Hundreds, including Gov. Jay Inslee and a host of other current and former elected officials, gathered for the memorial at the Renton church where Lowry was a congregant and where he volunteered for tasks from raking leaves to washing laundry for homeless men.
He was the quintessential gregarious politician with orange yard signs people joked could be seen from space.
But former governor and congressman Mike Lowry, who died May 1 at age 78, also was remembered at a memorial service Tuesday for humility and a constant desire to deflect credit to others.
Hundreds, including Gov. Jay Inslee and a host of other current and former elected officials, gathered to pay tribute at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton, where Lowry was a congregant and volunteered for tasks from raking leaves to washing laundry for homeless men.
Pastor Kacey Hahn recalled Lowry as “by far, the most extroverted man I’ve ever met,” and compared him to a “louder, more passionate, maybe more arm-waving St. Francis of Assisi.”
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Throughout his political career, Lowry was known as a proud liberal Democrat whose views were clear, and who relished sharing them — accompanied by expressive hand gestures — with just about anyone who wanted to listen.
It was hardly an exaggeration to say “if there were two or more people on a street corner, Mike would want to stop and give a speech,” said Mark Brown, a longtime aide and friend.
Lowry was first elected to the King County Council in 1975 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978, representing the Seattle area’s 7th Congressional District for a decade. He served a single term as governor, from 1993 to 1997, declining to run for a second term amid allegations of sexual harassment.
When he served in Congress, Lowry held frequent town-hall meetings to hear directly from constituents in his district — a contrast with some representatives who are now shunning such face-to-face events.
Lowry didn’t shy away from people who showed up at some of those meetings peeved at his some of his stances, such as his early support for reparations for Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II.
He would scan the crowd for people who scowled as he described what he’d been up to in Washington, D.C., recalled former aide Betty Means.
“When hands shot up, he’d call on the scowlers first,” Means said. He’d go back and forth with critics, and while they weren’t always swayed — at least they knew where he stood.
As a freshman congressman, Lowry proposed the first legislation to give financial reparations to more than 100,000 Japanese Americans and Aleuts for their World War II internment in prison camps.
His bill did not pass, but he was credited with building momentum toward what eventually became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered a formal apology and $20,000 to each internee.
As governor, Lowry was remembered for taking an early stab at health-care reform that included an insurance mandate and goal of universal coverage similar to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Working with former Republican governor and U.S. senator Dan Evans, Lowry also co-founded the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, which works to create new local and state parks, and preserve wilderness areas and farmlands.
A common theme in his public career was a belief in the power of government to lift up communities that had been traditionally poor or powerless.
“He made it to the bottom,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, comparing Lowry to the bottom carving on a totem pole, which represents a great leader holding up everyone above.
Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, a former state legislator, praised Lowry’s work, both in office and after, on creating housing for migrant farmworkers, recalling her own childhood sleeping in cars and chicken coops.
She was struck with his determination from the first time she met him as a county council member in 1977. Asked whether he could accomplish his lofty goals, Lowry replied: “The question isn’t who is going to let us. The question is who is going to stop us.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson credited Lowry with helping launch his own political career, when Ferguson ran for the Metropolitan King County Council against fellow Democrat Cynthia Sullivan, a 20-year incumbent.
“I was a complete unknown. I was given virtually no chance of winning,” Ferguson said. But Lowry agreed to meet with him and endorsed him, giving him a crucial boost.
Ferguson said he’s kept that bright orange Lowry yard sign in his office ever since.
Later, Lowry passed his annual “shrimp feed” — a must-attend event for local Democrats — to Ferguson, who said the former governor nevertheless remained the star attraction every year, with people lining up to talk with him. “How many politicians in our state could elicit such a response 20 years after they left office?” he said.
Diane Lowry Oakes, Lowry’s daughter, remembered him as a devoted grandfather, who could spend hours down on the ground pushing toy trains around with his grandsons.
She said her father wouldn’t have wanted so much praise centered on him; he didn’t care whose name was on a piece of legislation. “Credit was so far down on the list for him that it was never even part of the conversation,” she said.
In keeping with Lowry’s desires, the decorations at the memorial service were kept modest, with a small photo, two bouquets of flowers and a simple candle arrangement.
Hahn, the pastor, noted that the plates at the reception after were all compostable — and that arrangements had been made to deliver leftover food to nearby homeless shelters.