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Washington State assesses an enigma: Dixy Lee Ray

Will the real Dixy Lee Ray please stand up? Always colorful, always controversial, the stocky, tomato-checked governor of Washington State is a political enigma -- and one that voters here must decipher before the coming election.

Four years ago, Dr. Ray ran successfully against entrenched Democratic and Republican political organizations to become governor. This made her one of the few women to have achieved such high political office and the only one to have done so by way of a scientific career.

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Her main credentials for the job were the fact that she presided over the last days of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and was assistant secretary of state under Henry Kissinger for a brief period.

Before that she had been a local celebrity as director of the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

Her major appeal in this post-Watergate election was the fact that she was not a politician. She only became a Democrat to run for governor.

According to her biographer, Louis R. Guzzo, "Dixy was a voice who came at the right time. She was a true conservative -- not a reactionary -- and she preached an unsophisticated patriotism the public sorely needed in the wake of a Vietnam war that had given most Americans a guilty conscience and some doubts about the 'greatness and the mission' of the United States in a miserable world."

After four years, however, some of the luster has worn thin. While about 25 percent of the electorate appears to be dedicated to Governor Ray's plainspoken ways, more than 30 percent appears adamantly opposed to her re-election. Both her support and opposition transcend party lines.

"She has been an absolute disaster," says state Sen. James McDermott, her major Democratic opponent in the primary. "She doesn't believe we need government. As a result, she has refused to learn her role and refused to work with the Legislature."

Mr. McDermott has the backing of the liberal Democratic Party organization in King County, the most populous in the state. Liberal Democrats have been extremely critical of Dr. Ray's fiscal conservatism, such as a recent cutback in welfare increases.

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"King County liberals would rather vote Republican than support a Democrat who doesn't toe the line" explains one of them.

Yet McDermott's criticisms are echoed by many Republicans. "What bothers me most is that hers has been a negative administration -- all reaction and defensiveness, without any forward looking," says Republican state Sen. Sue Gould.

A more objective analysis of Governor Ray's administration comes from Hugh A. Bone, a retired professor of political science at the University of Washington and an expert on the state's government:

"On the liability side, Governor Ray has had problems dealing with the Legislature -- even members of her own party. For some reason, I'm not quite sure why, she has given the impression of being an incompetent administrator. She has also had a problem with appointments: She has also had a problem with appointments: She has appointed some very good people but had trouble keeping them.

"On the asset side, the Governor is a very dynamic figure. Although she has had problems with the press, in town meetings she appears extremely well-informed and answers questions without cant. She has been courageous in cutting back state government."

When asked what she considers her administration's proudest achievements, Governor Ray lists: increasing the efficiency and containing the growth of state government, granting tax relief to the tune of $1 billion and making the tax system more progressive, expediting court-ordered state funding for basic education, increasing state support for senior citizens, and supporting state economic growth.

Both opponents and supporters agree that Ray's intelligence is her greatest strength.

"She may not be the most politically astute, but she's about the smartest governor I've served under," claims Democrat Al Henry, state Senate majority leader.

On the other hand, there is general agreement that political appointments have proved Ray's biggest pitfall.

Where supporters and opponents part ways is in assessing the seriousness of this problem. Dixy-backers dismiss this as a learning problem that has been corrected. Critics see it as symptomatic of lack of competence.

There are divided opinions on Dr. Ray's characteristic bluntness as well.

"She simply hasn't been patient enough to guard what she says in order to bring around people who don't agree with her," says a University of Washington professor who also is active in Democratic politics.

To critics, like Senator Gould, this brusqueness translates into lack of ability to work with other people.

But the Governor's campaign director, C. Montgomery (Gummy) Johnson considers it one of her major political assets. "The major issue in this campaign is not all the issues journalists like to talk about. What matters to the voters is which nominee is leveling with them, who has the most courage, candor, and who takes their views into consideration," he maintains.

Still, Governor Ray's sharp tongue and a tendency to take criticisms personally have caused her a number of difficulties.

In a recent FBI "sting" against prominent Washington State legislators it was revealed that Governor Ray promised to support one of the defendants in a future bid for a US Senate seat if he pushed some of her legislation at a time when she knew he was under investigation. Governor Ray admitted the revelation was true, but added that she had no intention of going through with the deal. This caused a considerable furor.

More serious, perhaps, has been the feuding between the governor and certain local journalists. As director of the Pacific Science Center, she was a media darling. Her alienation with the media began while she was at the AEC. It disturbed her that reporters seemed more interested in her mobile home lifestyle and fondness for dogs -- she has long shared her offices with one or more of her pet poodles -- than in the nuclear issues she was dealing with as a commissioner.

Her antagonism intensified during the 1976 gubernatorial campaign. Upon winning, she commented on network television: "I find it necessary to comment that our success tonight reflects the failure of the newspapers to elect the people they wanted elected."

Relations deteriorated to the point where, in the spring of 1977, Governor Ray canceled all press conferences, although she continued to grant interviews to all but a few reporters. She resumed press conferences in 1978 and today involves a few, individual reporters."

But observers believe this adversarial relationship has hurt her public image.

Still, says one Seattle-area businessman: "Her bluntness has only hurt her with the politicians. She's usually right about the issues." In fact, businessmen in the state generally are enthusiastic about her. Comments Professor Bone, "The business community likes Dixy even better than [former Republican governor] Dan Evans."

This appeal has enabled her to tap traditionally Republican campaign sources. Four years ago, Ray garnered little financial support, a problem she turned into a political issue. This year, however, she has raised the most money of any of the candidates -- more than $600,000. And her opponent, McDermott, has turned this against her.

Yet some polls suggest that a majority of the people in the state want a new governor.Whether this will translate into defeat depends on how voters perceive Governor Ray.

Her biographer, in trying to answer the question of what is the true measure of Dixy Lee Ray, muses, "Those who . . . dislike . . . her have called her cruel , callous, inconsiderate, selfish, dictatorial. And they could cite instances to sustain each point.

"Those who swear by her have called her extremely generous, compassionate, kind, polite, warmheartyed, and, above all, astonishingly brilliant and capable in everything she has ever attempted to do. They, too, could cite many examples to support each point."

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