OBITUARY: Former Gov. Mike Lowry, Early Supporter of Redress

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Rafu Staff Report

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Mike Lowry, a former congressman and former Washington governor who was an early supporter of redress for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, died on May 1 due to complications from a stroke. He was 78.

According to a statement from his family released by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, “Mike Lowry served with compassion and humility. He had a big heart and cared deeply about the people of this state.”

His family called him “a passionate defender” of people and the environment who “was often willing to take early stands on sometimes controversial issues.”

Mike Lowry

A liberal Democrat, Lowry represented Washington’s 7th Congressional District from 1979 to 1989. During his freshman term, he introduced a redress bill almost a decade before payments to former incarcerees became a reality.

Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, known at the time as National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, offered its condolences in a statement: “As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 and the dire effects upon generations of Japanese Americans, we are deeply grateful to Mr. Lowry for his early advocacy for redress and reparations for JAs. His redress legislation was presented in 1979 — at a time before redress was considered possible or probable.

“As a grassroots organization, NCRR acknowledges his courage to do the right thing — as was proven almost ten years later by the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.”

The Seattle JACL, which worked closely with Lowry during the campaign, said it is “deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend, Gov. Mike Lowry. We all knew him as Mike.

“Mike was passionate about people and passionate about ensuring civil rights, civil liberties, and social justice for all. Mike was one of the Seattle JACL’s earliest and closest allies in the struggle to obtain redress for the Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.

“Mike worked tirelessly with the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee and JACLers such as Cherry Kinoshita, Chuck Kato, Ken Nakano, and others, such as Shosuke Sasaki and Mike Nakata.

“Mike introduced the first redress bill in the U.S. Congress, even when our Nikkei congressmen and National JACL were reluctant.

“Mike was the fiery, outspoken voice for so many communities: Japanese Americans, the LGBT community, labor, immigrants, Latino…and the list goes on.

Okage sama de. We are who we are because of you. RIP, dear friend.”

The National JACL also issued a statement mourning Lowry’s passing and remembering him as “a principled supporter of seeking a just remedy for the tragedy of incarceration. He understood the injustice and he acted on it.”

Former aide Steve Finley told The Seattle Times that at a town hall meeting about redress, a crowd of angry veterans showed up, including some “who thought we were giving money to Japanese soldiers who ran the Bataan Death March.” The meeting was supposed to stop at 9 p.m., but Lowry stayed until 11 p.m. “When those vets left, they were happy. He cleared up all the misunderstanding,” Finley recalled.

“Mike certainly was willing to have the courage to speak out about his convictions. We helped to build the foundation for legislative redress,” said former aide Ruthann Kurose.

Competing Bills

As described in “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress” (1999) by Mitchell Maki, Harry Kitano and S. Megan Berthold, a rift developed among redress activists in the late 1970s over how best to achieve their goal. The JACL’s National Committee for Redress and the Nikkei members of Congress wanted to form a commission to investigate the wartime incarceration, then introduce legislation — based on the commission’s findings — calling for redress and an apology from the government. Others wanted a more direct approach. An excerpt from the book:

“Despite the support the commission bill was gaining, the Seattle chapter of the JACL declared that the JACL NCR had sold out the community and that the Nikkei members of Congress had taken the politically cautious route. Moreover, a number of Japanese Americans in the community found it insulting that the proposed commission would call on them to prove that their rights had been violated and they had been wronged.

“The Seattle chapter wanted to pursue legislative redress immediately and get its bill to the House as quickly as possible. Members of the chapter approached Rep.Michael E. Lowry, a newly elected Democrat from Seattle. Rep. Lowry, who had a Sansei legislative aide, Ruthann Kurose, readily agreed to introduce a redress bill that asked for direct monetary compensation.

“Lowry grew up in a farming community in eastern Washington and was convinced that the incarceration was wrong. He stated, ‘I recall at my earliest age, my parents talking about what a terrible thing the internment was … when [the request to introduce the bill]was raised, it was frankly the most natural thing for me to say, “Of course I’ll do it,” because it seemed so much the right thing to do.’

“Along with the Seattle JACL chapter, the NCJAR [National Council for Japanese American Redress, which later filed a class-action lawsuit] also supported the Lowry bill and continued to oppose the commission bill.

“Rep. Lowry introduced his bill (H.R. 5977), known as the Japanese American Human Rights Violation Redress Act, in the 96th Congress on Nov. 28, 1979. H.R. 5977, the first monetary redress bill, called for a formal apology to each inmate and compensation of $15,000 plus $15 for each day spent in camp. It eventually died in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Governmental Relations.

“The bill received no support from the Japanese American legislators. Moreover, the timing of the bill was poor, since it was introduced several months after the better-orchestrated commission bill.”

The latter bill was supported by Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga (both D-Hawaii) and S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) —a staunch redress opponent — and Reps. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose) and Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento), and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, resulting in the formation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

The CWRIC held public hearings across the country, and Lowry testified before the commission in Seattle in 1981. In its report, “Personal Justice Denied,” the CWRIC concluded that the incarceration was unjustified, and in its recommendations, it supported redress (with one commissioner dissenting) and a formal apology.

Lowry co-sponsored the redress bills based on the CWRIC’s conclusions, including H.R. 442, which became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

In a recent talk, Maki explained why Lowry was not among the members of Congress standing behind Reagan when he signed the bill — someone had mistakenly invited a congressman with a similar-sounding name, Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Fla.), who showed up despite the fact that he had opposed redress.

The $20,000 payments began in 1990, starting with the oldest survivors, and Lowry participated in the presentation of the first checks to centenarians in Seattle.

Brief Biography

Born in St. John, Wash., in 1939, Lowry graduated from Washington State University in 1962, worked for the Washington State Senate and as a lobbyist for Group Health Cooperative, and was elected to the King County Council in 1975.

Lowry was elected to Congress in 1978 and served five terms, during which he was a vocal critic of Reagan’s economic policies. After serving as a professor of government at Seattle University and chairman the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1983 and 1988 and was elected governor in 1992.

During his four years in office, “Mike led efforts in the 1990s to provide health care for all Washingtonians, and his work lives on today through coverage for low- to moderate-income families,” Gov. Inslee said in his statement.

Lowry decided not to seek re-election. He lost popularity after raising taxes, and his deputy press secretary, Suzanne Albright, accused him of sexually harassing her. He denied wrongdoing but agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

He ran unsuccessfully for state lands commissioner in 2000 and later volunteered for nonprofit organizations, including one building homes for migrant farmworkers in Central Washington.

He is survived by his wife, Mary; daughter, Diane Lowry Oakes; son-in-law, Scott Oakes; two grandsons; a sister, Suellen Lowry; two nephews and a niece.

Memorial service will be held Tuesday, May 30, at 10:30 a.m. at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, 1700 Edmonds Ave. N.E., Renton, Wash. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be sent to The Lowry Fund to End Homelessness through the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

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