FOR Gov. Mike Lowry of Washington State, 1995 was already starting out to be a tough year. The Democrat had been jousting with the new GOP-leaning state legislature, and his poll numbers were down.
Now the first-term governor faces a new problem: He has been charged by two women with sexual harassment.
The result is that Mr. Lowry, one of the few outspoken liberal voices in the country, looks vulnerable to an early challenge in 1996 - including from within his own party.
His problems could also jeopardize some of the nation's most sweeping health-care reform legislation, passed in 1993 under Lowry's leadership.
Lowry ``has traditionally been a battler,'' says David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington at Seattle. ``My guess is we're going to be in a protracted struggle over the remainder of this term.''
Lowry is likely to veto an effort to roll back central features of the health-care reforms, including the mandate that employers pay at least 50 percent of insurance costs for all employees, and the requirement that all individuals in the state purchase insurance. But Republicans, with some support from Democrats, are moving to circumvent the veto by putting the changes to state voters on a November ballot.
The first allegation against Lowry came a year ago from a fingerprint technician with the Washington State Patrol. The second, which has brought the story media prominence, came last month. A deputy press secretary quit her job after what she claims were numerous instances of harassment by Lowry.
``Accountability starts at the top,'' Lowry said on Feb. 3 as he hired an outside investigator to look into the new charges. ``Never did I do anything that was intended to offend her in any way,'' he added, ``and never did she voice such concerns to me.'' Skeptics worry that the investigator, prominent Seattle attorney Mary Alice Theiler, will work in the interests of the governor who appointed her, rather than for the alleged victims.
Adding to the appearance of crisis in the governor's administration, Lowry's chief legal counsel, Jenny Durkan, resigned last week. ``This can do nothing but seriously harm Mr. Lowry,'' Fischer says. She describes Ms. Durkan as a ``very serious, well-respected attorney'' with close ties to Lowry's family. In addition, several more women are said to be preparing to talk to the investigator.
Professor Olson says the Democratic field is thick with potential challengers to Lowry, from Marc Gaspard, majority leader in the state Senate, to former Congressman Mike Kreidler. Republicans, who made huge gains last fall in the state Legislature, could capitalize on the governor's weakness, Olson says.
But ``if this emboldens the evangelical Christian faction,'' he says, the GOP ``could make the error of selecting a candidate who is too far to the right.''