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Originally published Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Lt. Gov. Brad Owen embraces his roles as frontman of Senate, rock band

A dozen years in the office, incumbent Lt. Gov. Owen, 58, is an upbeat, fun-loving man who has followed his passions.

When he's not presiding over the state Senate, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen loves to don his Elvis tie and play classics like "Johnny B. Goode" in front of schoolchildren. It's part of a game show — with an anti-bullying, anti-drug message — that he takes on the road, some 22 times in the last school year.

A dozen years in the office, Owen, 58, is an upbeat, fun-loving man who has followed his passions. As well as the road shows, he works at promoting international relations and trade, regularly meeting foreign dignitaries here as well as abroad.

A Seattle Times review of records shows Owen also has created a somewhat unusual arrangement in his role as the state's No. 2 elected official. Five years ago, Owen signed a state contract with his own nonprofit, Strategies for Youth, a group he created in 1989 for his school shows. He is both president and a director. The contract allows research, equipment and state staff to be shared between Owen's elected state office and his nonprofit.

Owen's nonprofit charges schools $500 or $600 for each hourlong concert, which he performs on state time. The nonprofit pays Owen's wife, Linda, who is also a board member, $5,000 a year for her work.

Over recent years, money collected by Strategies has also paid for a 2006 Dodge Ram truck, at a cost of $33,000, and a $7,000 Toshiba computer. Asked if the equipment was used solely for the school shows, Owen replied "Absolutely, it's just for the nonprofit."

"Let me clarify," Owen continued. "The board has authorized Linda and I to use the truck as a benefit, and we use it on occasion. And we use the computer. I guess I never thought about it."

In its most recent tax filing, Strategies recorded annual revenue of $66,000, some of which covers expenses and some is paid out to other band members. A big chunk of revenue — $25,000 to $35,000 a year — comes from a dinner hosted at Emerald Downs by Ron Crockett, the racetrack 's president.

One of Owen's elected duties is to appoint two nonvoting members to the Washington Horse Racing Commission, which licenses and regulates horse racing in this state. But Owen said there's no connection between his official duties and his friendship with Crockett, whom he has known for many years and who donates to a number of causes.

Owen grew up in a Tacoma housing project. His mom, Laurel Willis, struggled to raise four children single-handedly while working accounts at a meatpacking company. After his mom remarried, the family moved to Germany, where Owen graduated from Frankfurt American High. He moved back to Shelton, and at age 21, bought a neighborhood store, which he ran for two decades. He was elected to the state House in 1976 and seven years later to the Senate.

Willis, 80, said she's stayed involved in her son's political campaigns for 30 years, currently serving as treasurer. Election filings show that since 2000, Owen's campaign has paid Willis more than $10,000 for "employee services" and "management/consulting services."

Owen said he likes to help out his mom. "I usually give her a little something at the end," he said. "For all the time and effort she puts in."

In all, Owen has taken 16 trips abroad since taking office. This year, emissaries of the King of Spain knighted Owen, giving him the ceremonial title of "don." Most trips, Owen points out, were paid for by trade organizations or foreign countries, not by Washington taxpayers.

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Taxpayers, however, do pick up the tab for the Washington State Patrol security detail which regularly chauffeurs Owen around the state and accompanies him on most of his trips abroad.

Owen five years ago asked the Legislature to expand the security detail to include his wife. But the cost would have been more than $200,000 annually and lawmakers said no. When asked if a State Patrol trooper was really needed during his travels abroad, Owen said he's never received any specific threats, but friends have raised concerns about his security.

"It's a service available to the office, so I take advantage of it," he said.

His trips and foreign contacts have yielded some benefit to the state, according to his staff. For instance, the Seychelles have begun importing Washington wines; Peru is looking at local agricultural technology; and Lithuania is interested in ultralight planes made in Yakima.

When the Legislature is in session, Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said Owen presides over the Senate most days and is able to manage the ebb and flow well, often injecting some gentle humor.

"He keeps a sense of decorum," Prentice said. "If you get stuck with the rules, he'll help you."

Some 25 years ago, Owen was ticketed for driving while intoxicated but he says that's not the motivation for his anti-drug stance. Rather, it was witnessing the rock stars he once idolized lose their way and, in some cases, die, from drug abuse.

That anti-drug focus got him in trouble 10 years ago when he was forced to pay a $7,000 fine on charges he broke state ethics rules by using public resources to oppose an initiative legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Owen said he did nothing wrong and settled only to put the matter behind him.

But medical-marijuana proponents, like Seattle lawyer Doug Hiatt, continue to hold Owen in disdain. Hiatt says Owen has done nothing useful with the office.

"He's been traveling around the state with his idiotic rock band, torturing middle-schoolers and high-schoolers," Hiatt said.

Owen said he has developed a reputation in the Senate for being helpful, fair and impartial — particularly important traits at a time when senators face a deteriorating budget situation.

If elected, Owen said, he would continue his focus on youth, and with improving international relations and trade.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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