jim Simon, David Postman, Barbara A. Serrano, “Mike Lowry’s Other Side -- Governor’s Emotions Run High, Friends Say,” The Seattle Times, February 26, 1995; Rebecca Boren, “Lowry Mania,” Weekly, November 2, 1983, p. 32; Joel Connelly, “First Term in Congress -- Lowry Makes His Mark,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 23, 1979, p. A-14; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ron Dunlap (b. 1937)” (by Frank Chesley), http://www.historylink.org (accessed April 10, 2008); Darrell Glover, “Lowry Slams Arms Insanity,’” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 14, 1981, p. A-10; “Morrison to be new face in House,” Seattle Times, November 5, 1980, p. A-28; Joel Connelly, “Lowry joins suit against Reagan,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 2, 1981, p. C-1; Doug Honig, “Mike Lowry,” Argus, February 20, 1981, p. 1; Neil Modie, “Mike Runs as Mike With No Prettying Up or Toning Down,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 2, 1983, p. A-4; Shelby Scates, “Lowry to Do It ‘Old-Fashioned’ way," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1992, p. D-2; Ian Ith, “First female Patrol Chief to Step Down,” The Seattle Times, November 21, 2000, Seattle Times website accessed April 16, 2008 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); David Postman, "Mike Lowry Hands Down Demo tradition” The Seattle Times, September 8, 2006, Seattle Times website accessed April 16, 2008 http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Kimberly Mills, “Former governors' Ties to State Remain Strong,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 18, 2002, Seattle Post-Intelligencer website accessed March 11, 2008 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com); Neil Modie, “Guy Overrules Judicial Tradition, Hits Shrimp Feed,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 2, 1990, p. B-1; David Ammons, "Lowry: Big Tax Cut Would Harm State," The Seattle Times, January 10, 1996 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); Ross Anderson, "Conservation League Endorses Bonker and Lowry," The Seattle Times, September 9, 1988, p. E-2; Joni Balter, "$450 Million Effort Urged for Wildlife, Recreation: Evans, Lowry Head Washington State Group," The Seattle Times, July 31, 1989, p. A-1; Lou Corsaletti, "County Projects, Projections," The Seattle Times, November 10, 1976, p. H-6; Bill Dietrich, "State Buys Bald-Eagle Roosting Site," The Seattle Times, January 8, 1991 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); Matt Doran, "Lowry Blasts Navy Sediment-Disposal Plan, The Seattle Times, January 27, 1987, p. B-2; Ron C. Judd, "Bridging the Gap: Bipartisan Coalition Provides Money for Projects That Are Hard to Fund," The Seattle Times, February 13, 1997; Karen Lane, "State Regulatory Process Needs Repair," The Seattle Times, January 26, 1994 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); Eric Pryne, "Olympic Coast Sanctuary Dedicated -- Dignitaries Laud Marine-Life Reserve," The Seattle Times, July 17, 1994 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); Eric Pryne, "Shore Birds May Land a Permanent Refuge: Bowerman Basin Proposed as Wildlife Sanctuary," The Seattle Times, January 2, 1987, p. B-1; Eric Pryne, "Suit Seeks to Block Restart of N Reactor," The Seattle Times, July 17, 1987, p. B-1; David Schaefer, "Ban on Offshore Oil Drilling in the Works for Washington," The Seattle Times, August 22, 1991 (www.seattletimes.com); David Schaefer, "U.S. Pushes to Explore for Oil Off State Coast," The Seattle Times, March 7, 1991 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); Elouise Schumacher, "N Reactor Shutdown Has Hanford Reeling," The Seattle Times, February 17, 1988, p. A-1; Jim Simon, "Angry Sportsmen Boost Eikenberry -- Republican Nominee says He'd Fire Wildlife Director," The Seattle Times, September 27, 1992 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); Craig Welch, "Different Maps Drawn for Lands Job," The Seattle Times, October 23, 2000 (http://www.seattle/times.com); 1995 Wash. Laws, Ch. 374; "County Positions," The Seattle Times, September 14, 1975, p. A20; "Governor," The Seattle Times, September 8, 1992 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); "Land-Use Law Reforms a Lesson in Persistence," The Seattle Times, May 17, 1995 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); "Lowry Picks Big 'Citizen Cabinet,' Sets Up Task Force," The Seattle Times, December 2, 1992 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); "Seattle Audubon Awards," Seattle Audubon Society website accessed March 29, 2011 (www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/); "State Folllow Panel, Approves Bill to Limit Regulatory Powers," The Seattle Times, February 14, 1994 (http://www.seattletimes.com/).
Note: This essay was substantially updated on March 30, 2011.
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Senator Ted Kennedy (r.), Walt Crowley, and Mike Lowry, office of Gogerty and Stark, Seattle, 1983
Courtesy Marie McCaffrey
Governor Mike Lowry (b. 1939), 1992
Courtesy Washington State Archives
Mike Lowry, Senior, Endicott High School, 1957
Courtesy Mike and Mary Lowry
Mary and Mike Lowry during King County Council campaign, ca. 1975
Courtesy Mike and Mary Lowry
Mike Lowry with daughter Diane, ca. 1978
Courtesy Mike and Mary Lowry
Mary, Diane, and Mike Lowry, Washington, D.C., ca. 1979
Courtesy Mike and Mary Lowry
Mike Lowry and Warren Magnuson, 1980
Courtesy Mike and Mary Lowry
Mary (Carlson) Lowry and Governor Mike Lowry, Governor's Ball, 1993
Courtesy Mike and Mary Lowry
Mary, Diane, and Governor Mike Lowry, Governor's Mansion, Olympia
Courtesy Mike and Mary Lowry
Former Washington Governors Mike Lowry (l.), Albert Rosellini, Dan Evans, and John Spellman, 1997
Courtesy State of Washington