Talking recently to a group of engineers from Eldec, a Snohomish County company that makes airplane parts, gubernatorial candidate Sid Morrison strayed into what, for him, is political criticism.
Eldec had a tough time last year, and Morrison was asking if there was anything state government could do to help the company find new business.
"I've got a little bit of a problem here because Booth Gardner is a friend of mine," Morrison said, "but it doesn't seem like anyone out there is listening."
It's the 1992 Sid Morrison, a veteran politician who is running statewide for the first time - for governor, a job he says he has always wanted.
Finding a sharp edge on the '92 Morrison is a bit like rubbing your hand over the fender of a new Ford or Toyota - no sharp edges that might create resistance.
Fourteen years of design on the supercomputer of the state Legislature, and 12 years of refinements in the wind tunnel of Congress, have turned this former conservative farmer into a man in the middle. He's many Democrats' favorite Republican, and he managed to use his ability to forge political compromises to become an effective legislator in a Democrat-controlled Congress.
Now Morrison hopes that formula will help him become the first person in two generations to win a key statewide office despite the curse of being born east of the Cascades.
The last one, Clarence C. Martin of Cheney, was inaugurated governor in 1933, the year Morrison was born in the Yakima Valley.
Only 55 years after that, in 1988, Morrison decided against a shot at the U.S. Senate. A combination of Slade Gorton's strength in Republican circles and Morrison's own weakness for fighting to keep open Hanford nuclear plants led Morrison to coin the phrase "Cascade curtain" to describe the difficulty of running statewide against someone with a base in the heavily populated Puget Sound area.
This year, Morrison figures the curtain is up. Hanford isn't building bombs any more: Nuclear cleanup is the primary business, an effort few disagree with.
Morrison, meantime, has evolved from a person once thought to be the most conservative member of the state's delegation to the man many consider its leading moderate. "Raging moderation," he once called it.
Sometimes he won't even say what he thinks for fear of locking himself into a position and ruining a compromise later on. He's not giving anyone a reason NOT to vote for him.
The veteran congressman hasn't offended anyone. In the middle on most issues, he's a compromiser. Medium height, medium build. Gray hair, but youthful face. A Republican who sometimes votes with Democrats. He even lives in the middle of the state. In a political climate where people are always voting against someone they don't like, or for the "lesser of two evils," Morrison is the compromise choice.
But some primary-election voters like to cast their ballot FOR someone. Law and order? Maybe they'll want Attorney General Ken Eikenberry, a former FBI agent. War and Peace? There's Mike Lowry, the liberal's liberal. Knowledge of state government? How about conservative State Sen. Dan McDonald or savvy House Speaker Joe King?
GIVING UP SECURITY
That's the risk Morrison is taking. He's giving up a secure seat in Congress on the gamble that his appeal to the political center, a perfect strategy for a general election, won't be derailed in the primary when people get to vote for the most ideologically correct candidate they can find.
Morrison chafes at those who say he has become too moderate for the Republican Party, arguing that the party left him rather than vice versa. He is, he says, a "Dan Evans" Republican, a label to which the former governor and senator agrees.
Morrison "is a first-class legislator," said Evans, "the kind of guy who can help bring people together and get answers."
While in a Democrat-controlled Congress, Evans said, Republicans have to choose whether to be combative or try to make government work their way. The same is true of a governor working with a legislature, he said.
"And I think that's Sid's view," Evans added.
Although he tends to vote for conservative stands on foreign policy and defense issues, Morrison has favored many social programs, particularly those that might help the poorer residents of his Central Washington congressional district.
PROTEST VOTES RARE
He rarely takes "protest votes" against budget and appropriations bills, as do many Republicans, noting that since people in his district are looking for help with housing, the cleanup of nuclear waste and fighting drugs, he doesn't feel he should vote against those same federal programs.
He was the one Washington state Republican who refused to vote for Georgia firecracker Newt Gingrich as Republican Party whip. He voted with the Democrats on campaign-finance reform "because of my flat-out respect for Al Swift" who led the reform effort, against a balanced-budget amendment, for a spending bill that would aid rural areas, but against housing subsidies.
Morrison said he defines himself as a "social moderate and fiscal conservative," but that he won't take antitax pledges at the same time his congressional district wants and needs more federal spending.
"I don't mind buying services," he said, "but I insist on paying for them."
In the governor's race, Morrison said that since Washington state ranks eighth nationally in tax burden on its residents, he doesn't think more taxes are needed. But he hasn't invited anyone to read his lips, as have the more conservative Republicans.
Morrison has worked to be an inside player and get along with House Democrats, particularly on the Agriculture Committee.
Among his accomplishments: helping negotiate and pass the 1984 Washington Wilderness Bill and protection of the Columbia River Gorge; continual pushing for money to operate, then clean up and begin environmental-restoration jobs at Hanford; helping write 1985 and 1990 farm bills.
He is seen as among the compromisers and deal-makers, arguing his own position in committee but being willing to vote to pass bills - even over the opposition of other Republicans.
But Morrison's toughest balancing act may have come in the past two years, as he has presided at the group of Washington and Oregon House members trying to forge a solution to the Northwest's timber crisis.
Morrison calls himself the "convener" of those meetings. He often won't state his own position in order to be able to sell a compromise plan when it becomes public. He has been attacked by environmentalists and the timber industry in that process. But unlike Gorton and Rep. Rod Chandler, Morrison has refused to take an extreme position.
Moderation of that sort, however, isn't in vogue in Republican circles, and many conservatives may back Eikenberry or McDonald in the Republican primary.
Kemper Freeman, the Bellevue developer who once served with Morrison, said, "Morrison is a chameleon. He'll do anything for anybody." The Republicans would send him to negotiations, and he'd give away the store to labor on workers' compensation bills, Freeman complained.
DEMOCRATS FOND OF HIM
But Democrats in Olympia remember Morrison more fondly. "He was the best legislator I ever saw," said a top Democratic staffer.
Mike Padden, a conservative from Spokane, said, "If you get beyond the fact that he's an Eastern Washington farmer, he doesn't sell very well out here." Padden criticized Morrison for his moderation on environmental questions. He noted, with disdain, the rousing reception Morrison received by the state teachers union at its spring endorsement meeting.
Morrison brought Washington Education Association members to their feet with his support for collective bargaining and gun control.
On the use of standardized test scores to measure student achievement, he said, "Those scores were run up by an elite group: Rich, white males."
On abortion, he said: "I trust the women of Washington. I trust them a whole lot more than I trust people like me."
His performance there won him notice from both parties in the governor's race.
"He is well-liked by a lot of people," noted Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democratic congressman from Bremerton who has worked with Morrison on timber issues. "Trouble is," Dicks said, "can he get by Eikenberry?"
Introducing himself to the state's voters for the first time, Morrison has adopted a very soft tone.
He tells people he never intended to go into politics but, after being a scoutmaster and sports coach, "I decided to repay my country for the things it has given me."
He also tells a story about leaving his campsite better than he found it. At a recent speech in Bellevue - "Dan McDonald's backyard," as the Morrison staff called it - his speech dropped into a loud whisper at the end, emotionally describing what he thought a governor can do and then saying, "I want to be that governor."
Said Freeman, who shares the backyard with McDonald: "With that big voice, you think God's on your shoulder talking to you when Sid opens his mouth. But you really have to watch what he's doing."
What he's doing is carefully defining who he is to a populace who didn't know him very well.
Morrison does not agree with the criticism that he is hard to pin down. "I am giving the most specific answers of anybody," he protests.
"You don't need 127 different points relating to the reform of education; you need the four or five most specific ones."
(They are: increased starting salaries for teachers and extensive in-service training, and if any more money were available, reduced class size and a longer school year.)
But he clearly is running a positive campaign with a good-guy image. He concedes it is "warm and fuzzy," but he argues that with the public's lack of confidence in government, the main job for a new governor will be to re-establish the connection between the people and their governor.
"I am comfortable with it," he said. "It starts with idealism and has to evolve into the real world of accomplishment. But I don't mind saying things that make people feel good."
One difference between the Morrison of Washington, D.C., and that of Washington state is that his wry sense of humor doesn't seem to be coming through at home yet.
Another, the presence of his wife, Marcella, who hasn't lived in D.C., but has been on the campaign trail from the beginning and who says she fully intends to forsake Zillah to move into the governor's mansion in Olympia.
"We have not had separate lives," Marcella Morrison said. "We are on the phone every day and have traveled in the district together."
Adds Sid Morrison, "This is the real us."
If there is a sharp edge, she is operating the campaign from the Yakima office in the person of Gretchen White, Morrison's longtime aide who worked for him in Olympia and D.C.
While Morrison hasn't said what roles others would play in a Morrison administration, White likely would be chief of staff or top aide.
"She's very good mechanically," Morrison said of White's abilities to manage polls, campaign advertising, staffs and other minutiae of running for office.
White also controls access to the inner sanctum, knows when to say no and isn't afraid to play hardball.
Even on a new Ford or Toyota, you can find a sharp edge if you look under the hood.
--------------------------------- SID MORRISON: --------------------------------- Party: Republican
Born: Zillah; splits time between Zillah and Washington, D.C. Owns double-wide trailer in Olympia.
Family: Wife, Marcella, four children
Education: B.S. agriculture, Washington State University
Leisure interests: Civic activities
Occupation: Congressman, orchardist
Political Experience: Served in state House, 1967-75 and state Senate, 1975-81; served in Congress, 1981-present.
Political hero: Abraham Lincoln
Money: Congressional salary of $129,500, plus wife's salary from part-time job at son-in-law's pharmacy. Has raised $1.27 million, of which $123,000 is unspent. A sizable portion of the money has come from Eastern Washington fruit growers, includes $200,000 from former congressional campaign account.
Campaign headquarters: 1900 Third Ave., Seattle, 98101, 583-0509; P.O. Box 105, Yakima, 98907, 1-800-788-5799