Locke, Gary Faye (b. 1950)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 6/29/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7830
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Gary Locke rose through the political ranks from humble, minority beginnings to become King County's first Asian American executive in 1994, the first Asian American governor in the United States in 1996, and the first Asian American to deliver a response to a U.S. president's State of the Union address, in 2003. He has been acknowledged by friend and foe as a quintessential American success story, and has often used his own family's success as a symbol of the American dream. He was characterized as a neo-liberal, a "New Democrat" politician, and he experienced mixed success in public office, handicapped at times by Republican legislative majorities and by economic woes that left the state with huge deficits. In 2003, he announced his retirement from political life. After his second term as governor ended in 2005, he joined the Seattle law office of Davis Wright Tremaine, where he specialized in trade and governmental relations. In February 2009 President Barack Obama (b. 1961) nominated Gary Locke to be United States secretary of Commerce, and he was confirmed by the senate on March 25, 2009. In the summer of 2011 he was appointed and confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to China, the first Chinese American to hold this post. He is married to Mona Lee Locke and they have three children.

Roots in China and Seattle

Gary F. Locke was born on January 21, 1950, in Seattle to James (1917-2011) and Julie Locke, the second of five children. His father, James, was brought to the United States from China by his father, Suey Gim Locke, in 1921 and his mother, Julie, was born in Hong Kong. Gary’s paternal great-great-grandfather emigrated to the United States from Guangdong province in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and worked as a houseboy in Olympia. Gary Locke’s siblings are Marian, retired; Jannie, from Sacramento, California, and Jeffrey and Rita, who both live in the Seattle area.

His father James, or Jimmy, was drafted into the Army when the United States entered World War II, rose to the rank of staff sergeant and served with the 5th Armored Division in the European theater, from Normandy Beach to Berlin. Gary Locke’s first six years were spent at Yesler Terrace, a Seattle public housing complex for returning veterans and University of Washington students. He spoke only Chinese until he entered kindergarten, and learned English along with his mother.

Jimmie Locke had a restaurant on Post Alley in the Pike Place Market until the mid-1950s and the family lived above it.  Gary remembered “great days” playing with the children of other merchants and farmers in the market, sneaking time in the Goodwill store basement  “to read second-hand comic books, which were not allowed at home. My parents were strict, with very high expectations. Study always came first.”   It also was a family of humble means. “We were poor, but not poverty-stricken” (Locke).

Early Years

Jimmie Locke later operated a small market near Seattle Pacific University, where Gary worked, and the family moved to Beacon Hill, an ethnic, racial, and cultural polyglot. "We lived above 'Garlic Gulch.' A lot of Italian kids. My friends were African American, Jewish, Caucasian, Asian American." 

When he was 10, his parents took him to Hong Kong to meet his maternal grandmother, who lived in "essentially a refuge camp," he "was appalled by what he saw" (Egan). The experience would resonate in his later political career. 

He was an honor student at Franklin High School, competed on the swim team, and sang in the school choir, which earned a tour of Europe in the summer of 1966. He was active in student government, but had no political aspirations, contemplating rather “being an urban planner, school teacher, or forest ranger.” The latter option was not at all far-fetched. “I was very involved in Boy Scouts, spent all my summers as a counselor and was director of a camp through my college years, up in the Cascades” (Locke).  He earned a Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

Go East, Young Man

In the early days of affirmative action, he caught the attention of Yale University, and a Yale alumnus, Hugh Brady, shepherded and encouraged him. Locke also recalled other memorable mentors: “George Uchida, when I was in scouting, and a high school counselor, Dixie Lysons” (Locke). Yale and Harvard University were seeking more diversified student bodies and Gary Locke was as diversified as high school students came: an Asian American honor student from a West Coast public school. He was offered a “fantastic” aid and scholarship package and would remain a champion of affirmative action. Locke graduated from high school in June 1968 and entered Yale that fall. It was a convulsive time for college campuses and the country, which were wracked by the Vietnam War and civil-rights ferment.

It was “big, big culture shock” for the 18-year-old Seattle boy. “It was different, a social-strata system, and it was hard at first to fit in.”  But he adjusted, his worldview expanded and fostered an interest in government. He graduated in 1972 with a degree in political science.

Locke experienced his first overt expression of racism when his parents were at the airport seeing him off for Yale. “A soldier came up to us and was in our face, blaming us for Vietnam,” he recalled. " 'You gooks. You Chinks.' An officer ordered the soldier to attention, chewed him out and told him to leave us alone. In college, it was not so much prejudice as it was ignorance and stereotyping. 'Do you use a fork? Do you eat fried chicken?' "

Locke attended Boston University Law School, again with scholarships and financial aid, and graduated in 1975. “I loved Boston. Such an incredible town -- of diversity, of ethnic neighborhoods.”  He also was married briefly during his years in Boston. (On May 17, 1998, as Governor Gary Locke, he delivered Boston University’s commencement address.)

House and Home

Locke worked in the King County prosecutor’s office from 1976 until the fall of 1980, and then spent a couple of months on the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of State Representative Jim McDermott (b. 1936).  McDermott had defeated the controversial Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) in the Democratic primary and was running against John Spellman (1926-2018).  Locke then worked several months as an attorney for the Senate Higher Education Committee and learned what the Legislature was all about -- “people from all walks of life, everyday people who simply cared about the future of the state” –– and thought, “Why not me?” (Locke).

He worked briefly for the Seattle Human Rights Department, joined Asian Americans for Political Action, which promoted candidates and jobs in government, and became the group’s leader. In 1982, he decided to run for the state House of Representatives from the new 37th District in South Seattle and, by targeting high-turnout neighborhoods, ousted African American Rep. Peggy Maxie, “a very, very nice lady” (Locke).

Locke became a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and slowly, quietly made a name as a policy wonk who studied and grasped complex issues and often worked until midnight. In 1989, House Speaker Joe King picked Locke to chair the House Appropriations Committee, making him the chief budget writer in the House and one of the state’s most powerful politicians. The Seattle Times, a frequent Locke supporter, in 1990 called him “Olympia’s most effective legislator” (Moody). He was characterized as a neo-liberal and a New Democrat -- socially progressive and fiscally conservative. He didn’t “believe in just dumping money across the board on a whole host of programs” (Boren).

“There is never enough money in government coffers to do everything” (Locke).

Though characterized as shy and a loner, Locke proved adept in the legislative arena and created “a surprisingly amicable and productive relationship” with state Senator Dan McDonald, (R-Bellevue), conservative chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to hammer out a final state budget (Moody). Locke successfully engineered Democratic-leaning budgets most of the time.

Social Agenda

“State spending rose by nearly 60 percent during his five years at the helm of the budget committee.

“That money reduced school class sizes, increased college enrollment, extended health coverage for expectant mothers and the poor, repaired a broken mental-health system, and expanded the social safety net” (Simon).  Of the bureaucracy’s growth, Locke later pointed out that the state had built new prisons that required guards, the colleges added staff, “UW faculty primarily,” and Harborview Hospital added a trauma center.

In 1992, Locke embarrassed Democratic Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) by successfully cutting $90 million from the state budget, including welfare, but restoring salary increases for teachers and state employees. For state employee lobbyist Mark Brown, Locke scored “damn near a bull’s eye” (Wilson).

Locke also served on the House Judiciary Committee and his position on crime was toughened by his years with the King County Prosecutor’s Office and by a robbery in 1979 in which his father was badly wounded.  (His Seattle home was burglarized in 1991.)

While in the House, Locke said he was “quite wary of the press” (Boren), but even the alternative press was largely supportive. In an adulatory Seattle Weekly profile, writer Fred Moody gushed: “Any doctor treating a bad case of voter cynicism could effect an immediate cure by prescribing a day with Locke in Olympia.”

Executive Suite

In 1993, after 10 years as a state legislator, Locke ran for King County executive, “perhaps the second-most-powerful political office in the state” (Wilson). “I’d always had an interest in management, administration, how to carry out legislative policy” (Locke).

During the campaign, Locke previewed an issue that later would emerge as one of his greatest triumphs, or disasters, depending on one’s point of view. "[H]e told suburban officials the county should do everything it can to assure that the next generation of Boeing jets is built locally ... ‘We need those kind of jobs here in the region’ " (Wilson).

There was also another problem brewing in the form of a conservative tax revolt that spawned a rash of initiatives designed to radically curb state taxing powers. Tim Eyman, a Mukilteo watch salesman and self-styled “populist,” took full advantage of citizen discontent with his initiatives. At the time, Locke said, "I  don't think it [the tax rebellion] will be a major factor" (Wilson). Eyman, in fact, would dog him throughout his gubernatorial career.

It was a tough primary for Locke, with “four Democrats (including liberal attorney Bruce Hilyer, and County Council members Greg Nickels and Cynthia Sullivan) fighting among themselves, all my good friends, and (Republican incumbent) Tim Hill sitting on a war chest” (Locke). He secured the Democratic nomination and on November 2, 1993, easily defeated Hill with 60 percent of the vote, becoming the first non-white King County executive.

His managerial skills were tested early. “The day I took office, Metro [the regional water-quality and transit agency established in 1958] was dissolved and it was a tough merger [of Metro and King County] of two totally different corporations, cultures, payroll, and personnel systems.” Republicans controlled the County Council, recently expanded to 13 seats, the Seattle Mariners were threatening to leave, and the region’s transportation woes seemed intractable. However, he was proud of a growth-management plan “hailed by environmentalists and builders” and other efforts to “preserve our trees, our forests” (Locke).

In 1994, he married Mona Lee, a reporter at KING-TV introduced to Locke by Lori Matsukawa, another KING-TV reporter.

The continuing Seattle Mariners crisis reached critical mass in 1995, when King County voters narrowly rejected a bond issue to build a new stadium for the team. Locke, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943), and other Puget Sound officials and businessmen persuaded then-Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017) and the state Legislature to help. The state authorized King County to levy taxes on restaurant and tavern meals and car rentals to pay for the stadium, to be run by a Public Facilities District. 

The Road to Olympia

Two years later, Lowry was beset by a sexual-harassment scandal and announced he would not seek re-election, though it was assumed in political circles that he would win. Locke decided to run, again joining “close friends” in seeking the Democratic nomination  -- Rice again, along with Jay Inslee (b. 1951), a former congressman (later returned) and state representative who was Locke’s Appropriations Committee vice-chairman in Olympia. “It was very awkward” (Locke).

He survived the primary and easily defeated Republican candidate Ellen Craswell (1932-2008), a Christian fundamentalist, “self-styled ‘radical’ conservative,” by more than 355,000 votes -- 58 to 42 percent. Locke became the highest-ranking Asian American official in the country and was almost immediately anointed as a national Democratic comer. Asian Americans constitute only about 6 percent of the state’s population, but he “rode into office in 1997 on a wave of international buzz” (Galloway). President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) recognized Locke in his 1997 State of the Union Address and, by 1999, Locke’s stock had risen to the point where he was nationally touted as a running mate for Al Gore (b. 1948). The Gore-vice-presidency trial balloon “was very flattering,” Locke said later, “but I’m a Northwest kid ... I had a young family and didn’t fancy life in D.C.”

Two months after Locke took office, he and Mona visited China, including a tour of his family’s ancestral village and the shack where his father was born. They were treated like royalty, mobbed by crowds wherever they traveled. “It was a very emotional experience” (Locke).  He returned to China twice more on trade missions as governor.

More Opposition

Locke enjoyed some success in his first term as governor, despite dealing with a Legislature controlled by conservative Republicans. Education topped his priority list, but circumstances and the times were not kind to him in that regard.

In 1997, he vetoed more than 100 bills from the Legislature, more vetoes than any governor in the state’s history, but he engineered a highly lauded welfare-reform measure that focused on putting welfare recipients to work.

State voters also approved a Seattle Seahawks stadium-funding package produced by Locke and the Legislature in 1997, but lawsuits delayed the selling of bonds until 1999. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had agreed to buy the team and prevent its move to California, but only if the public funded $300 million of the stadium’s $425-million cost.

Locke supported a state income tax and annually sponsored a gay-rights bill, though both had no chance of passage at the time. He invested considerable political capital promoting affirmative action, but voters in 1998 approved Initiative 200, which banned affirmative action in college admissions and government hiring. (A gay-rights bill finally passed in 2006, outlawing discrimination for homosexuals in employment, insurance, lending, and housing.)

Despite the passage of initiatives curbing state taxes, the dot-com boom filled the coffers of high-tech Washington state and Locke enjoyed strong public popularity. The Seattle Weekly, in its annual “Best” issue on July 21, 1999, declared Locke the “Best public official.”

“I’m proud of what we accomplished, especially with a Republican Legislature -- toughened juvenile criminal sentences, [enacted] migrant farm-worker housing” (Locke).

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

When protesters threatened to obstruct the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in late 1999, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) told Locke he didn’t need any help, that “everything was under control.” After riots on November 30, Locke visited the police command center in Seattle, and called out the National Guard and State Patrol to help clear the streets over the next several days.

Locke ran for re-election in 2000 and again swamped the Republican candidate, conservative commentator and initiative sponsor John Carlson, 58 percent to 40 percent, a margin of more than 460,000 votes. Voters also approved two education initiatives -- to reduce class sizes and require teacher pay raises -- that had evolved when Locke failed to interest the Legislature in an ambitious, $1 billion education plan to be funded by a sales-tax increase.

Despite these victories, Locke’s second term was in trouble almost from the start. The dot-com bubble, which had been so good to Washington state, began to deflate in March 2000, and in March 2001 the Boeing Airplane Co. announced it was moving its headquarters to Chicago. On September 11, 2001, terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City, further eroding the economy. As Boeing orders dove, state unemployment soared to one of the highest in the country.

The ensuing recession left the state with a $1.6 billion deficit, which Locke and the Legislature covered with cuts in education, state services, other short-term changes, and borrowing against the state’s multi-billion-dollar share of a $206 billion settlement between the tobacco industry and 46 states.

Taxing Tax Structure

Every governor since 1967, Democrat or Republican, had appointed a commission to study Washington state’s dysfunctional tax system and in 2002 Locke named William H. Gates II, Bill’s father, to chair his version, the Washington Tax Structure Committee. The “Gates Report” concluded that the state’s tax system was the worst in the nation, but it stimulated no reform.

The year 2003 would be full and hectic one for Locke. All states were in dire fiscal straits as the recession deepened, and Washington state’s deficit was up to $2.4 billion. Locke proposed a “Priorities in Government” program, a “zero-based” budget process designed to avoid tax increases and increase job creation through tax incentives. It was praised by the business community but criticized by his progressive allies -- environmentalists, labor unions, teachers, and human-services advocates.

The Locke family received a scare in January 2003, when federal agents revealed a possible plot by James D. Brailey Jr., a 43-year-old antigovernment extremist, to assassinate Locke. Brailey was sentenced to 15 months on parole violations charges. “It was very unsettling, very disturbing, a very tense time for our entire family. That was the most serious of the threats we received” (Locke).

Responding to Bush

On January 28, 2003, Locke delivered the Democratic Party response to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, the first Asian American to do so. “That was a terrific honor. If I were to replay that response, people would say it was very prophetic then. It was just before Bush decided to invade Iraq. I said ... we should give the [United Nations] inspectors a chance. We should do it with the cooperation of the international community” (Locke).

In 2002, Locke had pressed for a tax increase to bankroll a major transportation package, but legislators from both parties rejected it. Instead, they punted to voters in the form of Referendum 51. When it lost in November 2002, Locke maneuvered a five-cent boost in gas taxes through the 2003 Legislature to fund a $4.2 billion package of road and transportation improvements. (The Legislature boosted the gas tax again in 2005, by 9.5 cents.)

Locke was honored again in 2003 with chairmanship of the Democratic Governors’ Association. On July 21, 2003, with political circles speculating whether he would seek a third term or higher office, he announced his retirement from public office, “to devote more time to my family.” The Lockes had two children: Emily, born in 1997, and Dylan, born in 1999. A third child, Madeline, was born in November 2004.

A month earlier, after Locke had announced his $3 billion plan to keep Boeing’s 7E7 Dreamliner production in Washington state, the once-supportive Seattle Weekly opined: “Gary Locke is the best Republican governor [Republican state party chairman Chris] Vance is going to get. The only embarrassing part is that he belongs to the other party” (Burger).

The high-stakes, media-intensive battle for the 7E7 -- later the 787 --  assembly plant pitted Washington state against Kansas, Alabama, Texas, and South Carolina and became the linchpin of Locke’s second term. Locke assembled a $3.2 billion package of tax and other incentives to keep 800 to 1,200 jobs in Washington state. It was the biggest public-private partnership in state history, dwarfing the Mariners and Seahawks stadium deals. It culminated on December 15, 2003, when Boeing announced its new jet transport would be built in Everett, Washington.

“That’s $4 million per worker” Seattle Weekly writer Rick Anderson sniffed. Locke, however, saw a domino effect in which Boeing “could have eventually moved their entire operation to other states ...  some 70,000 direct jobs and 20,000 supplier jobs.” Locke said the state’s agreement means Boeing benefits “only if it continues to build all its planes here.”

The Boeing agreement was Locke’s last major act as governor. Though a lame duck who had publicly eschewed further political ambitions, Locke was invited to address the Democratic National Convention on July 29, 2004, and reiterated his own success story: “Through hard work and education, our family’s dreams were rewarded.”

Life After Politics

Locke left office on January 12, 2005, and later joined the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm in Seattle, specializing in trade and governmental relations. Mona Lee Locke returned to television in 2005, as a reporter for KIRO-TV.

Gary Locke said, “A lot of what I do at the law firm is helping Washington companies grow, expand, sell products and services in China and Asia,” he said. (Locke).

He was instrumental in persuading Chinese President Hu Jintao to begin his U.S. tour in Seattle on April 4, 2006. Locke said he continued to discuss human-rights issues with the Chinese, encouraging “a more open society.” He said, “The genie is out of the bottle ... the appetite for democracy cannot be reversed.”

Locke served on the board of the Digital Learning Commons, an Internet service that  offers courses to rural students. He was also a board member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Safeco, Inc.

His schedule still included the occasional speech -- and an occasional controversy. On June 13, 2005, he was the commencement speaker at Jesuit-run Seattle University, an appearance that inflamed conservative Roman Catholics. As governor, Locke had opposed legislation to limit abortions, had approved state benefits for same-sex partners, and had defended a state law denying scholarships in theological studies. “I’m pro-choice,” Locke said. “I’m not in favor of abortion. We should always reduce or eliminate the need for an abortion, but if someone needs one, it should be available.”

In June 2006, Locke joined John Carlson, his onetime political opponent, in announcing plans to promote a multi-billion-dollar package of taxes for roads, buses, and rail in the greater Puget Sound area. 

In February 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Gary Locke to be United States secretary of commerce. In March the senate unanimously confirmed the nomination.

Ambassador to China

In the summer of 2011 Gary Locke was appointed and confirmed as the United States ambassador to China. China is the world's largest nation. It is a major trading partner and the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. Locke is the first Chinese American to hold this post.

A photo of Locke at Sea-Tac International Airport, standing with his 6-year-old daughter, wearing a backpack, and buying coffee, went viral in China, making a very favorable impression in a country where public officials are waited on and driven by chauffeurs and do not carry their own bags.


Timothy Egan, “When to Campaign With Color,” The New York Times, June 20, 2000; Rebecca Boren, “The Rise of Gary Locke,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 4, 1991; Jim Simon, “Locke Plumbs Details of Policy,” The Seattle Times, October 28, 1996; John Arthur Wilson, “Locke’s Trump,” Seattle Weekly, February 5, 1992; Fred Moody, “The Man Who Mistook His Life for the Legislature,” Ibid., Feb. 27, 1991; John Arthur Wilson, “The Man to Beat,” Ibid., August 18, 1993; "HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington State Taxation -- A Snapshot History" (by Frank Chesley) and “Washington voters elect Democrats Bill Clinton for president and Gary Locke for governor on November 5, 1996” (by David Wilma and Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 2006); Angela Galloway, “Gary Locke: Fine-tuning a Formula for Success,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 2005; Knute Berger, “The Locke Box,” Seattle Weekly, June 25, 2003; Rick Anderson, “Boeing Wins,” Ibid., December 24, 2003; Frank Chesley interviews with Gary Locke, May 18, 2006, and June 14, 2006, Seattle; Liz Sidoti, "Obama Offers 3rd Pick, Gary Locke, for Commerce, The Seattle Times, February 25, 2009 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); "Senator Murray's Statement on Confirmation of Gary Locke, news release, March 24, 2009 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2009/03/24/2008917727.pdf); "Senate Confirms Locke as Ambassador to China," The Seattle Times, July 27, 2011; Edward Wong, "Photo of 'Humble Locke' Helps Biden as he Starts China Visit,: The Seattle Times, August 17, 2011.
Note: This essay was updated on October 5, 2009, and again on August 18, 2011.

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