Eagle Scout governor will be Democratic messenger

Rebutting Bush Tuesday night, Gary Locke of Washington will highlight states' economic woes.

On paper, at least, Washington Gov. Gary Locke seems to be an ideal choice to deliver the Democrat's rebuttal to the president's State of the Union speech tomorrow: Son of an immigrant grocer. Eagle Scout. Honor student. Graduate of both Yale and Boston University. Even Republicans admit he's an ethically scrupulous politician.

As a governor, Mr. Locke also owns the political authority to tie the financial crises gripping most state and local governments to Bush administration policies, as well as federal-funding cuts. And with many Americans hurting from recession, he will likely argue that President Bush's tax-cut plan is not the right economic fix.

Résumés and political gambits aside, however, Locke's moment in the national eye may well be a make-or-break occasion for the first Chinese-American elected to a governorship. As far as many of his state residents are concerned, the "break" part of the equation already looms large.

Indeed Locke, in his second term, has seemed besieged on practically every political front. He has proposed a number of vastly unpopular spending cuts, and has asked legislators to simply ignore two statewide citizen initiatives. Critics say his approach is behind the times and lacking in creativity.

This has some analysts wondering if Locke's selection to deliver the State of the Union response will prove a stroke of bold Democratic brilliance, or become another gaffe showing the party to be out of touch with the nation's body politic.

"Gary's under pressure here because he has become so namby-pamby," says Py Bateman, an activist who lobbied the Legislature on behalf of women's issues in the 1980s, when Locke represented Seattle's liberal 37th District. "This could be his opportunity to show some of the toughness he used to have."

A poll this month of registered Washington voters found Locke's overall job-approval rating had plunged to an 30 percent. This follows his proposals to balance the state's budget in the face of a $2.4 billion deficit: He would remove 60,000 low-income citizens from the state-sponsored Basic Health Plan, lay off 2,500 state employees, and slash millions from welfare budgets.

Rising star, or reckless dud?

The citizen initiatives he's asked legislators to ignore would give cost-of-living raises to teachers and reduce classroom sizes.

His actions seem so shocking to many of his liberal supporters that rumors abound: Some believe his hardball approach must be a ploy to finally force the populace here to accept a much-loathed state income tax. Others insist his own party is fed up and will urge him to step down when his term ends.

Paul Berendt, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, avers the governor can win reelection in 2004, but concedes that voters today find Locke's style of pragmatic management insufficient. "Now what people want is someone who's a little more radical in their approach to problem-solving."

A scant six years ago, Locke was widely considered a national Democratic darling, a rising star en route to at least a cabinet post, if not a shot at the vice presidency. That was before the technology boom here went bust, before Boeing abandoned Seattle for Chicago (and laid off 30,000 employees), before the state's hefty cash surplus evaporated.

Now, more than 18 months before his next election, the governor already has a respected Democratic opponent, former State Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, whose No. 1 campaign issue is Locke's absent leadership.

His detractors often point to western Washington's transportation crisis - and Locke's failure to craft a solution. Before this past election, the governor placed a pile of his political eggs in a $10 billion statewide ballot basket that would have retooled bottleneck freeways and highways through the region. He campaigned statewide for the measure, and was soundly rejected by the voters.

Many saw it as repudiation of the governor and a grim statement about his inability to inspire support for his vision.

Ms. Bateman, the activist, paints a very different portrait of the young Locke as one who accomplished much and was loath to play both sides of the fence. "Everyone else might waffle. Gary would take on issues and controversial legislation with no pussyfooting around."

A first for Democratic governors

Locke, current chair of the Democratic Governors' Association, would be the first Democrat governor to rebut a State of the Union speech. Traditionally, the role is reserved for a member of Congress.

This shift appears to be part of the Democrats' new strategy in the wake of election losses to Republicans last fall. They will also regularly invite governors to provide the party's response to the president's weekly radio address.

Locke has said his rebuttal will be a blend of his own sentiments with those of his party's national leaders. "Given our close proximity to the problems facing the nation," he says, "governors can offer a unique perspective based on real-world experience and everyday sensibilities."

For Locke and his party, a lot rides on Tuesday's message.

"If he comes out strongly and offers a visionary alternative to the president's State of the Union speech," says Bateman, "it could really help turn his image around - not to mention that of his party."

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