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AINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. -- The ferry from Seattle is 10 minutes from landing as first light slips through the silvered mist of Puget Sound, and Ron Sims is still not sure what face he will present to the world today.
The look is fine. He is not dressed like a Northwest guy. No camouflage of plaid, hiking boots or fleece vest. He wears his politician's suit and suspenders, his silk tie and leather shoes with a shine -- standard uniform for the leader of a county with a population greater than that of a half-dozen states.
Passengers recognize him: there are stares and smiles directed his way. But he is also attracting the kind of curious glances that might fall on a square-jawed, rock-shouldered black man sitting next to a sheriff's deputy as he arrives at a place where blacks are more abstractions than neighbors.
The boat glides past million-dollar homes, and the big engines growl in reverse. The whistle blows. Almost show time. Two school assemblies in this county, barely 10 miles across the water but a world removed from the one he governs, will hear him. The question is which Ron Sims will take the stage.
He is known as an ebullient man, someone who hugs teachers and police officers with equal zest. And at a time when so much of politics is about conveying the authentic personal narrative, Mr. Sims is a natural storyteller with a compelling one to offer, a bootstrap tale about a journey from anger to open arms.
Yet his friends and advisers have long urged him to keep a large part of that story -- race -- bottled up, even if it is the one thing that deeply affects how people view him. It would do him no good to talk about it, they say. Especially if he personalizes it. The way to succeed is to be seen but not seen. Flesh without color. What people want to hear from the second-highest-ranking elected official in the state are his views on property taxes, traffic, growth.
On this January day, however, Mr. Sims has been asked to talk about race, and he is tempted, he says, to throw caution aside, to let them see it through his eyes. But do they really want to hear what it is like for a black politician to live in two worlds?
"Are you kidding?" he says, laughing. "I lead a dual life. I struggle with it every day. There is Ron Sims the person and Ron Sims the public official. And my greatest fear is that in order to govern, I will end up divesting myself from who I really am."
Washington does not look like a state where a nonwhite politician would have to anglomorph to succeed. The old boundaries of race and power appear to be fading. When he was sworn in as county executive three years ago, Mr. Sims became one of three nonwhites holding the top political jobs in the state. The others were Gary Locke, the nation's first and only Chinese-American governor, and Norm Rice, Seattle's mayor, who is black.
Asian-Americans have been elected to high office in Washington State for 20 years, and black mayors have won not just in the heavily Democratic Puget Sound area but in the overwhelmingly white and Republican eastern part as well -- all this in a state that is 89 percent white.
Many voters say that by putting a Chinese immigrant's son and two descendants of slaves atop the governing pyramid of the state, Washington has transcended race; in the new century, in the New West, the expressed hope is that politics has shed its color barriers, and even its color consciousness. Not long after electing Mr. Locke in 1996, the voters threw out all laws allowing Washington to hire based on racial preference. No more affirmative action. Competence was all that mattered. End of subject.
"In some ways, people think we are beyond prejudice here,"
said Mr. Locke, who is 50. "Certainly growing up in Seattle I
never felt any overt racism. And I think that's because of our
newness. We are a young state, open to change."
Ron Sims, the King County
executive; Gary Locke, the governor, and Norm Rice, a
two-term mayor of Seattle, held the top offices in
mostly white Washington when they posed for this picture
But if the old racial order -- of whites always on top -- has eroded, a more complex one has replaced it. And if the rules have changed, whites still control the game. Now the system rewards nonwhites who know how to make the largely white electorate see in them what the voters see in themselves.
Thus Mr. Locke, a popular Democrat seeking re-election this year, has played up his family story -- an American immigrant tale about his rise from a hovel in China to a country where the Chinese had long been barred. Thus Mr. Sims has concluded that the best way to get people to listen to him in a state that is barely 3 percent black is to shatter assumptions about black politicians and become an expert in what the white majority cares about most.
More than 10 years ago, when he was first elected to a county legislative post, Mr. Sims was taken aside by Sam Smith, who was a Seattle councilman and the dean of black politicians in the city.
"Don't you sit on no health and human services committee," Mr. Smith warned him, Mr. Sims recalled.
He followed his mentor's advice. "And if you look at what Gary Locke and Norm Rice have done, they took the same path," Mr. Sims said. "We all became budget chairmen -- the opposite of the stereotype."
Mr. Sims, who is 51, has since become a national expert on the life cycle of Pacific salmon, a Northwest icon now in decline. "One of my African-American political friends back East said to me, 'You mean you get up every morning and talk about fish? Fish!' "
Mr. Locke knows stereotypes too. It was not so long ago, in
the mid-1980's, that a few former colleagues in the State
Legislature were not sure if he was Japanese or Chinese and,
in any case, assumed his family was no friend of America.
Andrea Mohin/ The New York Times
Norm Rice in his office.
"They said: 'Your people disrupted my life. I had to go off and fight because of your people,' " Mr. Locke recalled. His people -- actually, his father -- also fought, also in an American uniform, against the Nazis.
Even so, the Chinese-American governor has not heard or seen what the African-American county executive has -- the kind of thing usually transmitted in a code that has become ever more sophisticated.
"People will call me an 'inner-city politician' whenever they want to remind someone of my race," Mr. Sims said. No matter that he grew up in the less populated, nearly all-white eastern part of the state and now spends most of his time talking about suburban concerns. By contrast, Mr. Locke lived in public housing as a boy in a racially mixed part of Seattle; he is by far the more "inner city" political leader. But that label has never been pinned on him.
Charting a course through the racial terrain of the post-civil-rights era is tricky, Mr. Sims said. He saw what happened to his best friend, Mr. Rice, when as a black mayor he tried to step out of the urban political box by running for governor. And he has seen how Mr. Locke, who defeated Mr. Rice in a primary, has used a favorable public perception of Asian-Americans to advantage.
But Mr. Sims cannot change his skin color, and if he expects to follow Mr. Locke to the governor's mansion in four years, as he may try to, he has to find a way on his own, he said. Asked by a reporter to talk about that exploration, he did so over several months.
"You don't deny your race," he said at one point. "But it's there. It's always there. It's like a huge anchor around your neck, even though nobody ever asks about it."
Black politicians have learned certain approaches, he said: "One thing we do is called the get-over technique. You know how the world sees you. But in order for them to get-over it, you speak their language."
Some of the best minds in American politics have told him as much, saying that if he wants to be governor, he has to stay out of the race zone. Be a black who does not run as a black, in the words of Frank Greer, a political consultant who helped L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia become the only black ever elected governor in the United States. Keep it neutral, upbeat, informed, the way he talks about salmon.
Today will be different, though. Today Ron Sims has been asked by his hosts to talk about something other than salmon or sewers. The person and the politician will be one.
That, at least, is the plan.
History Lesson vs. Life Lesson
Andrea Mohin/ The New York Times
Ron Sims during a press
conference on the opening of a new golf course.
A sea of white faces awaits Mr. Sims at Woodward Middle School on Bainbridge Island. It is early, and the seventh and eighth graders gathered in the gym are sluggish. A murmur rolls through the assembly as the King County executive walks in and shakes a few hands.
On Bainbridge Island, an outpost of new wealth and settled rhythms, blacks are a novelty, but throughout this side of Puget Sound, racial troubles still surface. At a high school basketball game in the southern part of the county a few days earlier, some boys chanted "Go rob a liquor store!" at visiting black players from Tacoma.
They later apologized, and school administrators said it had been an isolated incident -- not reflective of predominant student attitudes.
But it did not surprise Mr. Sims. Growing up in Spokane, where a slim 1 percent of the population of 175,000 was black, he felt the daily rub of racial humiliation, he said.
"There was a kid who used to run by our house every afternoon and shout, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger,' and then run off," Mr. Sims recalled one day. "Same routine every day. One day my twin brother and I caught up with him, and let's just say we had a very physical discussion. When my father came home, he was furious at us. He said, 'Don't you ever stoop to their level!' "
Now he strolls to the microphone in front of the bleachers. The applause is polite.
"How many of you know who Harriet Tubman is?"
The students are blank-faced. A boy with a voice yet to descend into the octaves of puberty raises his hand.
"Uh, wasn't she a slave?"
"Yes! What else?"
"She got the underground railroad going or something?"
"Very good. What's your name?"
"O.K., Zack. Stand up, please. Why did slaves have to be smuggled north?"
Zack turns red and stammers. "I don't know."
Another hand goes up. A girl rises. "Something to do with Abraham Lincoln?"
Mr. Sims shakes his head in mock horror, then smiles reassuringly. He tells the students about a Supreme Court decision. They grow fidgety. Where does he go with this?
"A slave was still a slave back then because the Supreme Court ruled that they were property. Not human beings. Property. So if slaves are property, what does that make Harriet Tubman?"
No hands go up.
"She was an outlaw!" he says. "A thief. If slaves are property, as the Supreme Court has ruled, Harriet Tubman was a thief. They should have arrested her, right?"
He is pacing, microphone in hand, trying, it seems, not to lose the audience. His aim is to bring the story around to Martin Luther King, a onetime outlaw. How to make it matter to the Pok´mon generation?
Mr. Sims has never shied away from speaking out on issues important to blacks in the Seattle area -- about police harassment, about job discrimination. But those are matters of the public realm. The occasion at the middle school seemed to require more, something from the heart.
Maybe a searing story about his own childhood. He considered telling one, he reflected later. A Tupperware party had been planned, but the only black family in his Spokane neighborhood had not been invited, and the white mothers left it up to one of their boys to tell the Sims children that their mother was not welcome.
He had told this story once to a different audience, and he wound up regretting it, he said. Too personal. So looking at the white students now assembled before him, he said, he decided in midstream not to take the risk. He recalled how it had come out the first time, he said, how bitter he had sounded then, summing up the story in the bluntest of terms: "Let the two nigger kids go tell their nigger mom that she can't come."
Asian in the Governor's Mansion
To see the current occupants of the governor's mansion in Olympia is to realize how much this state has changed. A century ago Asians were considered such a threat to white employment that they were marched out of their homes at gunpoint and told never to return. And not quite 60 years ago, Asian-Americans were again uprooted, this time forced into internment camps.
Today, Gov. Gary Locke lives amid Chippendale mirrors and windows fashioned after those at Monticello. For him, it is a return to public housing, albeit with 27 rooms.
Afternoon sunlight pours into a cozy den; both the babies, Emily and Dylan, are asleep, allowing Mr. Locke's wife, Mona Lee Locke, who is also a child of Chinese immigrants, a chance to relax. A 35-year-old former television reporter who still makes documentary films, she has the personality of young Champagne and the kind of looks the camera loves. She is witty, fashionable, self-deprecating and still somewhat awed by the life the Lockes are leading as the crown couple of Asian-American politicians.
"I don't think either of us realized the scope of all this," she says. "People come up to Gary all the time and tell him what a role model he is, that they hope he runs for higher office. Even Republicans. And it's because of his race that they look up to him. They see in him the American Dream come true."
Mr. Locke sees himself in those terms as well. On becoming Washington's 21st governor, he noted in his inaugural address that his grandfather had worked as a houseboy less than a mile from the Capitol grounds.
"It took a hundred years to go one mile," Mr. Locke said. "But it's a journey that could only take place in America."
Early this year, the Lockes were feted at a fund-raiser sponsored by Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, which is based in Washington. Jimmie Locke, the governor's 83-year-old father, was there. Gary did not even speak English until he was 6, the elder Locke reminisced.
Now look at him: being toasted by the richest man in the world!
A fortuneteller in New York's Chinatown once told Jimmie Locke that one of his sons would be famous. Mr. Locke doubted him. "I said: 'Famous? What the heck. He's Chinese in America. What can you be famous for?' "
Now some Asian-Americans hope that Gary Locke will run for president one day. But even his father's wildest interpretation of the fortuneteller's prediction does not allow such a thought.
"President is still the white people's position," he said.
Unlike Mr. Sims, the governor says he does not struggle to reconcile his public and private personas. He is shy, and if he is introspective he gives no hint of it. There are few lines on his face; with his paintbrush black hair, he looks two decades younger than his 50 years. His hobby is plumbing. His idea of a good time is cleaning out his father's garage.
Mr. Locke says he knows in his heart that despite the model-minority tag, not every Asian is smart, and not every black gets a fair shake in the state he holds up as a beacon of the racial future. But he rarely uses the bully pulpit for social change.
He did make a public fuss, though, for an issue that touched his own life: affirmative action. Were it not for a race-conscious admissions policy, he said, he would not have to gone to Yale. "I was a three-fer," he said. "Asian. From the West. Public school." But though he spoke against a 1998 ballot measure rolling back affirmative action, the voters went their own way, removing racial preference from state hiring.
Voting was not an option when the Lockes came to America; most Chinese could not even own property. And until 1943, with few exceptions, the Exclusion Act made it against the law for a person from China to enter the United States as an immigrant.
As a legacy of the law, the Locke family has shared a deep secret for three generations: like a lot of Chinese-Americans, they had to lie to get into the country; the governor's paternal grandfather told the authorities that he had been born in America.
"Some members of my family are still very nervous about acknowledging what happened back then," Governor Locke said.
Jimmie Locke came to America from southern China with his father in 1931, a boy of 13. Ten years later he was drafted into the Army and fought the Germans in France. After the war, he and his wife, Julie Locke, who was born in Hong Kong, had five children, Gary arriving second. Growing up on Seattle's Beacon Hill, Gary was in the middle of the melting pot: blacks lived next door, Japanese across the street, Italians behind the backyard.
But unlike Ron Sims, Mr. Locke says he lived a childhood virtually free of racial insults. He rarely gave racial differences a second thought, he said. "My dad only talked about how lucky we were to be in America," he said.
When pressed, however, he recalled several times when he was made to feel embarrassment about his heritage. His third-grade teacher once asked him what he had had for breakfast. When he replied that he had eaten a traditional Chinese meal of porridge and dried shrimp, the teacher struck him on the hand with a ruler, unhappy that he was not eating like an American.
"It was hard -- doubting yourself, your culture, wondering if your parents did something wrong," he said.
Still, Gary Locke called himself "a Seattle kid." He loved camping, Boy Scouts. What made him realize that he was thoroughly American, he said, was when his parents took him to Hong Kong at the age of 10 to stay with his maternal grandparents and learn Chinese customs. He was appalled by what he saw.
"My grandmother lived in a room, 8 feet by 8 feet. Dirt floor. Cooked over an open fire. Scrounged around for kindling. There was raw sewage outside. It was essentially a refugee camp. The plan was to leave me with my maternal grandparents and be educated. I rebelled."
In high school he was convinced that there were no limits to what he could do in this country. A former classmate, Sharon Chow, said that when Gary was a student leader, his race "was something I never heard people talk about; it was no big deal."
It was only when he left Seattle, at the height of the Vietnam War, that Gary Locke began to understand how some people in his own country considered him foreign, if not the enemy. As he was leaving for Yale, he and his parents, waiting in the airport, were confronted by an American soldier, who cursed them and called them gooks.
At Yale, Gary was often complimented on his English and asked about his diet. "People would come up to me and say, 'Do you ever eat steak? Ever eat fried chicken?' They had these stereotypes: you only eat with chopsticks, you don't celebrate Thanksgiving, that sort of thing."
He also learned for the first time that he had grown up in a country whose official policy for 61 years had been to close the gates to the Chinese. His parents had never told him about the exclusion laws, or the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the subject had not come up in his textbooks.
"I was just very, very sad that this was part of the history of the United States," Mr. Locke said. "Very disappointed."
It was not unusual that the Locke family was silent about the past. Other Asian-Americans recall the same.
"When I was growing up, if you asked about internment, my family would say it's all in the past -- they would not talk about it," said Joan Yoshitomi, a longtime friend of Mr. Locke's who had been sent to a camp with her family during World War II.
The Locke family was more vocal about young Gary's future. They hoped he would be an engineer or a businessman. Politics was unseemly. But Gary went his own way, winning a seat in the State Legislature in 1982, then rising swiftly to budget chairman. In 1993 he defeated an incumbent to become the King County executive.
His rise excited the pan-Asian community, an unusual alliance of Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders who make up about 6 percent of Washington's population. But Mr. Locke's heritage was rarely mentioned, in press accounts or by opponents, during any of his seven campaigns. His public life followed the unspoken rule for nonwhites in American politics: to be successful, be race neutral.
"If you were to ask people for adjectives to describe Gary Locke, you would get way down the list before the word Chinese would come up," said Brian Ebersole, Mr. Locke's friend from their legislative days together and now mayor of Tacoma.
Mr. Locke was the picture of a policy wonk, the last person to turn out the lights in the House of Representatives. One newspaper headline called him "The Man Who Mistook His Life for the Legislature."
He was also a lonely guy. Though he had been briefly married while attending Boston University Law School, he had spent most of his adult life searching for a perfect mate. Friends would arrange blind dates for dinner parties, then sigh as he launched into a discussion of the inadequacies of the state tax structure.
Then, in middle age, alone and believing he had reached a political plateau, the world opened up for Gary Locke. The fortuneteller in New York had had it right.
The 'Angry' Black Man
Fifteen minutes into his speech, Ron Sims drops the talk of slavery and summons the image of Bainbridge Island, 1942.
"The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor," Mr. Sims tells the students. "The United States Army came to Bainbridge Island to round up the citizens who were of Japanese ancestry. You live here, and these people are your neighbors. What are you going to do?"
"Tell them to go to Canada," one boy says.
"Canada?" Mr Sims lets the answer sink in. "O.K. But most of these people are United States citizens. They don't want to go to Canada. They are your neighbors, remember? So what do you do?"
The children look at one another.
"The executive order says Japanese-Americans have to leave their homes. It is the law. Are any of you going to break the law to help them?" Two dozen students rise.
Mr. Sims himself was something of a militant once. In the turbulent 60's he was one of a handful of black students who pushed for change at Central Washington University, challenging teachers and administrators on curriculum and admissions policies. He wore a dashiki, grew an Afro and quoted Malcolm X.
He questioned not only authority but his own core beliefs.
At one point he wrote a term paper on how Christianity had
justified slavery. He spent months researching the paper,
growing increasingly bitter about his faith, then took his
work home to Spokane to show his father.
Andrea Mohin/ The New York Times
A family dinner at Locke's
brother's home in Bellevue. Locke divides his time
between his constituents and his family.
"My father said, 'Brilliant.' And then he told me, 'This is not the God I know.' "
Over several months, as Mr. Sims considered what his father had said, his thinking changed. He ultimately chose the God of his father, he said, coming to believe that most people were capable of looking beyond their baser instincts. By his senior year, Ron Sims had persuaded his college, with an enrollment of 5,000 that was 99 percent white, to elect him student body leader.
Only rarely does the old indignation seep out now. At a public hearing on land use in the new suburbs east of Seattle two years ago, a man stood up and shouted, "Ron Sims, you are nothing but bought and sold to special interests!"
Mr. Sims shot back: "There hasn't been a member of the Sims family bought and sold since my great-grandfather was a slave. And this member of the Sims family isn't for sale today."
When a reporter describes Mr. Sims as angry in a public debate, he will challenge the characterization. "That's code," he said. "A black man who is angry is a lethal label in politics."
The middle school principal nods approvingly at the end of Mr. Sims's exercise on World War II internment. The students applaud those who stood and said they would help their neighbors. Having retreated from the talk about slavery, Mr. Sims is back on comfortable middle ground.
Running on the Record, Not Race
When Ron Sims is unsure of himself, he turns to the friend who served as best man at his wedding, Norm Rice, now 58. In many ways Mr. Rice set the standard for how a nonwhite politician could govern in the Pacific Northwest.
In the late 1980's, when Mr. Rice held a meeting at his house to solicit advice on whether he should run for mayor of Seattle, it was Mr. Sims who made the comment that no one wanted to hear. He said a black candidate could not be elected mayor.
But Mr. Rice proved his younger friend wrong. He served two terms, becoming one of Seattle's most successful mayors. Under Mr. Rice, the city rebuilt its downtown and improved its schools, the job and housing markets boomed, crime plummeted and tax revenue rolled into city coffers.
Going from popular leader of the state's biggest city to governor seemed a logical next step for the mayor in 1996. But he faced a formidable primary opponent in Gary Locke, then the King County executive. A big question mark was race. Neither man had mentioned the subject in earlier campaigns. But this would largely be a contest between an Asian-American and an African-American. How much attention should be drawn to a candidate's race?
Mr. Rice's supporters were divided. Some wanted him to tell his story about overcoming bigotry as a middle-class black in Denver. It was a personal history with indelible moments like his first day of college, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. As Mr. Rice remembers it: "I was waiting to meet my roommate. His parents came in, took one look at me and said, 'Goodbye,' " taking their son with them.
But Mr. Rice wanted to run on his record at the helm of the good ship Seattle.
"I said to Norm, 'You've got to get past what you did for Seattle; they won't elect you governor for that,' " said Sue Tupper, one of his strategists.
"People want to know you, the person," she told him.
Mr. Rice was unswayed. His response was that when race was brought up directly, even in the context of defeating bigotry, it could backfire, because then people would be asked to vote for a black man instead of a mayor who happened to be black.
"Sue, I won't go there," he told Ms. Tupper.
"Why not?" she asked. "You've got a great story."
"Yes," he replied. "I have a great story about how my family came to America. As good as Gary's. We just happened to have different travel agents."
Letting Race Play a Role
A different strategy emerged in the Locke camp. Mr. Locke
was sitting on a gold mine of personal narrative, an immigrant
tale echoing those of millions of white Americans. And no one
was advising him that a Chinese-American could not be elected.
Andrea Mohin/ The New York Times
Gov. Gary Locke in a closed
door budget meeting with, from left; Senate Dir. of the
State Office of Financial Management Marty Brown, and
co-speaker of the state House Frank Chopp.
"The consensus was that because Gary Locke was so good at what he does, the voters would overlook race," said Lori Matsukawa, an anchor at KING-TV, who had introduced him to Mona Lee.
Gary married Mona in 1994, and she changed his life, he says. He opened up, reached out, joked more easily. Even his wedding proposal was out of character. He hired a plane to trail a banner reading: "Mona, I love you. Will you love me?"
By 1996 she was not just a wife with star quality but a close adviser. Though a novice in the nuances of politics, she knew how to use television to tell a story. And rather than play down his Chinese background, she advised her husband, he should use it.
For Mr. Locke, it was a logical decision, part of his political evolution as he reached beyond his base of support to a statewide electorate less familiar with him. "You can't hide your race," he said. "My hair, my eyes, my skin color: people look at me and know I'm Asian."
The Gary Locke who was introduced to voters in 1996 was married, visibly happy and even openly affectionate with his new wife. And suddenly, for the first time in a campaign, he was calling himself "a person of color."
Whether speaking to apple farmers in Yakima, Rotarians in Spokane or suburban moms in Bellevue, he had a simple refrain when he brought up his family history: "I am Chinese, but I am thoroughly American."
His self-description went to the heart of old white fears about the Chinese in America: that their true allegiance was to the ancient nation across the Pacific. He emphasized his biography the entire campaign, first for the Democratic nomination, when a black mayor, Mr. Rice, was his main opponent, and then in the general election, when he faced Ellen Craswell, a white Republican and Christian conservative of the far right.
Mr. Locke crushed Mr. Rice in the primary. The Seattle mayor won only two small counties, far away from Seattle. And in a state that leans Democratic and favors efficiency over ideology in its lawmakers, Mr. Locke beat Mrs. Craswell by nearly 20 percentage points.
His campaign strategy, Mr. Locke said, had nothing to do with the race of any of his opponents but was a way to sell his biography. And both the governor and the first lady said that his talking about his heritage had been difficult at first.
"We never wanted to use race," Ms. Locke said. "Washington is mostly Caucasian, so there's no point. Gary's not comfortable. With a Chinese heritage, you're raised not to talk about it. But once we started talking about it, he felt more comfortable, because people responded to his story."
The story they told was couched in terms familiar to most Americans. "We helped to build this country with our blood, our sweat and our tears," Mr. Locke would say in his speeches. "Now it's time for us to share in governing it." And, "I believe in the American Dream because I am part of it."
It bothers many Americans of Asian descent to be described, as a group, as clever, diligent or shrewd. Those very words were long used to keep Asians out of the country or to cast suspicion on them. But by the late 1990's, Asian-Americans, at least those on the West Coast, were finding they could use ethnic pride as Mr. Locke had, as something that would appeal to whites.
Blacks, however, could not.
"I think it's tougher for a black than an Asian," said Mayor Ebersole of Tacoma, who is white. "If there are stereotypes about race, the present stereotypes about Asians are positive."
Yet for Mr. Locke the old negative ones can resurface. When a campaign-finance scandal enveloped a handful of Asian-American contributors to the 1996 Democratic presidential race, he publicly questioned whether Jews or Irish-Americans would have been subjected to the same suspicions as the Asian-Americans. Conservative pundits and Republicans attacked him.
"They said I was playing the race card," Mr. Locke said.
It was a fresh variation on the lesson that Mr. Rice and Mr. Sims had been taught time and again. "You can't be too black, or too Chinese," as Mr. Ebersole put it.
Legacies and Latitudes
Mr. Locke's first year as governor was euphoric. President Clinton put him under the spotlight in a State of the Union speech. The governor and his wife went to China, where they were mobbed, attracting more attention than Mel Gibson, who was making a movie there.
They journeyed to Jilong, the Locke ancestral village in Guangdong Province. There the governor met an uncle who lives in a two-room house shared by 13 people, a chamber pot outside. One eight-foot-long wall was filled with pictures of the Locke family diaspora to America. The last snapshots showed Gary and Mona Lee Locke on election night.
"I sat in the room where my dad was born, where my grandfather was born -- a shed almost, with no electricity -- and the whole experience was overwhelming," Mr. Locke said. He wept as he left the village, people who were with him said. It was the first time anyone could remember seeing him cry.
Back home, Mr. Locke and his wife faced only a smattering of ill feeling. While touring the state to promote early-childhood learning programs, Ms. Locke ran into conservative protesters who said she was a dupe of Communist China. The attacks surprised and upset her, she said, though neither she nor her husband spoke out against them.
"There will always be a small group of people who think that because we are Chinese we agree with the policies of the Communist government of China," Mr. Locke said, shaking his head. "It's sad."
While Mr. Locke was gathering high approval ratings as governor, Ron Sims was learning the job that Mr. Locke had given up, touring the housing developments and strip malls of a fast-growing King County. As for Mr. Rice, he left politics after his second term as mayor, at the end of 1997.
Today, Mr. Rice is the director of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Seattle. When he talks about the governor's race, he attributes his loss to no one but himself; he just ran a weak campaign, he says.
Yet when asked what the campaign had taught him about racial politics today, this normally gregarious man struck a different, more cautious note. "I think that if people have a choice between an African-American and an Asian-American, they will probably choose the latter," he said. "Whether people want to admit it or not, there is a hierarchy of race."
When Mr. Locke was asked about that notion, he looked puzzled. "Racial hierarchy?" he said. "You know, I've never really thought about it."
A Politician Gets Personal
The clock is winding down on Ron Sims's hour with the Bainbridge students. He has taken them through discussions of slavery and internment and brought some students forward to re-enact a scene from the life of Dr. King. It is hard to tell if he has reached them.
He seems about to take questions, but does not. Instead he walks to the edge of the crowd.
"I want to tell you a story about myself," he says. Once he starts, there is no hesitation.
"I'm a little boy, 4 years old. We are driving across the country. In North Dakota, I fall out of the car, while it's going slow. I fall to the pavement. Blood everywhere. I'm lying there on the highway thinking, Please don't leave me in North Dakota."
He is seriously hurt, the back of his scalp peeled away, he says. His family panics and races to the nearest hospital, in a small town. As he speaks, the gym is as quiet as it has been all morning.
"What do you think happened to me?" Mr. Sims asks. "I was a black kid in a white state, and blood was pouring out of my head. What do you think they were thinking about our family? We went from one town to the next. We . . .
were . . . turned . . . away . . . six times. Six times! Nobody would treat me.
"Finally, a nun at a Catholic hospital took me in. I needed 200 stitches to put my scalp back together."
He walks back to the center of the room. "I got to be King County executive," he says, "because one person made a decision to treat me. One person made a difference."
Spontaneous applause. A standing ovation. The white principal, Clayton Mork, takes the microphone for routine announcements, then stops. He begins to weep. He tries to compose himself. "I know, as a middle-aged school principal, that, that there are not a lot of things I can say that carry a lot of weight with you kids, but this ---- " Again he is overcome.
Mr. Sims walks forward and gives the principal a bear hug. Afterward, a stream of awkward adolescents approaches Mr. Sims for hugs or high-fives.
"That was great, Mr. Sims!"
He leaves the gym beaming. The next stop is a much bigger audience, more than a thousand students at Bainbridge Island High School.
There he tells a story not about his family's past but about the present, and perhaps about the future. He is married to a woman from the Philippines, he tells them, and what an eye-opener that has proved to be.
"When I told my friends I was in love, they said, 'You know those Filipino women carry knives in their purses.' And when we married, boy, did we get it from all sides -- her family and my family. We were outcasts."
He has now been able to see America from an immigrant's point of view, he says, and his wife, Cayan Topacio, has come to understand how a native-born black sometimes has to strain for respect. Their 12-year-old son looks more black than Asian, and in watching how people react to him, Ms. Topacio says, she has learned something about the attitudes of her adopted country. Blacks are treated different from Asians, she says, "in little everyday ways."
Ron Sims ends his second talk with a request. "You kids are told all the time to be tolerant," he says. "Well, don't be tolerant of me because I'm African-American. That really bugs me. Either include me or exclude me."
Afterward he is again engulfed by students, parents, teachers -- all white. In the stands, one teacher turns to another and says, "Hard to believe that guy's a politician."
On the ferry ride home, Mr. Sims sits with the sheriff's deputy, his bodyguard, and watches the city come into view. He appears drained. Both speeches seemed to have worked, but those were impressionable children, not toughened adults. In four years he may run for governor. There is no way to know how voters would react. If he told his racial story, would he win as Gary Locke had? If he went the race-neutral route, would he lose as Norm Rice had?
The boat pulls into Seattle. Several people approach Mr. Sims. He is King County executive again. He straightens his tie. A woman asks him about his habitat-preservation program for kokanee salmon. He gives a very long, very detailed answer.