These days, too much of our politics is agenda-driven, with little regard for the impact on “real people.” Politicians proclaim their concern for the little guy, but they hang around with rich folks, celebrities and power brokers.
Former governor Mike Lowry isn’t like that.
If you are looking for Lowry these days, you’re likely to find him in central Washington putting together affordable housing projects. He’d rather have coffee with working people than hobnob with movers and shakers.
Despite serving only one term as governor, Lowry remains one of our state’s most colorful leaders. Even though we clashed often over policy differences, Lowry truly cared about people and he did what he believed was necessary to help them – even if it antagonized his political base.
Born in Whitman County, Lowry was the last governor raised in rural Eastern Washington. Although he is an ardent liberal who spent most of his career in King County, Lowry had a special spot in his heart for working people and those struggling to survive.
Lowry came to office in the 1992 Clinton landslide that saw Democrats take control of the White House, Congress and our state legislature. While candidate Lowry had promised voters he would raise taxes only as the last resort, he pushed through a tax hike in his first year in office. In 1993, he muscled through a temporary B&O tax increase to balance the budget, promising he would repeal it once the economy turned around. Unlike many politicians today, Lowry kept his promise. By the time he left office, he had revoked half the increase and set the stage for his successor to eliminate the other half.
In the early 1990s, thousands of Washington loggers and millworkers lost their jobs because of endangered species listings for the Northern Spotted owl, some wild salmon runs and the Marbled Murrelet. Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime timberland were off limits to logging, timber-dependent counties lost vital tax revenue and unemployment skyrocketed into double digits.
In response, Lowry pushed for worker retraining money, diverting employer taxes from the unemployment trust funds, a move that angered employers already paying some of the nation’s highest premiums. But before he left office, the controversial tax diversion was gone and the retraining programs were funded with other revenue.
Lowry stood by his principles even when it cost him politically.
He was the darling of the Clintons when he pushed through the state’s controversial health reforms in 1993—the prototype of Hillary Care. Lowry’s health care activism earned him dinner and a night in the White House, but when he criticized Clinton’s welfare reforms, he fell out of favor and landed in the dog house.
In 1995, after our state reforms failed to get a needed Congressional waiver, Lowry worked with business to give small employers the ability to band together to provide health insurance for their workers. To Lowry, finding a way to make health insurance affordable for small employers was more important than blindly pushing a political agenda.
In 1996, Lowry bucked his base again. In order to spur the economy and create jobs, he teamed with Vancouver Democrat Sen. Al Bauer to exempt manufacturing machinery and equipment from the sales tax. It worked. In its first year, 181 small companies invested $250 million in new equipment. In the final analysis, Lowry was willing to risk his political capital for what he believed.
Today, 85 percent of Washington counties have unemployment rates above the national average; more than 200,000 people are losing hope of ever finding a job.
If Lowry were governor today, I believe he would focus full time on putting those people back to work and creating new jobs for Washingtonians coming into the workforce.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.