Friends and acquaintances of Rob McKenna from high school say they aren't surprised he pursued a political career. The Eagle Scout was a class president in both high school and college, and long had an interest in politics.

Share story

As a senior at Bellevue’s Sammamish High School in 1980, Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna forecast his future.

“Go to the UW, join a frat, go to medical school. Enter politics,” he wrote in a blurb for the student yearbook.

Not all that came true. McKenna never pledged to a fraternity, and opted for law school instead of medicine.

But McKenna did go on to be student-body president at the University of Washington — an early stop on his path to becoming the state’s most prominent Republican elected official and the party’s best hope of capturing the governor’s mansion after a nearly three-decade drought.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

His political career has come as no surprise to longtime friends and acquaintances. Even when he was a teenager, they saw the brainy Eagle Scout and student-government geek bound for big things.

“It’s really funny. We have always joked about him being president of the U.S. — someday we’ll get to go to the inaugural ball,” said Julie Ellenhorn, a friend since McKenna’s high-school days.

Army officer’s son

Robert Marion McKenna was born Oct. 1, 1962, in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, a latecomer son to a career Army officer father and schoolteacher mother. His two older sisters had been born more than a decade earlier.

As a military clan, the McKennas moved frequently. McKenna says he attended nine schools, including stints in Thailand and Germany, before the family arrived in Bellevue during his sophomore year in high school. They settled into a house just a few blocks from St. Louise Catholic Church, where McKenna later got married and attends to this day.

A skinny kid with neatly parted brown hair, McKenna found friends by joining the debate team and student government.

In 1980, he was elected senior-class president. He hasn’t lost an election since.

While friends said they don’t recall McKenna ever bragging about someday running for governor or president, they always believed he had a bright political future.

“He was a natural,” said Lamont Langley, McKenna’s senior-class vice president. “It was an expectation … like an athlete that is a superstar, you expect them to go on.”

McKenna says he didn’t have specific ambitions. He was attracted to student government, and later to politics, because “I really liked being involved in the community. I didn’t have a well-formed idea of what that meant.”

While no athlete, McKenna hiked the mountains with the Boy Scouts and spent a summer clearing trails in the Wenatchee National Forest. He hung with a group of honors students who nicknamed themselves “Space Cadets.”

McKenna got his first job at age 16, working at McDonald’s, a gig he brings up in his gubernatorial stump speech: “Any job — even flipping burgers — is better than no job,” he likes to say.

To earn his Eagle Scout status, McKenna organized crews of teenagers to clear out heavy debris and vegetation from the properties of elderly people.

Just as he graduated from high school in 1980, tragedy struck.

His father, Robert E. McKenna, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, suffered a stroke and died within a few months.

Entering the UW that fall on a Puget Sound Energy scholarship, McKenna abandoned the idea of joining a fraternity. Instead, he remained at home to help his mother, Bonnie McKenna, and commuted to class by bus or carpool.

Student government

Just as in high school, McKenna leapt into UW student government as a way to find a circle of friends at the big university.

By his junior year, McKenna was elected as a student vice president. He ran for president the following year.

While student leaders had sometimes veered into protests of U.S. foreign policy and other hot-button issues, McKenna championed the basics.

He vowed to fight for quality education and against years of budget cuts and tuition increases — issues echoed in his current gubernatorial campaign.

The Daily, the UW student newspaper, described McKenna as a stereotypical business student: “He dresses conservatively in suits and ties. He speaks in a very matter-of-fact way, never beating around the bush.”

McKenna won the 1984 race, defeating three rivals, including current Port of Seattle Commissioner Tom Albro and another candidate who ran as “Mr. Potato Head.”

As student president, McKenna won praise for professionalism and for successfully fighting increases in parking fees and football ticket prices.

Several longtime friends and acquaintances said McKenna has always approached problems as a policy wonk — not an ideologue.

“It’s never been about partisanship; it’s always been about ideas and concepts and what works best,” said Ken Troske, an economics professor and associate dean at the University of Kentucky, who knew McKenna in high school, at the UW and at the University of Chicago, where McKenna attended law school.

Although his college years came amid Ronald Reagan’s presidency, McKenna wasn’t a fan. He voted for Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984.

In a 1985 Seattle Times profile, McKenna said he’d been troubled by Reagan’s record on civil rights and Latin American policy, as well as his mix of religion and right-wing politics.

In a recent interview, McKenna said he later came to admire Reagan after reading a biography of the president during law school. He says he’s voted for every Republican president since.

From his UW days, McKenna took away a loyal group of friends and political supporters, including Randy Pepple, his gubernatorial campaign manager, and Craig Wright, who worked on both his campaigns for attorney general.

During his junior year, McKenna also met his future wife, Marilyn, a history major. “He really is who he seems to be: that really nice Eagle Scout kind of guy,” she said. The two were married a few years later. They now have four children.

On to law school

McKenna graduated from the UW in 1985 with degrees in international studies and economics. He applied to be a Rhodes Scholar but missed the cut.

Graduating from the University of Chicago law school in 1988, McKenna passed the bar exam and moved back to Bellevue, taking a job with the law firm Perkins Coie.

While working and starting to raise a family, McKenna immersed himself in civic affairs and Eastside Republican politics. He chaired the 41st District Republicans and worked on campaigns to elect Jane Hague to the Bellevue City Council and Dan McDonald to the state Legislature.

His prominence grew as he led fundraising campaigns for local schools and helped found Advance Bellevue, a training organization for community leaders. Soon, McKenna was being eyed by Republican talent scouts.

In 1993 McKenna was tapped to serve on a citizen commission drawing new district boundaries for the Metropolitan King County Council.

Two years later, he ran for the County Council seat vacated by retiring Republican Bruce Laing.

Running as an early critic of regional light rail and tolling plans, McKenna beat out a crowd of GOP rivals for the seat. He took office at age 33.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.