Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen: An Appreciation

Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, Washington’s five-term governor-in-waiting, announced last week that, as expected, he won’t run for re-election this fall. Owen’s announcement to the body he presides over, the state Senate, included wise words we should all heed.

Owen’s pending retirement brought out an outpouring of respect, affection and well-wishes from senators, and no wonder. In his twenty years as lieutenant governor, he wielded his gavel in the Senate in a way that put fairness and even-handedness above all.

Lieutenant governor is an odd office in that it comes with few defined duties. Critics over the years have vacillated between trying to expand the office and trying to eliminate it. A good lieutenant governor is an expert in parliamentary procedure, they listen more than they talk, and they view their job in the Senate as one of ensuring all 49 members can have their say, regardless of which party has a majority. Brad Owen fulfilled those requirements superbly.

Because they serve as acting governor when the governor is out of state (and succeed the governor should that be necessary), the lieutenant governor needs to be someone who can be trusted in a crisis, but also trusted not to overstep their bounds otherwise. Under Brad Owen, we never had the state equivalent of an “Al Haig in the press room” moment. When the need arose, as it did during 2014’s Oso landslide, Owen acquitted himself well. His efforts to promote foreign trade abroad and reach out to ethnic groups here were useful.

Owen is a Mason County Democrat, which means he’s a little different. The praise he received last week from Democrats and Republicans wasn’t just obsequious political niceties, it was real. Senators from both parties knew they could trust Owen to call them as he saw them, not tip the scale to favor one side or the other. In his retirement remarks, he spoke directly to that spirit of fairness that is the opposite of partisanship:

Then there is the other side that many of you have heard me talk about. That is the insanity of partisan politics. All it does is create an environment of “us against them” instead of “all of us for the people”. The team should be the body not the caucus, the Senate not the party…

We see the stubborn, my way or the highway attitude of partisan politics creating gridlock on a national level. We hear idiotic partisan comments challenging someone’s patriotism because of their position and opinion or action on an issue when I have to ask, is not the ability to have a radically different opinion and be able to express it freely the very foundation of the United States of America?

Owen’s entire remarks are worth a read. His comments on partisanship are exactly what you would hope to hear from a person in his specific job, but they’re all the more remarkable because there’s nothing requiring Owen to approach his role that way. He could have chosen to use every opportunity to help his “team” beat the other guys. Instead, his effectiveness as lieutenant governor is precisely because he thought fairness and transparency were more important than temporary partisan advantage.

Owen says he isn’t sure what he’ll do when his term is up. No doubt he’ll find a way to help and encourage youth, as he has for many years. He can retire knowing that he did his job well and that, as every retiree secretly hopes, his colleagues are wondering how the heck they’ll run the place without him.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.