The Dean of America's Lt. Governors

Times Staff Writer

John Cherberg leans out of his third-floor office window from time to time during the day shouting greetings to someone he knows walking up or down the long flight of steps leading to the building.

The building is the tallest domed state capitol in the nation--the State of Washington's splendid 60-year-old, 22-story capitol.

Cherberg, 77, has been Washington's lieutenant governor 31 years. He has held the office longer than anyone in the state's history, longer than any lieutenant governor in America's history.

Generally, the office of lieutenant governor isn't one that a politician keeps more than a term or two.

"I urge the governor to travel, to leave the state as often as possible," said the balding, 5-foot-9 lieutenant governor. "Every time the governor leaves the state I get the difference between his salary and mine added to my paycheck," he said with a grin.

The governor is paid $83,800 a year.

"What do you get?" Cherberg was asked during an interview in his office just off the Senate chambers. He called to his secretary, Mary Lou Bammert, 67, in the next room:

"Mary Lou. What's my salary?"

"It changes so damn often, I lose track," Cherberg said. His secretary walked in and reminded him: "They're paying you $45,000 a year these days, Governor." She always calls him Governor. "Mary Lou is two days senior to me in this office," Cherberg allowed. "She started to work on Monday. I was inaugurated Wednesday."

He was inaugurated lieutenant governor Jan. 16, 1957, and has held the job ever since. He has been elected eight times, serving under five governors, Albert D. Rosellini, Daniel J. Evans, Dixy Lee Ray, John D. Spellman and the present governor, Booth Gardner.

When the governor is away from the state, the lieutenant governor has all the duties and responsibilities of that office. Cherberg has served as acting governor four years and 113 days. If the governor dies, resigns or is removed, the lieutenant governor becomes governor.

"I have presided as governor of this state longer than three of the governors I have served under," Cherberg noted. And all that time, of course, he was paid not the lieutenant governor's salary, but the governor's.

Cherberg has never held another elected office. He ran for lieutenant governor after being head football coach at the University of Washington three years.

He has been one of the most popular politicians in the state the past three decades. In 1984, the last time he ran, he was Washington's top vote-getter. He received 1,119,263 votes, defeating his opponent by a 63% to 37% margin.

And, he doesn't spend much money campaigning. The first time he ran, it cost him $3,000; the last time $26,000.

"When I was first elected, the pay was so low I had to take on another full-time job to support my wife and our three kids," Cherberg explained. His salary was $6,000 a year at the time. He went to work as an account executive at Seattle's KIRO-TV station on the side.

He stayed with the television station for his first 15 years as lieutenant governor. "The two jobs were killing me. When I was making $10,000 as lieutenant governor I finally decided to hell with it; we would live on the $10,000, so I quit the TV job," he recalled.

His secretary said Cherberg had been pressured time and time again over the years to run for governor. "But he always resisted, insisting being lieutenant governor is the finest political job in the state," Bammert confided.

"I thought of running for governor at times during my long tenure as lieutenant governor, but better sense has always prevailed," Cherberg said.

"Oh, I ran for one other office once. It was a mistake. I don't know why I ran. I just did it. I was defeated and defeat hurt like hell. It hurt my pride," he mused. He ran for mayor of Seattle in 1963.

As lieutenant governor he keeps a busy schedule. He presides over the state Senate. He is a member of 10 state commissions. He is Washington's state ombudsman.

"My door is always open to everyone. I talk to anyone who calls me on the phone. I spend a great deal of my time assisting people who have problems with all phases of state government," Cherberg explained.

He is widely acclaimed as Washington's "Ambassador of Good Will." He travels the world promoting his state.

"You know the future of this state lies in trade. One out of every five jobs here depends on trade," Cherberg maintained. "I have conducted 11 different trade missions in recent years."

He took 50 of the state's business and political leaders to the Republic of China. He has led trade missions throughout the Far East, Australia and to Europe. His most recent trip was last September to Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Soviet Union.

Cherberg's father, a native of Yugoslavia, jumped ship around the turn of the century and settled in Florida, where he became a butcher. The lieutenant governor was born in Pensacola, Fla., Oct. 17, 1910.

"Pop came to Seattle to visit a friend he had jumped ship with, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest and moved the family here in 1919 when I was 9," recalled Cherberg, who added:"I was the youngest of 12 children. Three of us are left."

When he was quarterback on the University of Washington's football team in 1932 Cherberg returned a punt 88 yards against Stanford, a school record that stood until 1950. He was football coach and taught American government, civics, history and typing four years at Cleveland High School, then eight years at Queen Anne High School in Seattle.

Then he spent 10 years as a football coach at the University of Washington, the last three as the Huskies head coach. Cherberg and his wife, Elizabeth, have been married 52 years and have lived in the same Seattle neighborhood all that time. They have a son, James, a dentist; two daughters, Kay Cohrs and Barbara Tonkin, both teachers; and two grandchildren.

In the 98 years Washington has been a state, there have been 13 lieutenant governors, 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats. Cherberg, a Democrat with 31 years as lieutenant governor, and band leader Victor Meyers, a Democrat who held the office 20 years from 1933 to 1953, together have served longer than the total time of all 11 Republicans.

As a testimony to John Cherberg's popularity, the state Senate two years ago voted unanimously to name the Public Lands Building in the Washington capitol complex in honor of the dean of America's lieutenant governors, the only building in the complex named after someone.

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