Primary Focus: Governor -- The Selling Of Joe King -- House Speaker Emphasizing He's A `Can-Do Moderate'

Joe King has a plan.

It's not the 32-page "King Plan," the glossy one, chock full of positions on state issues, that 60,000 voters recently found in their mailboxes.

This one is a blueprint for King, who remains anything but a household name despite ruling the Legislature for six years as Speaker of the House, to upset Democratic icon Mike Lowry in next month's gubernatorial primary.

It's a strategy Lowry's Republican opponents have used for years. Paint the former congressman as a tax-and-spend liberal stuck on failed policies that created the other Washington's staggering budget deficit.

King, on the other hand, is selling himself as a can-do moderate capable of wooing disaffected voters to the Democrats. A born-again fiscal conservative tough on criminals, bureaucrats and new taxes.

"I'm the guy who looks to the future. Very much in the mold of a Democrat like Bill Clinton," King said of himself on a recent radio talk show.

"Mike just talks about poor people and taxes. You can't get him to talk about anything else. And he knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the first thing he'll do as governor is raise taxes to balance the budget," says King. "I've become increasingly convinced you won't find solutions with the state checkbook."

On the stump, King challenged Lowry to take an "oath" promising not to push an income tax, and now calls misguided his own support for the failed Children's Initiative, which would have raised the sales tax to help finance schools and child welfare programs.

When it comes to dealing with violent criminals, King says, "I'm basically a redneck." Party activists in Seattle, King proudly proclaims, probably won't vote for him. But he believes middle-class families who shop at Southcenter - the 1990s version of the lunch bucket crowd - will.

On the 6-foot-6 King, the cloak of a "new-generation Democrat" less beholden to traditional party ideas and interest groups isn't always a snug fit.

The 45-year-old Vancouver insurance salesman was first elected to the House as a pro-business Democrat in 1980, part of a gang of "neo-liberals" who questioned spending and social-service policies.


But as one of the most powerful speakers in recent times, he was a pal of labor and presided over a major expansion of social and health programs. Taxes? Under his leadership, Democrats supported not just the Children's Initiative and an income tax, but an extension of the sales tax to items such as legal services and new levies for health care and nursing homes.

Jim Kneeland, a former strategist for Gov. Booth Gardner, says King dances a fine line between running on his record and running against it.

"When it comes to getting things done in state government, Joe King has a record of accomplishment greater than all the other candidates put together," says Kneeland. "He should stress that."

Idealist. Pragmatist. A blunt-spoken, sometimes abrasive leader with a whiff of the wheeling-dealing, backroom pol thrown in. Voters can find a little bit of all those elements in King's resume.

King grew up in Portland in a pro-union family, the son of a traveling carpenter. Younger brother Steven says Joe read heavily and wrote stories, once penning an angry tale about a real-life experience when his dad was laid off a job where Joe was working beside him as a laborer.


Steven, following the path of many blue-collar kids in the '60s, enlisted in the Marine Corps. Joe, whose hero was Bobby Kennedy, joined the federal Teacher Corps, signing up for rugged duty in the classrooms of the impoverished and isolated hills of western Kentucky.

Even then, King exhibited the pragmatism that ideological opponents such as GOP Senate Majority Leader Jeannette Hayner, R-Walla Walla, say has been one of his strengths in prodding action out of a divided Legislature.

"Most of us arrived in Kentucky real idealistic," said fellow teacher Ints Kampars. "Joe was more of a doer. He'd work directly with the families. Or he'd be busy expanding sports programs. He'd see a problem and get the job done."

King taught another few years in the small towns of Eastern Oregon before arriving in Vancouver, with three kids and flat broke, to take a job selling insurance.


Despite initial qualms that he was "selling out," the career decision has paid off. King, now a partner in a small firm, made more than $100,000 from his business in 1991, according to his tax returns.

But his business dealings have raised some political questions.

Among his insurance clients are a few prominent lobbyists. He supported legislation and later a capital-improvement project that benefited the owner of Tidewater Barge Co., whose estate purchased a multimillion-dollar insurance policy from King. Despite a Republican complaint, the House Ethics Committee found no conflicts in the Tidewater dealings and declined to investigate.

If Booth Gardner, heir to the Weyerhaeuser fortune and educated in private schools, always dreamed of being governor, King says he grew up in a family where being elected union business agent would have been a fantasy job. Holding political office? Forget it.

When he ran for the House in 1980, King says he was still the small-town insurance agent, driven neither by issues nor a sense of mission.


"I got into politics because it was a way to be somebody," he said. "It was a way up in this community."

During his first years in Olympia, King often voted with Republicans on business issues and was even warned by a GOP strategist that he better start voting with his own party more often.

But as speaker, blessed with a booming economy and a big Democratic majority, King courted the party's traditional allies and aligned himself with his caucuses' dominant liberal wing.

He stood arm in arm with locked-out Lockheed shipyard workers seeking unemployment benefits, and once camped out in the Rotunda with migrant farmworkers. Despite misgivings, he also wound up backing the teachers union during their 1991 strike and their push for pay increases this year.

He muscled a family-leave law through the Legislature and sparked a successful ballot measure to raise the state minimum wage. He has been a vigorous health-care reformer, helping pass both the groundbreaking Basic Health Plan providing insurance for the working poor and a major expansion of prenatal health services.


King's forte, say admirers and critics, is his antenna for identifying issues that are on the public's mind and his willingness to risk getting out front on those.

The crowning example of his leadership skills came in 1990, when King, sensing a revolt against runaway development in Puget Sound, forced a GOP-controlled Senate to buck business interests and pass the controversial Growth Management Act.

"Joe has absolutely superb political judgment," says a business lobbyist who frequently battles the speaker. "Growth management wasn't a Democratic caucus item. It was a Joe King item. He made it happen."

Subtlety was rarely the speaker's chosen way of making things happen.

He once called a Republican lawmaker a "little puke" and a Senate growth-management opponent a "caveman." In a feud he publicized, King banished Boeing lobbyists from his office because they were backing GOP House candidates. The company recently paid him back by endorsing Lowry.

In public, the tough-guy-who-gets-results image is relished and joked about. Consensus politics, the kind practiced by Gardner, can only get a governor so far, King says.


"I've made a lot of enemies in Olympia. The old-fashioned way," King said in a speech to teachers. "I talk. I negotiate. And when they don't move, I run over them."

That style inevitably alienated many members after six years.

"Joe likes the macho stuff. He's not subtle," said King supporter Wayne Ehlers, a former speaker and recently chief lobbyist for Gardner. "He'll tell you what he's going to do to you. Then he wants you to know he did it to you."

King has come under fire from lobbyists and lawmakers for the aggressive way he used the speaker's office to tap special-interest money for maintaining the Democrats' huge majority in the House. In 1990 alone, King doled out $76,000 to candidates.

Last year, insiders say he held a computer-tax bill hostage for months in hopes of getting the burgeoning software industry, which gives virtually no political contributions, involved in Olympia. He also prodded committee chairs to raise money from interest groups who do business with them.

"Joe certainly made it clear that your job was raising money from those groups that came before you," said Rep. Dick Nelson, a Seattle Democrat who was stripped of his Energy and Utilities chairmanship. "He said it very clearly: If you don't do it, he'd find somebody else. And he did."

In a year when candidates are making management of state government a central issue, King says his hardball style will restore "standards and accountability" to Olympia.

If corporations pollute, throw the executives in jail. Put the Department of Transportation under the governor's authority so heads will roll the next time a bridge sinks. New teachers, King says, should undergo competency testing, and school districts should be financially rewarded based on student achievement.

Borrowing a page from a Republican "Learn Fair" proposal, King wants welfare benefits temporarily reduced if a family's children don't attend school.

His campaign manifesto, the King Plan, is filled with specifics. He wants gas taxes, now reserved entirely for highway construction, freed up to build mass transit. To alleviate prison overcrowding, he is pushing alternative punishment and increased drug-treatment programs for nonviolent criminals.

No candidate has been more outspoken about the need for radical surgery on the health-care system. King essentially supports eliminating employer-based health insurance, replacing it with guaranteed coverage for all state residents and the state power to limit medical spending.

This spring, King told groups he backed a sales tax on service businesses and spoke proudly of his support for the Children's Initiative, so he bristles at charges that he's turning right for the campaign.

It's the public mood and Olympia's financial situation, he said, that's changing. Despite a potential budget deficit that could exceed $1 billion, King insists trying to sell tax increases to a public increasingly cynical about government is futile.


"I was never some kind of liberal suffragette. And I've grown and evolved in my views," he says. "We've got to rethink government programs so they have broad middle-class support. There are ways to effect change without more money."

But his apparent change of heart on funding questions irritates some Democrats.

If lawmakers were wrong about the need for more money to put into programs, "then Joe King was the guy leading us in that direction," says Rep. Betty Sue Morris, D-Vancouver. "I'm proud of those tax votes he led us on, and I would have hoped Joe stood his ground. I guess his support for some of that stuff was always a pragmatic thing."

Polls and precedents signal an uphill climb for King.

No speaker has ever moved across the street to the Governor's Mansion, though several have tried. No one in memory from southwest Washington, far from the Seattle media markets, has ever won a major statewide race.

And he is running against Lowry, whose flapping arms, bulging eyes and outspoken views have become political landmarks in two unsuccessful statewide races for the U.S. Senate.

So King, who once mounted a rodeo bronco for the sheer thrill of it, is characteristically running a campaign that's a bit offbeat and willing to go out on a limb.

He campaigns in a 1979 GMC van, renamed "King of the Road" and stocked with his favorite country-western tapes. And he has sunk $100,000 of his own money into irreverent TV ads that poke fun at both his own relative anonymity and the fluff of modern campaigning.

If measured by the number of folks who now shout "Hey, Joe" at King in malls or ferry terminals, the TV spots are a success. But his own polls last month showed King's support has grown only to about 10 percent.

"I can't make up my mind about the ads," said Jim Kneeland, inadvertently reflecting the uncertainty still facing King's campaign with three weeks to go. "They're either sheer genius or absolute madness."

--------------------------------- JOE KING --------------------------------- "I got into politics because it was a way to be somebody. It was a way up in this community."

Party: Democrat

Born: Portland, now lives in Vancouver

Age: 45.

Family: Married, with five children and stepchildren

Education: Bachelor's, Linfield College; Master's in Education, Western Kentucky University

Occupation: Partner in Vancouver insurance agency. Reported income of $132,300 from insurance sales, investment and legislative salaries

Political experience: Served in the state House of Representatives from 1981-92; Speaker of the House from 1987 to present

Leisure interests: Reading, camping, boating, horseback riding and travel

Political heroes: Franklin D. Roosevelt; Harry Truman

Money: King has raised $530,000, the biggest contributions from unions, trial lawyers, chiropractors, US West and Waste Management. The total includes $100,000 of his own spent on the campaign.

Campaign headquarters: 2911 Second Ave., Suite 200, Seattle, WA; 443-1580.