O. Casey Corr
The future lawyer and Lassie.
If any good comes from recent headlines about U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firings of John McKay and other U.S. attorneys, one benefit here is a deeper appreciation for Norm Maleng, the elected King County prosecutor who died yesterday.
Maleng's death came dramatically – just the opposite of how he ran his office. He collapsed at a University of Washington event and was rushed to a hospital, where he died of cardiac arrest.
He would have hated the inconvenience he caused others.
Gonzales' displays of bad memory, indecision, weakness, misjudgment about subordinates, and tin ear for the distinctions between prosecutorial policy and improper politics stand in contrast to the legacy of integrity and competence left by Maleng.
Maleng, 68, grew up on a dairy farm in Whatcom County, Wash., and as a member of the Future Farmers of America. His favorite cow was Lassie May. He went on to the University of Washington for degrees in economics and law and served in the office of legendary U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson. He spent nearly his entire career at the prosecutor's office in Seattle, arriving in 1972 as chief civil deputy to Prosecutor Christopher Bayley, who rooted out corruption in our city left by predecessor Charles O. Carroll.
Since his election in 1978 as King County Prosecutor, Maleng made what some saw as mistakes. He was slow to recuse himself from an investigation involving GOP donor Thomas Stewart. He decided against seeking the death penalty against Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, in exchange for information about dozens of unsolved killings. Maybe the critics were right about these or other decisions that came with the job. But no one questioned his integrity or the professionalism of his office, and in that, he created a firewall that made ethics in our prosecutor's office a given. Many ambitious Democrats and even some Republicans who started as his deputies thought of running against him, but to solve what problem? You could point to shortcomings here or there, but little bad could be said about Maleng himself.
Alberto Gonzales reminds us how bad leadership can weaken an entire institution. Maleng taught us how good leadership can strengthen one.
In our system nationally and in King County, politics is inescapable. In King County, the prosecutor is elected. Maleng had ambitions, but he lost three races for statewide office, once for attorney general and twice for governor.
He was the opposite of charisma. I saw several of his campaign events, where a younger GOP dynamo would fire up the crowd and introduce Maleng, who would bound to the stage and do his best to give a barn-burner. After a few minutes, the pace of the speech would slow, the voice would lose drama, and Maleng would just revert to himself, a dare-to-be-dull guy. May I have another four years? He got 97 percent of the votes in his last election.
He was such a decent man.
In 1998, I wrote an editorial for The Seattle Times, saying Maleng had been in office so long, he needed a challenger in that fall's election. His energy was down. The office needed new ideas. The editorial eventually drew a challenger, which meant Maleng had extra work that summer to keep his job.
Not long after, right in the middle of the campaign, I ran into Maleng on the street. I expected him to growl at me for finding minor issues with what had been decades of excellent public service.
For a man who spent much of his time putting bad people in prison for horrible crimes, he looked for the best in people. He shook my hand and thanked me for giving him a jolt to renew his energy.
He never took himself too seriously. He never lost his sense that whoever holds the office of prosecutor assumes enormous power, but also an enormous duty to do the right thing, every day as best as you can. He did it well.