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January 25, 2005

A Spokane story

Here is a story of corruption. Or influence. Or simply politics. You decide. I found it in a memoir of a prominent Eastern Washington businessman, Luke Williams.

Williams, who died last year, was a founder of American Sign & Indicator, the Spokane company that invented the digital time-and-temperature sign about half a century ago. He was also a conservative Republican. In 1962 he was Eastern Washington chairman for Dick Christensen, the Republican challenger to Sen. Warren Magnuson, and was state chairman for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964.

His candidates lost both those elections. After Johnson won, Congress considered a highway beautification bill favored by Lady Bird Johnson. One part of the bill would have banned electronic signs, including the kind American Sign & Indicator made, if visible from a highway. Williams was convinced it would put his company out of business.

The Democrats had a huge majority and there was little doubt that the bill would pass. To save his company, which had 900 employees, Williams believed he had to lobby to get the bill changed.

The person in charge of the bill was Sen. Magnuson.

“I was pretty sure Magnuson would remember me,” Williams recounts in his autobiography, Luke G. Williams, American Entrepreneur (Spokane, Trade Mark Press, 2002). “I had no choice but to go back to Washington, D.C., hat in hand, and lobby the man I had almost unseated.”

He was sweating.

To his surprise, Magnuson didn’t bring up the past. “He wanted to hear all about my problem.” What did Williams need? To have time-and-temperature and public-information signs exempted. Magnuson had it done.

There was no condition. But Williams writes, “I’m sure that he felt that if he did me a favor I would be less active in anti-Magnuson politics in the future -- which I was.”

Another story. Fifteen years later, during the energy shortages of the 1970s, came another bill to outlaw electric signs. This time the man to see was Washington’s other Democratic senator, Henry Jackson. Williams saw him. Jackson had time-and-temperature signs exempted from the bill. This time there was a quid pro quo: that Williams stop his repeated efforts to bankroll challengers to Rep. Tom Foley.

According to Williams’ memoir, Jackson said: “Luke, I want one thing from you. Please get off Tom Foley’s case.”

“From that day forward,” Williams writes, “I never contributed to another campaign against Tom Foley.”

My question is, is there corruption here? There is no hint in the book that Williams thought there was. He tells the two stories matter-of-factly, as highlights of his life.

If there is corruption, who has corrupted whom?

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Posted by Bruce Ramsey at January 25, 2005 04:54 PM



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