FORMER GOVERNOR and Congressman Mike Lowry, who disappeared from politics under the cloud of a sexual harassment scandal, is suddenly back running for office. Three weeks ago, he declared his candidacy for state Commissioner of Public Lands on the heels of a bombshell announcement by current Commissioner Jennifer Belcher that she would retire rather than run again.
It's no surprise that environmentalists are over the moon about Lowry's candidacy for a post responsible for the Department of Natural Resources and five million acres of public forests, farms, and underwater terrain. Lowry is a green from way back: As a congressman he championed the Washington Wilderness Bill that preserved a million acres of roadless forestland. Now, as he contemplates the position he seeks, he tentatively suggests that he may be able to reduce logging on state lands by 15 or 20 percent.
Them's fighting words among several constituencies, among them schools (which rely on state logging revenue for construction funds) and struggling rural communities that have lost countless logging jobs already. But Lowry brings an unexpected attribute to the race that may help him get past the polarization that plagued environmentalist Belcher: his record since leaving the governor's mansion four years ago working on economic development in Eastern Washington through two nonprofits he established, the Fairness Project and Enterprise Washington. At the same time, he has been running a family ranch, complete with a 260-acre tree farm, in the town of Kettle Falls, near Spokane, not far from the tiny town of Endicott where he grew up. "People over there know these are my roots," Lowry says.
The concerns of rural Washington figure surprisingly prominently in the Democratic primary, not only because of Lowry, but also his rival, Georgia Gardner. A plainspoken state senator from Blaine, Gardner talks about the distressed industries of farming, forestry, and fishing as her county's version of Three Strikes and You're Out. That orientation is bound to make for more interesting debates with the Republican candidate, Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland, and might possibly keep the Democrats from being tagged as out-of-touch tree-huggers.
GIVEN HIS HIGH PROFILE, Lowry is the presumed Democratic frontrunner. But he carries the liability of the sexual harassment accusations by a deputy press secretary and state patrol technician that overshadowed his last two years as governor. Lowry addressed the issue head-on as he announced his latest candidacy by issuing a statement that expressed profound regret for the "pain and discomfort" he caused. The issue nonetheless surfaced in endorsement deliberations by King County Young Democrats, which gave Gardner the nod last week. Lowry supporters, however, are optimistic that the past is the past, and he himself seems unworried and undefensive when asked about it.
Compared to those last tense months in office, the 61-year-old Lowry seems remarkably relaxed, like a man who now has the freedom to do what he wants, even if what he wants seems like a step down in political terms. He smiles often and talks gleefully about spending time in the field if elected.
He seems, too, to have enjoyed his recent nonprofit work. Conforming to his reputation as a classic urban liberal, he has dedicated himself to a variety of issues related to poverty and economic development. In this state, however, where the high-tech boom has stayed close to the Puget Sound metropolises, those concerns bring one into the rural, conservative terrain largely east of the mountains.
In Moses Lake, for instance, Lowry has worked with an industry-oriented nonprofit called the Economic Development Council. He has helped the organization win grants and develop proposals for projects such as an inland facility that would offer storage and other services for ships using the Seattle and Everett ports. Lowry's work there has left the group's executive director, Terry Brewer, convinced that the former governor has "a genuine interest in the economy of rural Washington and what he can do to assist us."
More pertinent to his current campaign is Lowry's recent work to encourage the development of hybrid poplar tree plantations, an idea that has been circulating in environmental circles and which is already practiced in Europe. As Lowry explains it, hybrid poplars are extremely fast-growing, reaching to 100 feet in a mere eight or nine years, a height that would take a Douglas fir 50 or more years to reach. That means more trees sooner to improve air quality and suck up the carbon dioxide that fosters global warming. It also means more trees to log, thereby generating jobs and revenue while preserving natural forests.
Lowry believes that the planting of hybrid poplars on state lands would be one way to reduce the logging of natural forests by as much as 20 percent and still maintain sufficient revenue for school construction. Another way, he says, would be the institution of a "Washington green label" to certify wood produced with environmentally friendly practices. If the DNR could sell its wood with such a label, he says, it could charge up to 20 percent more for a product that, like organic coffee, would be highly valued.
IN BROAD STROKES, Lowry and rival Georgia Gardner seem almost identical in their approach. Gardner says she doesn't have enough information to judge whether logging on state lands should be reduced, but she expresses a desire to carry on Belcher's environmental legacy. Where she says she differs from Belcher is her insistence on "looking at the other side"—that is, at the people suffering the economic consequences of environmentalism. She stresses the importance of offering "mitigation" to these folks. For instance, she suggests that the money from the controversial Loomis Forest deal, in which an environmental group is paying the DNR to refrain from logging, could have been used to plant hybrid poplar plantations and create new jobs.
A 56-year-old cross-border accountant with a steely and authoritative presence that might just prevent Lowry from being a primary shoo-in, Gardner seems even more attuned than the former governor to rural sensitivities. When Lowry in a joint interview with Gardner implies that tourism jobs will replace logging jobs if natural resources are preserved, the state senator interjects, "You can't take a logger and put him in the tourism industry. They don't want to do that, they're not comfortable doing that, and there's also the widespread understanding that tourism jobs are minimum wage jobs."
Gardner believes she can use the lands commissioner job to help make up for the lack of growth management that has occurred in rural areas, where much of the DNR's land lies. Bad environmental decisions have resulted, she believes, from rural towns falling all over themselves to attract companies. But she also believes that industry has been unfairly demonized. "Industry is not the bogeyman," she says. "Industry will work with us to do the things that we can't afford to do ourselves," namely providing jobs and cleaning up environmental problems, "and they['ll] do it cheerfully."
One of the causes she has championed as state senator is a proposal for a power plant in the small, depressed town of Sumas. Gardner is proud of negotiating with the National Energy Systems Company for union jobs, reduced emissions, and the cleanup of two plants in Canada that sent fumes across the border. Environmentalists, concerned that the Sumas plant would still emit unacceptable levels of carbon dioxide, nonetheless opposed the bill she sponsored to give a tax break to the power company in exchange for these concessions and the bill, while successful in the Legislature, was vetoed by the governor.
The Sumas bill factored into a decision by the Washington Conservation Voters to endorse Lowry over Gardner. The organization's field director, Jennifer Lindenauer, says that while Gardner has consistently taken "really great" environmental votes, the state senator has not been an environmental leader and has on occasions like the Sumas bill had problems with local environmentalists. "I don't think her priority would be the environment," Lindenauer muses. "I think her priority would be labor." That might help explain why she got an early endorsement from the Washington State Labor Council, though the decision, made before Lowry got into the race, is open to change at labor's upcoming convention.
Whoever wins the primary, the race is poised to be unusually civil. During the first joint appearance of their campaign, Lowry tended to follow Gardner's remarks with comments like, "I agree very much with that." Gardner, for her part, calls Lowry a "natural resource" of the state who in his nonprofit role could be deployed for a variety of good works. She just wishes he would stick to nonprofits and stay out of her race.