Owen's Ego Trips

The lieutenant governor's adventures in 'mission creep' are costing us real money.

The office of lieutenant governor has long been a joke, frequently occupied by gag candidates or put-out-to-pasture public employees looking for a sinecure. What kind of guy becomes lieutenant governor? There was Seattle bandleader Vic Meyers, who turned a joke campaign into a political career; there was John Cherberg, who got the job after he was fired as Husky football coach and occupied the office so long (32 years) and so quietly that his only claim to fame was his longevity. And there was former Republican congressman Joel Pritchard, for whom the position offered comfy repose for an elder statesman. The highest- profile recent prospect was politically ambitious Krist Novoselic, the former Nirvana bassist who wisely decided not to run. The office is a stepping-stone to nowhere—unless the governor croaks.

Perhaps that's why we taxpayers have been so tolerant with its occupants. On the one hand, the state constitution requires that we elect someone. It's not a demanding job, to say the least. The LG has to preside over the state Senate during the few months of the year it's in session and has to fill in for the governor when he or she is out of state or out of commission.

Washingtonians have put up with paying for the office because it has seemed necessary to have a spare tire on hand. Having someone available as a steady potential placeholder was all we asked.

Which brings us to the current lieutenant governor, Brad Owen, who possesses the one trait the job—and the state—doesn't need: personal ambition.

From the very beginning, Owen declared that he intended to make himself useful while collecting a public paycheck. It sounds noble but is, in fact, mischievous and, lately, expensive. In addition to his legal duties, the former Democratic state senator has placed a number of other hats on his own head.

Initially, he crowned himself state drug czar. As such, his "duties" have included corporate-funded travel around the state with his own rock band to spread the anti-drug message to school kids. I haven't seen a performance, but press accounts indicate that he plays such oldies as "Purple Haze" and "Born to Be Wild" while his wife projects images of dead rock legends on a screen. Seems like a weird medium for the message. I mean, saying drugs aren't intrinsic to rock 'n' roll is like saying God isn't the driving force in the Bible.

Owen's antidrug message has included campaigning illegally on state time and with state resources against the medical marijuana initiative, for which the state ethics board hit him with a $7,000 fine.

The other hat Owen has donned is a diplomatic one. He has become the self-appointed trade ambassador of Washington, with foreign governments and big corporations paying for his junkets to Asia, South America, and Europe. He's not the only public official in Olympia to do this, but Owen is the only one trying to make a career out of it. He insists he is in high demand as our state's official globe-trotting glad-hander. When he's not junketing, he works on projects like trying to get a NASCAR racetrack for the state.

Perhaps a quality that makes Owen suited for diplomacy is his enlightened ideas. For example, when he was a state senator, he liked Republican Sen. Ellen Craswell's proposal to castrate sex offenders in exchange for shorter sentences. While some politicians, like then-Sen. Phil Talmadge, said the law was "a bill the Ayatollah Khomeini might like," Owen gained notoriety for saying the bill didn't go far enough. Perhaps inspired by the social benefits of eugenics and torture, he declared, "Castration is too good for some of these guys." Hmmm. Does Washington state need a freelance ambassador to Guantánamo Bay?

It may have been tolerable—just barely—to watch Owen puff himself up with self- importance and try to turn his lame job into a bully pulpit for his pet causes. But it's quite another when he demands that taxpayers dig deeper to pay for his indulgences. Since Owen assumed office, he's more than doubled his budget and is now proposing to triple it. He's currently asking the Legislature to give him a 46 percent increase to cover the salary of a new senior staff position and to pay for huge salary increases for his current staff. According to The Seattle Times, raises for his top two aides would be 28 percent and 38 percent. Earth to Owen: We're facing a $1.5 billion deficit!

Owen represents classic mission creep: an out-of-control state official building a mini-empire to keep himself employed. Washington doesn't need—nor does the state constitution call for—a rock-star ambassador. We don't need a one-man band pushing an antidrug message, and we have an entire state department to promote trade and economic development. Owen insists there is demand for his services—maybe so, in the way busy people often ask the guy who's not doing anything to lend a hand. But that's hardly a ringing mandate for the job or the man. The lieutenant governor's job ought to be eliminated, or at the very least continue as a lower-cost irrelevance. The taxpayers can't afford any more political ego trips.

Correction

The $570,000 median home price cited by Mossback (see "Village Idiots," March 30) is incorrect. That is the median for the downtown 98109 zip code. The Seattle median is actually $355,000. So add another idiot to the village.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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