Ex-Gov. Booth Gardner dies of Parkinson’s complications

Source: Seattle PI

Seattle PI - Joel Connelly

Former two-term Gov. Booth Gardner, who died late Friday at 76, was celebrated rather than mourned on Saturday, as a wealthy man with a common touch, a font of ideas, a fine self-depreciating sense of humor, and the grit to prod a statewide initiative campaign while seriously ill with Parkinson’s Disease.

Gardner was elected Governor in 1984, a Democrat winning in the face of Ronald Reagan’s landslide, and served for eight years.

Gardner was a political oddity.  He spoke with a squeaky voice likened to Elmer Fudd on helium.  The heir to a Weyheraeuser fortune, Gardner loved junk food and would sneak away from his State Capitol security detail to grab a hamburger.  He specialized in “management by walking around,” poking his head into state offices where employees had never seen a Governor.

“There was nobody like Booth in making people feel special:  If there were 300 people in a room, he would know you were there,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.  Added Heather Foley, wife of former U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley,”He was just a lot of fun, a very interesting guy.”

Former Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican,  recalled working with Gardner when both were long out of office but deeply worried that the state was letting a first-rate higher education system go to seed and saddling students with enormous tuition burdens.

“He and I, we got together,” said Evans.  “He would call me frequently. I always knew it was Booth because he would call at 6:15 in the morning.  He always had ideas, good ideas.  We had great old times, too old boobs still trying to change things.  I had bad knees at the time, he was slowed by Parkinson’s, and we would laugh as we walked slowing across the (capitol) campus.”

In 2008, Evans endorsed Initiative 1000, the Gardner-championed “death with dignity” measure that legalized assisted suicide in Washington.  It passed with 58 percent of the vote.

“We were not really that far apart on what was good for the state,” Evans added.  He was a good man.  He never let go.”

As U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., a former Gardner chief-of-staff added, “He will be remembered as a Governor who guided an historic amount of progress while never tooting his own horn.”

Gardner became the stepson of former Weyerhaeuser CEO Norton Clapp, a leading Republican, with his mother’s marriage to Clapp.  His mother and sister later died in a California plane crash.  He graduated from Lakeside School and the University of Washington, later earning an MBA at Harvard.

He became a Democrat out of social conscience:  Gardner was active in the Central Area Youth Assn., and supported the Seattle Treatment Center for those with addictions.  He worked with poor kids, and loved coaching girl’s soccer teams — even when campaign aides were on him to prep for debates.

He was elected to the Washington State Senate in 1970, but drawn back to business when Clapp asked him to head the family-owned Laird Norton Co.  He returned to politics as Pierce County Executive, and then set out in quest of the Governor’s mansion.

The 1984 campaign, when Gardner ousted Gov. John Spellman — Washington’s last Republican governor — gave clues to the man’s personality.

He was roughed up badly by Democratic primary opponent Jim McDermott in a Seattle Rotary debate.  Gardner went for a walk on his Vashon Island property, promised manager Ron Dotzauer that he wouldn’t screw up again, and — just incidentally — loaned his campaign $500,000.

Gardner was, privately, never secure:  He was a man who spent his adult life proving himself to himself.  On election night, driving from Tacoma up to his Seattle victory celebration, Gardner confessed that he believed God to have a plan for him, and he hoped to be worthy of it.

He was also cheap.  After Gardner was elected, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for a fundraiser to make up his campaign debt — a big part of which was repaying the loan to himself.  Then-Rep. Al Swift grumbled about having to tap his campaign war chest to restore Gardner’s fortunes.

During Gardner’s two terms, the state enacted its Growth Management Act and Basic Health Plan.  Under an aggressive Department of Ecology director named Chris Gregoire, the federal government was forced into a agreement to clean up nuclear waste at Hanford — an agreement that has withstood every effort by the feds to weasel out of it.

Gardner toured Hanford’s leaky radioactive tank farm, only to learn later that the U.S. Department of Energy had hastily taken down warning signs after a recent leak of hot stuff from pipes between the tanks.  Naturally, Gardner laughed at the news.

Gardner was an engineer (along with then-State Rep. Cantwell and House Speaker Joe King) of passage of the state Growth Management Act, which has been crucial in limiting suburban sprawl and loss of farmland in the fast-growing Puget Sound Basin.

He finessed the issue by naming a commission with such luminaries as the Chairman-CEO of The Boeing Co. and the head of the Washington State Labor Council.

“I will always remember something he said, ‘Environmentalists make great ancestors’,” said Cantwell.  “He realized we had a lot in this state to preserve.  It wasn’t really expected, for the heir to a timber family, for him to have this take on things.  But he realized that we are stewards of the state.”

Again and again Saturday, Gardner friends returned to his common touch.

An old foe, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., recalled working with Gardner on the Basic Health Plan, but ended with a reflection on the character and personality of the man who beat him in the hotly contested 1984 Democratic primary.

“They say a person dies two deaths, the death of the body and a second when stories about him stop being told,” McDermott reflected.  “It will be a very long time before we run out of stories about Governor Booth.”

Cantwell recalled the funeral of Western Washington University administrators killed in a plane crash.  “He told one of their children, ‘I lost my mom, too: I did not have a chance to say goodbye’,” she added.  Gardner also lost his father in a fall from the balcony of a Honolulu hotel.

“I will miss Booth,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., describing Gardner as someone for whom “compassion and compromise were not competing ideals.”

“He demonstrated that governing is about the people you serve, and serve with, by learning everyone’s name, what issues they care deeply about, and by taking the time to work with anyone that shared his desire to make this state a better place.”

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Gardner took a U.S. trade ambassador’s post in Geneva, Switzerland, later lampooning the job as listening to talk and more talk.

Gardner was last in the news with Initiative 1000.  He was profiled in the New York Times magazine, an article that discussed deep disagreements in the Gardner family over assisted suicide.  A documentary film on the assisted suicide initiative, entitled “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner” was nominated for an Oscar.