The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nobody enjoys being No. 2 as much as Washington’s lieutenant governor, who is retiring after 20 (!) years

Quick, name the lieutenant governor of your state without Googling it. Yep, we thought so.

In most states, the No. 2 in command job is a pretty obscure one. It's more commonly thought of as a stopover for politicians hoping to run the state or go to Congress. Ambitious politicians who land the job tend to get in, then get out. (And it's not even that great of a steppingstone.) Five states don't even have the position. As The Fix's Aaron Blake summarized it, most lieutenant governor positions have three main purposes:

  1. To put you in position to be governor or something else (see: Newsom, Gavin)
  2. To preside over and break ties in the state Senate
  3. Basically nothing else

Which is what makes Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen (D) such an anomaly in politics. He's the longest-serving lieutenant governor in the country. And on Tuesday, Owen announced that after his 20th year in office in 2016, he's stepping down.

"It was a rare privilege and a great honor," he said in a goodbye speech.

We were curious about the man who stayed in a job most other politicians can't wait to get out of. So to satisfy our curiosity, here's a quick review of the two-decade tenure of Lt. Gov. Brad Owen:

Owen was first elected in 1996, after 20 years in Washington's statehouse, in the House and the Senate. Owen liked to talk about how once he got the job, he expanded its duties beyond welcoming foreign dignitaries and serving as governor when the real one -- currently Gov. Jay Inslee (D) -- was out of the state. Some in Washington argue the job is still mostly ceremonial, but Owen has said he's proud of traveling the world to build the state's international trade ties.

Owen's job wasn't without political significance back home, either. Over the past few years, he appears to have exercised his job as president of the Senate to some effect for his party. He removed a GOP state senator from her position on a human-trafficking task force after lawmakers complained she belittled and abused victims of sex trafficking.  He banned guns in the Senate gallery a day after dozens of people went to the House gallery with guns protesting the state's recently adopted background check law.

Outside the Senate, Owen got involved and eventually lent his name to a lawsuit to strike down a state law making it harder to raise taxes by requiring it be approved by two-thirds majority of each House. It eventually went to the state Supreme Court, where justices upheld the law.

In 2014, he came under criticism when a local TV station, KING 5, reviewed his public work schedule and found things like "Going fishing (in) Ilwaco," "Camping trip" and "Home project." (Owen said that schedule didn't reflect all the work he did from home and phone calls he took on the road.)

Owen did appear to have time to dabble in other hobbies, though. KING 5 reports he's an avid outdoorsman, and he set up an archery company that puts on events and offers lessons.

According to the Washington Citizens Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials, Owen didn't get rich in the job, but he wasn't poor either.  He was paid $100,880 in 2015, which isn't bad for a politician. 

In his 11-page (!) goodbye speech, Owen gives us some clues as to why he stayed in this job so long. He talked about how proud he was to help downtrodden Washingtonians. He helped a young man who was a quadriplegic pursue a fraud case and a teacher who was struggling with her divorced husband's gambling debts reach an agreement.

But perhaps more prominently than anything else, he cited the adventures he had with international dignitaries. Here's a few snippets:

My career has put me before Kings, queens and princes, presidents and ambassadors, actors and the giants of industry. My work on international matters has taken me to places many would be envious of from the Great Wall of China to the torn down wall of Berlin.
One of the wonderful side effects of our work internationally was how close I was able to become with many, many of the international communities and their representatives right here in Washington state. There are my great friends from the Chinese community, and the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims of the Indian families. I regularly participated in German and Austrian celebrations, was invited to be a part of many Jewish celebrations and have met wonderful citizens here who came from Peru and Norway and Spain and attended many, many Mexican fiestas.

Owen may be the longest-serving current lieutenant governor in the country, but he's not even the longest-serving No. 2 in Washington. As Blake noted, lieutenant governor John Cherberg served 32 years from 1957 to 1989. Victor Meyers served as lieutenant governor of the state for 20 years from 1933 to 1953. Washington has had only five lieutenant governors in the past 82 years.

So maybe staying in a largely ceremonial, oft-mocked job for decades doesn't seem like such a big deal in Washington, and that's why Owen, now 65, decided to stay.

As to what he'll do next, Owen was pretty candid: After 20 years of hard work, not much.

Many have asked me what I will do. Well there has been some interest in me doing international work, however, I have not committed to anyone yet. Other than that, I don’t know probably nothing. Probably just sit around watch soaps, game shows and DR. Phil. Maybe I’ll mow the lawn and maybe not. I suspect I will find something to do.

Aim high, Lt. Gov. Owen. Aim high.