Former Washington governor Mike Lowry, an unapologetic liberal who advocated for higher taxes and social programs, died Monday from complications related to a stroke. He was 78.
Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement that Lowry “had a big heart and cared deeply about the people of this state.”
Attorney General Bob Ferguson called Lowry a friend and mentor and said, “I admired Governor Lowry’s directness: You always knew where he stood on the important issues of the day. He was unafraid to advocate for policies that were right, but unpopular.”
Lowry, a Democrat, served one term as governor from 1993 to 1997. During that time, he pushed for an income tax and appointed the first woman to head the Washington State Patrol, according to an essay at HistoryLink.org. He also called a special session of the legislature to approve funding for a new baseball stadium in Seattle -- now Safeco Field.
Lowry did not run for re-election after he was accused by a former staffer of sexual harassment -- a charge he denied.
In 2013, Lowry participated in a public television special called “The Governors.” He said he got into politics after being raised in Whitman County, in southeast Washington, as an FDR Democrat.
“It was all because of having a feeling that government can really do good for people and it’s something worthwhile putting your time into,” Lowry said on the televised program.
Upon news of his death, friends and colleagues remembered Lowry as a champion of the middle class.
Long time lobbyist Mark Brown, who served in Lowry’s executive cabinet and considered him a close friend, said Lowry leaves behind a legacy of public service.
“For Mike it wasn’t about holding office or even wielding power for the sake of power, he simply wanted to advance the common good,” Brown said. “He cared about the middle class and those that rely on government. He just really was a dedicated public servant more than he was a politician.”
Brown, who was the director of Labor and Industries under Lowry, said that during Lowry’s term they banned smoking in private offices and extended workplace protections to farmworkers.
Other Lowry legacies include efforts to reform health care at the state level and work to fund AIDS research at the federal level. From 1979 to 1989 he served in Congress. He was first elected to public office in 1975 when he won a seat on the King County Council.
Another longtime friend and colleague, Betty Means, recalled Lowry as a fiery orator.
“I never knew anyone who could fire up a crowd of supporters faster than Mike,” said Means, who volunteered for Lowry when he ran first for Congress in 1978. “He was wonderful in that way, he made us all feel so strong and sure.”
Means said Lowry’s annual “shrimp feed” fundraiser was legendary in Democratic circles.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people came, it was just the event of the year and one could always attend and see practically every Democratic politician in the state,” Means said.
“He was a lion-hearted liberal,” said former Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt, who noted that despite his politics, Lowry never lost his connection to eastern Washington and would often show up at events in small towns east of the mountains.
A mixed legacy
Despite categorical denials, rumors of drinking and inappropriate behavior toward women dogged Lowry during his term as governor. In 1995, The Spokesman-Review reported that two key staff members had quit Lowry’s gubernatorial campaign because of his drinking. Lowry denied having a drinking problem, telling the newspaper, “I mean what is this, a joke?”
As governor, Lowry was accused of inappropriately touching a State Patrol technician and later paid a cash settlement to a former press aide who accused him of sexually harassing her. Lowry admitted no wrongdoing.
In 1997, as Lowry left office, the Spokesman-Reiew described him as a “rough-cut, double-barreled governor” and quoted then-Democratic state Senator Margarita Prentice as saying, “His legacy is going to be mixed, unfortunately. It makes me sad to talk about it. I used to be part of the Mike Lowry cult, but it’s a legacy of great sadness, of great missed opportunities.”
After leaving office, Lowry worked on issues close to his heart like migrant housing and homelessness, according to HistoryLink.org. In 2000, Lowry attempted a return to public office when he ran unsuccessfully for state lands commissioner.
Despite never holding elected office again, Lowry remained active in politics. Attorney General Ferguson credits Lowry for his career, noting that in 2003 Lowry backed him in a successful campaign against a 20-year incumbent King County councilmember.
“Mike Lowry was the first -- and only -- prominent politician to endorse me in that first campaign,” Ferguson said in a statement.
In their announcement of his death, Lowry’s family called him a “passionate defender of fairness for people and the environment.” They noted that his first proposal in Congress was to provide restitution to Japanese Americans and Aleuts who had been interned during World War II. He also played a key role in the passage of the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act.
Lowry lived in Renton and is survived by his wife Mary and their daughter Diane.