Friday, June 21, 2019

Mike Lowry: Sexual Harassment Claims End Political Career of "Governor Mayhem"

While the #MeToo movement has recently spotlighted the issue of sexual harassment and encouraged victims to report it, a concerted effort to combat the problem began several decades earlier. Legislation in the 1960s prohibited employers from discriminating based on sex in their hires, and other laws helped codify sexual harassment and provide remedies for victims.

In the early 1990s, a memorable series of public service announcements marked an early effort to empower women to fight back against harassers. The videos show women enduring innuendos and lewd remarks from their boorish employers, but ultimately calling out the behavior as sexual harassment, adding, "And I don't have to take it!"

These PSAs were airing at approximately the same time that Governor Mike Lowry of Washington was under fire for sexual harassment claims. Several women accused him of unwanted touching and inappropriate remarks, although some did not want to come forward publicly.

While an investigation concluded that it was impossible to confirm the claims or exonerate Lowry, the accusations were enough to torpedo the governor's already ailing political career.

Early life

Lowry was born in St. John, Washington on March 8, 1939 and moved to Endicott as a child. He grew up in a family of "New Deal Democrats" who admired President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his relief efforts during the Great Depression.

In 1961, while attending Washington State University, Lowry signed up to join the Navy. He was rejected due to high blood pressure, and graduated from the university the next year.

Mike Lowry's senior year high school portrait (Source)

Lowry held a variety of jobs in the ensuing years, including brief stints working for a financial information company and a Seattle building contractor. He also spent three years working as a salesman for the textbook publisher Allyn & Bacon.

During the late 60s, Lowry volunteered on a number of political campaigns including Robert F. Kennedy's presidential bid and Karl Hermann's run for state insurance commissioner. He also worked on the gubernatorial campaign of state senator Martin Durkan Sr. While Durkan failed to win the office, he was impressed enough with Lowry's work to offer him a job on the senate's ways and means committee. Lowry worked as a chief financial analyst and staff director for this committee between 1969 and 1973.

Lowry also managed Durkan's 1972 bid for the governor's office, when he lost the Democratic primary. After leaving the state senate job, he served as the governmental affairs director for the Puget Sound Group Health Cooperative from 1974 to 1975. That year, he was elected to the Metropolitan King County Council, two years after an unsuccessful campaign for this agency. He was also elected president of the Washington State Association of Counties in 1978.


In 1978, Lowry won the Democratic nomination for Washington's 7th Congressional District and challenged Representative John E. Cunningham III in the general election. While the district leaned Democratic, Cunningham had captured it in a 1977 special election after the resignation of Brock Adams, a Democrat who resigned to become Secretary of Transportation.

The gay community of Seattle was starting to become a more powerful voting bloc, and Lowry's campaign wasn't averse to courting supporters at the city's gay bars. When the ballots were counted, Lowry had comfortably defeated Cunningham by about 7,500 votes out of nearly 127,000 cast.

Lowry's congressional portrait (Source)

Lowry would serve in the House of Representatives for the next decade, championing universal health care, the Woman Infants and Children program, and a variety of other liberal causes. Following up on a campaign promise, he introduced a bill to pay reparations to more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans and Aleuts who were imprisoned in federal camps during World War II. While this effort failed, it was credited with helping to launch the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. It also paved the way for a 1988 bill offering the former inmates $20,000 apiece and a formal apology declaring their imprisonment a "grave injustice."

The proposal rankled some who misunderstood the intent of the bill. Lowry was known for frequently holding community meetings in his district, as many as 50 a year, and at one such town hall he was confronted by angry World War II veterans. Staying more than two hours beyond the scheduled end time of the event, Lowry explained that his proposed bill would support Japanese-American citizens who had been rounded up as potential security risks and native Alaskans who had been evacuated in advance of a military effort in the Aleutians, not Japanese soldiers who had fought against the United States.

His visits to the district included also included an annual shrimp feed, which served as a Democratic fundraiser. It soon became a must-attend function for anyone hoping to seek office on the party's ticket.

Lowry's time in office roughly corresponded with Ronald Reagan's years in the White House, and he was a sharp critic of the President. He accused the White House of making budget cuts that he said would primarily harm the poor, criticized the administration's aid to Nicaraguan Contras, and opposed policies such as abortion restrictions and arms buildup.

In 1987, Lowry spearheaded a lawsuit joined by more than 100 congressmen against the Reagan Administration. The Lowry v. Reagan suit sought to compel the President to file a report under the War Powers Resolution after Reagan directed American ships to provide protective escorts to reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers during the war between Iran and Iraq. The case was later dismissed in federal court.

Lowry championed environmental initiatives for his home state, including the Washington Wilderness Act in 1984. He also supported legislation to establish the Cougar Lakes Wilderness, create a wildlife refuge at Grays Harbor, and designate the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary to forestall any attempt at offshore oil drilling near Washington. He opposed a proposal for a naval base at Everett, acknowledging that the development would be good for the region's economy but harmful to Puget Sound. Lowry was also part of a cooperative effort by the Washington and Oregon delegations that successfully contested the Department of Energy's efforts to restart the nuclear station at Hanford.

Since international trade was highly beneficial to Washington State, Lowry was supportive of measures that would assist it. He was credited with helping to save direct loans to buyers of international products, which were offered by the Export-Import Bank. These loans were especially helpful to Boeing, one of Washington's major employers, since the aircraft manufacturer was the bank's largest customer. However, the support also earned Lowry criticism among liberals who derided the loans as a form of corporate welfare.

At the same time, Lowry earned a reputation of having a strong commitment to his values, unlike other elected officials who were willing to sell them out for political expediency. He was one of just 16 Democrats opposed to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which allocated funding to fight narcotics trafficking and increased federal penalties for drug crimes. The legislation passed shortly before the year's congressional elections, in which the Democrats maintained their majority in the House and recaptured the Senate. Even some of the bill's supporters acknowledged that the legislation was not a viable solution to the problem of drug trafficking, but felt it was a good way to demonstrate that they were tough on crime. Lowry, by contrast, denounced it as "legislation by political panic."

Lowry was described as a "demonstrative politician," who engaged in various stunts to highlight certain issues. At one point, he hiked the Greenwater River to show how a proposed wilderness bill would exclude salmon spawning grounds. In another incident, he and a few other congressmen camped out on a D.C. subway grate to raise awareness of homelessness in the nation's capital.

On two occasions, Lowry sought to leave the House to move over to the Senate. His first opportunity came in 1983, in a special election called to finish the term of Democratic Senator Henry M. Jackson, who had died on September 1. Lowry lost to Republican candidate Dan Evans, a former Washington governor.

Evans quickly became frustrated with the job. In a scathing article published in the New York Times Magazine on April 17, 1988, he said the Senate "had lost its focus and was in danger of losing its soul." He announced that he could not "face another six years of frustrating gridlock," and so would not seek re-election.

Lowry again sought the seat. Unlike the special election, Lowry had to give up a more secure bid at holding his House seat in favor of a statewide contest. While he was leading in the polls in the days leading up to the election, a last-minute negative ad campaign against Republican opponent and former senator Slade Gorton backfired. Facing criticism and accusations of mudslinging, Lowry lost the race by about 40,000 votes out of 1.85 million cast.

Governor of Washington

After leaving Congress, Lowry took a job as professor of government at Seattle University's Institute of Public Service. In a show of bipartisanship, he joined with Evans in the summer of 1989 to help found the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. The men served as co-chairs of the organization, which has a goal of preserving wilderness and farmland in Washington as well as founding new local and state parks.

Mike Lowry, at right, with Dan Evans (center) and Elliott Marks, co-founders of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition (Source)

Lowry re-entered the political scene in 1992, when he joined the gubernatorial race to succeed retiring incumbent Booth Gardner, a Democrat who had served two terms. Lowry easily won the Democratic primary, defeating state house speaker Joe King in a 337,783 to 9,648 landslide. Having learned his lesson from his Senate defeat, he refused to campaign negatively and instituted a self-imposed $1,500 maximum on campaign contributions. In the general contest, he earned 1.18 million votes and bested Republican opponent and state attorney general Ken Eikenberry by about 100,000 ballots.

As governor, Lowry quickly committed himself to a slew of reform efforts. These included expanding aid to low-income families, protections for migrant workers, and a universal health care bill. He frequently issued press releases to avow his support for liberal causes such as gay rights, environmental initiatives, and abortion rights. On June 27, 1993, he became the first governor to address Seattle's annual gay pride parade. There, he called on the legislature to protect the LGBT community from discrimination in housing and employment, declaring that "if one persons's civil rights are being abused, then everyone's civil rights are endangered."

The onslaught of policy earned Lowry the nickname "Governor Mayhem" as critics, including some from his own party, charged that he was moving too quickly, angering too many constituents, and depleting too much of his political capital to effectively make change. Yet he also earned grudging respect from foes for his energy and unflinching devotion to his ideals. "When Mike Lowry says something, you always know exactly where he stands," said Clyde Ballard, a Republican who would serve as speaker of the house during Lowry's term in office.

One of Lowry's most controversial moves was an effort to close a $1.8 billion state budget gap by raising taxes. He supported a state income tax, despite an economic recession and the failure of previous administrations to put one in place. Lowry also favored a gas tax to fund a light rail system aimed at alleviating traffic in the Puget Sound region, and sought to extend the sales tax to professional services.

The taxes provided Republicans with an easy platform to contest the governor at the next statewide election. In 1994, the GOP made the strongest gains in the state legislature in nearly 50 years. The following year, they began working to undo the governor's work, including a rollback of the tax increase that passed over his veto. The legislature also repealed the central tenet of the health care bill, the individual health insurance mandate, which effectively neutered the reform. Lowry's accomplishments soon became limited to what he could stop by veto, which included Republican efforts to bar death row inmates from eligibility for organ transplants or other medical assistance.

In 1995, Lowry named Annette Sandberg to head the Washington State Patrol. Just 33 years old, she was the first woman in the country to lead a state police force. It was a controversial pick; Sandberg vowed to reform the agency by breaking up the "good old boys" network, promising that some officers would be demoted or reassigned. Her term resulted in a number of accomplishments, including the introduction of a K9 program, efforts to combat racial profiling, and a commitment to increasing the racial diversity of the force. Nevertheless, she was blamed for a drop in morale among the agency's patrolmen. Sandberg resigned in 2000; Lowry would later stick by his choice, saying he thought she had done a good job.

Lowry's rocky time in the governor's office was further complicated by his strained relationship with the Democratic Party and its traditional supporters. Many Democrats in the state house had gravitated to the right in order to weather the Republican surge, and some declared their outright refusal to support parts of Lowry's agenda. State unions were outraged when he backed reforms making it easier to fire under-performing public employees, and when he supported contracting out some state services to private companies.

A review of Lowry's time in office by the Spokesman-Review acknowledged that Lowry's tax increases were made in tandem with efforts to cut government spending. The growth of the state employee payroll slowed dramatically under his watch, while the growth of state spending fell by more than half between the start and end of his four-year term. He made cuts to travel expenses and workers compensation insurance rates for state employees. Lowry even extended the austerity to his own expenses, slashing his salary by $31,000 and covering several of his own expenses, including groceries, the telephone service at the governor's mansion, and $100 a month of his vehicle's gas and maintenance costs.

The newspaper's analysis also credited Lowry with supporting business tax breaks and overseas trade that helped spur the creation of 174,600 new jobs in the state, scrapping the waiting list for state-subsidized child care, and extending health insurance to 140,000 adults and 195,000 low-income children. He had also backed a successful effort to build a new stadium for the Seattle Mariners in 1995 after fears that the decrepit state of their field would cause the baseball team to leave the city. In a 2002 retrospective, Lowry said he was proud that he had helped maintain social services and environmental commitments in the midst of budget difficulties, while also working to build up a surplus of about $500,000 by the end of his term.

Despite these successes, Lowry remained a fairly unpopular figure as the 1996 election approached. He had a contentious relationship with the press, accusing them of being "unwitting subsidiaries of the right wing of the Republican Party" after several stories on his tax proposals, and had stopped granting one-on-one interviews with the media. A poll by the Spokesman-Review and TV station KHQ-TV found that only one in four voters in Washington approved of his performance, with just 14 percent say they'd vote for him again.

By this time, however, Lowry was facing a new challenge: several women, including his former deputy press secretary, had accused him of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment accusations

On March 29, 1994, Washington State Patrol employee Becky Miner complained that Lowry had inappropriately pressed his body against hers while she took his fingerprints for security clearance to the White House. Christine Gregoire, the state's attorney general, reviewed the matter and concluded that Miner's claim could not be proven or refuted. She recommended sexual harassment training for the governor, which he completed in September.

Two months later, Miner's complaint became public after it was leaked to the press. Lowry's deputy press secretary, Susanne Albright, was reportedly so upset by the accusation that she went on medical leave. It soon emerged that Albright, who would opt to resign her position, had her own claims against the governor.

Albright said she had been subjected to routine harassment, touching, and groping during her time in Lowry's employ. She also said the governor made frequent lewd or offensive comments, such as asking if she had brought along a bikini during a business trip and answering one of her phone calls by questioning whether she was the Susanne "with the beautiful long legs."

Two former Lowry aides would also say they were sexually harassed during Lowry's time in congress, though they would remain anonymous. One said that Lowry kissed her on the mouth on one occasion "in a matter that she felt was clearly sexual;" a friend corroborated this account and said Lowry had kissed her as well. The aide said Lowry had also engaged in touching she found offensive, including an unsolicited neck rub, a hug that touched her breast, and rubbing her knees and legs.

The other aide made similar allegations, saying Lowry's behavior had included lingering hugs, kisses on the mouth, a neck rub, and rubbing her leg while she was driving. In response, she asked that her office be relocated to a more open location and that she not be assigned to chauffeur Lowry.

The women's attorney, Judith Lonquist, said a Lowry supporter told her during the gubernatorial campaign that the women might bring up their accusations. Lonquist said she had initially supported Lowry's candidacy, but opted not to vote for him after hearing from the former aides.

On January 17, 1995, Lowry's lawyer wrote to chief deputy attorney general Kathleen Mix saying it was unlikely that Albright would file a lawsuit. The letter also said that Albright had "consistently declined to make a complaint under our office policy." Nevertheless, Lowry ordered an independent investigation into the matter. Two days later, Seattle attorney Mary Alice Theiler was appointed to head the inquiry.

While the investigation was initially conducted in private, Lowry disclosed it after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer made a public records request regarding the matter. Albright said she had not intended for her allegations to become public, but stressed that she had left her job because of "a clear, and I repeat, very clear, and persistent pattern of unacceptable behavior toward me." Lowry denied that he had ever done anything intentionally offensive to Albright, and that she had never voiced any concerns to him.

On February 16, 1995, Lowry sat down for a televised interview in which he apologized to any women he may have offended. "I have learned that some people are uncomfortable. I feel bad about that," said Lowry. "I don't want anybody to feel uncomfortable with me. Whoever that might be, anybody I have ever made feel uncomfortable, I apologize to."

He was joined by his wife, Mary, would prove to be a staunch supporter; he vehemently denied that he had ever been unfaithful to her in any way. Lowry also denied suggestions that the alleged conduct may have stemmed from a drinking problem, though he conceded that this had once been a concern and he had cut back on his alcohol consumption about a decade earlier.

Theiler's investigation concluded on March 23, when she released a 51-page report detailing her findings. Lowry said he often hugged, kissed, or patted his employees in what were intended to be friendly gestures, and that he was unaware that they had sometimes caused offense. Theiler also noted that Albright's story changed over the course of different interviews, and that she may have had a grievance against Lowry for other reasons. Some employees in the governor's office recalled that when she discovered she was not getting an expected promotion, Albright threatened, "If I don't get this job, he doesn't know what he's getting into." Theiler concluded that there wasn't sufficient evidence to support Albright's accusations.

The women who had accused Lowry were quick to voice their displeasure with Theiler's findings. Albright said the investigator had downplayed some incidents, taken others out of context, and ignored the allegations of other women since the investigation had only been called to look into Albright's claims. The two congressional aides also said they were disappointed with Theiler's report, believing that she had largely ignored them.

In response, Theiler stressed that her report had not exonerated the governor. She had concluded that Lowry "touched [Albright] in ways she found offensive," and that he "clearly engaged in conduct that offended one valuable employee and likely others." Theiler also suggested that Lowry's temper may have prevented Albright from confronting him about his behavior.

The investigation led to some scrutiny of Lowry's character in press reports, where associates suggested that the governor's affable public persona concealed a more volatile private one. One social service advocate recalled that when they met with Lowry in 1993 and suggested that his health care reform excluded migrant workers, the governor became livid and berated them for bringing up the criticism, saying he had long advocated for migrant workers on other occasions. Anne Fennessy, his former press secretary, said Lowry was quick to anger but also had a good sense of humor and recovered quickly.

Walt Crowley, one of the governor's advisers, said he was passionate about his beliefs, and sometimes stubborn or impatient. Other associates said Lowry was most likely to express anger if his advisers tried to manage him or steer him away from his principles. However, this also led to criticism that he was too cloistered, ignoring input from his aides or hiring loyalists who wouldn't challenge him. "Mike's inner circle is Mike," one former aide declared.

The press also found that Lowry's drinking had caused some concerns in the past, and that he was more likely to lose his temper when he was not sober. Lowry's potential alcoholism was reportedly worrying enough to his 1992 campaign staff that they held a meeting to discuss it.

Lowry maintained that the actions that had prompted the sexual harassment allegations were meant to be friendly. "I want people to feel comfortable with me," he said. "I don't want people to think that I think I'm a big shot." Tricia Wilson, Lowry's executive assistant, said she had never been offended by the governor's actions but could understand how it would make other women feel uncomfortable. "It didn't bother me and a lot of people just took it as the way he was," she said. "But maybe the younger generation is more sensitive."

Albright's case was the only one which would be formally resolved. In an agreement signed on July 14, 1995, Lowry agreed to pay her $97,500 from his own personal funds in exchange for Albright's promise not to file a lawsuit. Albright said she was satisfied with the settlement, suggesting that the sum indicated that Lowry's behavior constituted "more than a pat on the back."

The fallout from the scandal made Lowry's re-election prospects even more daunting. Several women's groups publicly declared that they would not endorse him if he ran again. Two top female aides, Fennessy and chief legal counsel Jenny Durkan, resigned while Theiler's investigation was underway, although both insisted that their departures were unrelated to the sexual harassment charges. Fennessy said she had been thinking of leaving her position for some time due to the stress of a job "that never ends."

Nevertheless, the turmoil gave Republicans an easy opportunity to score political points. "If the governor cannot maintain a stable office and put ethical questions behind him, he should consider resigning rather than spending the next year and a half as a lame duck," advised Eikenberry, who had become the GOP state chairman after his defeat in the 1992 election.

On February 22, 1996, Lowry announced that he would not seek re-election, in part so he could help care for his elderly mother and father-in-law. While he initially denied that the sexual harassment accusations played a role in the decision, he later admitted that they had been a "major factor;" he said he didn't want his family to see the issue brought up again during the race.

Lowry's term ended in January 1997. The Democrats held the governor's office by a comfortable margin, with party candidate Gary Locke taking 58 percent of the vote in the general election.

Later life

Lowry is introduced during Governor Chris Gregoire's State of the State speech on January 15, 2013. (Source)

Lowry made one more political bid after his time as governor, running for state lands commissioner in 2000. The commission oversees approximately five million acres of state-owned lands. Lowry lost to GOP candidate Doug Sutherland by about 100,000 votes out of roughly 2.32 million cast.

The bulk of Lowry's post-political career was spent volunteering. He worked with Washington Agricultural Families Assistance to help build homes for migrant farm workers, as well as Enterprise Washington to support job creation in the economically depressed parts of the state. He was also active in organizations dedicated to ending homelessness.

Lowry retired to a small ranch near Kettle Falls. In 2003, he brokered a deal to convert a former sugar beet factory to an ethanol plant.

He died on May 1, 2017 in Olympia following complications from a stroke.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Michael Edward 'Mike' Lowry" on, "Governor Mayhem?" in the Seattle Times on Apr. 25 1993,  "Lowry Accused of Sexual Harassment" in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Feb. 4 1995, "Lowry Apologizes For Behavior" in the Kitsap Sun on Feb. 17 1995, "Spokeswoman Lowry's Third Aide to Quit" in the Kitsap Sun on Feb. 18 1995, "Mike Lowry's Other Side" in the Seattle Times on Feb. 26 1995, "Friendly Touch or Grope? It's Hard to Know For Sure, Lowry Investigator Concludes" in the Seattle Times on Mar. 24 1995, "Ex-Lowry Aides Say Incidents Ignored" in the Spokesman-Review on Mar. 28 1995, "Lowry Agrees to Pay Ex-Aide $97,500" in the Seattle Times on Jul. 14 1995, "Lowry Declares He's Out of Running" in the Spokesman-Review on Feb. 23 1996, "The Liberal Legacy of Mike Lowry" in the Spokesman-Review on Jan. 15 1997, "Controversial State Patrol Chief Resigns" in the Daily Herald on Nov. 20 2000, "Former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, Table-Pounding Liberal, Dies at 78" in the Seattle Times on May 1 2017, "Mike Lowry, Proudly Progressive Ex-Governor, Dies Early on May Day" on on May 1 2017, "Mike Lowry, Ex-Congressman and Washington State Governor, Dies at 78" in the New York Times on May 3 2017, "Former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry Remembered As Proud Liberal, Quietly Generous" in the Seattle Times on May 30 2017, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa, The Intersection of Law and War Vol. 126, Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging by Gary Atkins

1 comment:

Normajean said...

I thought Mike Lowry was one of our best governors in my lifetime. I think his work with the environment which is so dear to my heart was commendable and something that should be top priority for any governor. I had many bosses and co workers back in that era who did what many of these women claimed Lowry did to them. It never really bothered me and I would either ignore it or laugh it off. I must not have been that sensitive to it. I think some women’s accusations are just overblown and they are too touchy. I’m sure I’ll burn in hell today for these words.