For the last 20 years, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen (D) has served Washington well. Now, he is retiring and leaving the state senate as he found it—a dignified place to debate and enact public policy.
Owen, a former convenience store owner in Shelton, will not seek re-election. It will be the first time in 40 years that his name will not be on the November ballot. He was elected to the state house in 1976 and then to the senate in 1983.
Owen is currently the longest serving lieutenant governor in the country; however, that is not the record in Washington. Former UW football coach, John Cherberg, served 32 years (1957 to 1989).
Other than filling-in for the governor while he or she is out of state for prolonged periods, the lieutenant governor’s primary duties are to preside over the state senate. Owen and his predecessors have not usurped the governor’s authority during those absences.
Olympia, in contrast to Washington, D.C., has become known as “the other Washington;” a place where things get done in a respectful way.
A big part of the reason is lawmakers must find ways to balance the state’s budget without borrowing. Unlike their federal counterparts, they cannot “borrow to balance.”
Today, Washington State only faces bond payments on construction projects for colleges, bridges and roads, while our federal government owes more than $19 trillion for all spending…..and it is growing rapidly. That means each taxpayer now is saddled with a $160,000 loan payment to countries like, China and Japan.
Often reaching agreement is difficult and arguments can be fiery and intense; however, attacking one’s motives is taboo. Lawmakers are admonished by Owen in the senate and by the speaker in the house for personal attacks.
For example, in the early 1980s when an exercised house member inappropriately referred to timber company lobbyists as a bunch of “concubines” during heated floor debate over how much to tax logs, he was immediately admonished by the speaker and ordered to apologize.
Similarly, Owens removed a state senator as chair of a human-trafficking task force after lawmakers complained she belittled and abused victims of sex trafficking.
Owen earned a reputation for fairness and consistency when ruling whether amendments to bills were germane. Those decisions were not easy and sometimes could be interpreted in different ways.
He made other tough decisions as well. For example, Owen banned guns in the Senate gallery a day after dozens of people went to the House gallery with guns protesting the state’s recently adopted background check law.
During his tenure, Owen expanded the office’s role internationally. He led trade missions across the world to promote tourism, business, agriculture and education.
He also was praised for his work to carry the drug and alcohol awareness message to teens around the state.
Owen’s retirement has some questioning whether the position is really needed. Five states have no lieutenant governors including neighboring Oregon.
Critics say the Oregon system works and, if Washington adopts that model, the costs of the office could eliminate. In February 2015, when four-term Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) resigned, Secretary of State Kate Brown (D) immediately stepped in.
While the office can be the stepping stone to the governorship that has not been the case in Washington in recent years. Only three lieutenant governors went on to become governor. The last was Republican Lowell Fowler Hart in 1919.
When Owen cleans out his office early next year, he will pack up lots of memorabilia.
However, he leaves behind a tradition in which “our Washington” is a place where lawmakers can settle differences with dignity and respect.