If there were ever anyone whose life was emblematic of the American Dream, it is Gary Locke. Born into poverty, the grandson of a Chinese immigrant, Locke was raised in public housing until his family saved enough money to buy a restaurant and eventually a market. A graduate of Yale University (Locke notes he was admitted by affirmative action), Locke rose through the political system to become elected in 1996 as the first Asian American governor in the continental United States. But his is a complicated tale that attests to both the benefits and burdens of being "first." What responsibility, if any, does a successful Asian American politician have to Asian Americans? As author Helen Zia says, "Asian Americans across the country look to him. It's a privilege to be the first, but with it is a lot of responsibility. He has to be good, and he can't screw up."
Exploring the tricky terrain where race and politics intersect, "The Governor" examines Locke's childhood, and his feelings about growing up and trying to fit in. A university student during the Vietnam War, Locke developed a strong feeling that society's wrongs should and could be changed through the law. After a stint working in the Washington state capital, he came to the realization that the people who made the laws were just ordinary citizens like him. "Why not him?" was the question he answered by running for the state legislature.
Locke's early days as a politician established his reputation as a hard-working "wonk" so involved with details, so conversant with numbers and facts, that he became the subject of an article entitled "The Man Who Mistook His Life for the Legislature." An extremely private person, one of his early challenges was to become comfortable with revealing himself and his deep feelings and beliefs to voters.
Someone who helped him do that was Mona Lee, a young TV reporter set up on a date with Locke who wasn't exactly keen on going out with a politician. After meeting him and realizing he was just a "normal, nice guy," she gave him a chance. The two later married and now have two children. Locke's joy and pride in his family comes across clearly in "The Governor."
Locke's initial gubernatorial campaign is profiled, in which, for the first time, he used his own life story to win over voters. The theme of an immigrant rising to success resonated with the electorate, who has chosen him for two terms as Governor of Washington, a state with only a 5% Asian population. His initial victory was a touchstone for Asian Americans not only in Washington State, but across the country, and signaled a broader acceptance of Asians as part of the changing face of the United States. Clips of President Bill Clinton recognizing Locke during his 1997 State of the Union address are included, as well as scenes of Locke preparing to speak to the nation in the Democratic response to President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
During their first year in office, the Lockes traveled to China, an emotional trip where they were mobbed like celebrities, attracting more attention than Mel Gibson, who was shooting a movie there. Schoolchildren lined the road for miles as the Governor and his wife visited his family's ancestral village. "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," Locke quietly remembers. He wept as he left the village.
Coming to the end of his second term, Locke faces an uncertain future, having recently decided not to run for a third term. A Democrat, he has been accused of being too conservative, and he struggles to find national issues that will resonate with voters if he is to move forward to higher elected office. Many hope that he might run for President one day. The gravity of these conversations does not escape Gary Locke. "I'm aware of the expectations," he calmly says, "I know America—ethnic America—is watching."