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Unequivocally home: Blair Butterworth’s open letter to Washington state

The late Blair Butterworth. Credit: Photo: Blair Butterworth/ Facebook.

Seattle-based political consultant Blair Butterworth, a high-profile figure in Washington state politics, died after an illness on March 29, 2013. He was known for his wit, passion and highly quotable insights into city and state politics. The big names he worked with included Dixy Lee Ray, Warren G. Magnuson, Gary Locke, Mike Lowry, Paul Schell and Jim McDermott. He helped found the League of Education Voters and pass the Death with Dignity Act with Booth Gardner. Butterworth can't attend his own memorial service, which will be held Sunday, April 21, 10:30 a.m. at Town Hall, but he did like to have the last word. So, before he died, he authored this final op/ed in which he expresses his gratitude to his adoptive state, and makes a plea for our future.  Crosscut Contributor, Knute Berger

Love at first sight. That’s the only way to describe my first visit to Seattle in 1965. 

I was a fresh-faced kid out of college, the Peace Corps and now working in the U.S. Department of Commerce. U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson had brought me out here for a great opportunity as regional supervisor of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and I was getting the grand tour from the Senator himself. 

As we drove around town, Magnuson told me how important this new gig was and how, if I did things right, my name would be up in lights. Then just at that moment, in mock amazement, he points outside and exclaims, “Wait! Your name is already up in lights!” As we drove past Butterworth Funeral Home (no relation), I realized I was on the receiving end of a well-timed practical joke. The driver smiled and nodded at Maggie, who of course was busy laughing at me. 

From that moment on, I’ve loved this place. Seattle and our state are synonymous with hopeful possibilities, civic aspiration and the ability to laugh at ourselves. Now, in contrast to the symbolic comic suggestiveness of that drive-by joke so long ago, I find myself at the real end of my life. And I realize that before I leave, I’d like to express my gratitude.

On that first visit, I was powerfully struck by the sheer physical beauty of our state. So many wonderful natural attractions, such a variety of outdoor activities. In the wake of the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle was also a vibrant model of civic achievement. But it was more than these things.

Beyond what lay all around me as I explored every corner of Seattle and our state, was what I found within the people here. I was welcomed, included and accepted. Me, an East Coast nomad who’d never known any other permanent address besides “c/o.” I was finally and unequivocally home.

Here I found a remarkable, open-minded diversity of thought, interests and people. A rich environment for meaningful civic dialogue. A conviction that such meaningful dialogue is both precursor to and stimulus for action and progress. Here I found a generosity of spirit, where I would be judged not as an outsider, but by my competence, merit, work and humanity. I knew this was where I belonged. And a few years later, as I proudly shared our area’s wonders with visiting friend Bill Moyers, we were both struck by the fact that this nomadic outsider had become a Northwest native through and through.

As I forayed into Washington state politics, the unique ethos of my new home opened doors to all kinds of adventures and mischief. I met Dixy Lee Ray in the small trailer where she lived at the time. Over a bottle of scotch, we held an hours-long political discussion — well, okay, it was more of a yelling match. Somehow, in spite of the angrily high decibel-levels, I wound up running her successful campaign for governor a few months later — and Dixy became the first woman to be elected governor of any state. In the next election, I saw again just how open my new home could be when I worked for Jim McDermott for Governor and we defeated Dixy in the primary election.

Many years later, I was introduced to a guy named Gary, with whom I seemed to have very little in common. But in the richly diverse and open nature of Seattle and Washington politics, there are no genuine strange bedfellows. I ended up becoming a close friend and adviser to Gary Locke — and helping him become the first Chinese-American governor in history.

I was privileged to work with many other interesting, exceptional people over the years, including Senator Warren Magnuson, Governor Mike Lowry, Insurance Commissioner and Congressman Mike Kreidler, State Auditor Bob Graham, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, Tacoma Mayor Karen Vialle, Superintendent of Public Instruction Judith Billings and dozens of state legislators. I also had the privilege of working on countless statewide and local ballot initiatives, ranging from education to women’s rights to choice, parks and open space, hand gun control, gay rights, transportation and marijuana. I was honored in 2008 to work with my friend, former Gov. Booth Gardner, on the I-1000 campaign that made Washington the second state to adopt a Death with Dignity Act, and mourn his passing.

You can’t win ‘em all — and I didn’t. But I always felt like we were changing and rejuvenating the conversation and pushing the envelope with every single campaign, win or lose. And this was all possible because of the welcoming, inclusive culture in Seattle and in Washington state. In each campaign I was heartened by the civic awareness and openness to diverse thinking I encountered again and again among my neighbors and fellow citizens, among supporters and opponents alike. And most just shrugged or shook their heads when I let the occasional profanity slip my lips. 

For all of this I am filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am grateful for this wonderfully open place that welcomed me to make my home here and raise a wonderful family.  I am grateful for the trust and confidence people placed in me, again and again. I am grateful to have made so many great friends over the years. And I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to work with such dedicated, earnest people and profoundly important causes doing the work I most enjoy in the place I love most. For all of these things and so much more, thank you.

I leave filled with humble gratitude. But I can’t help but also feel a parting sense of foreboding about where we are headed as a city and state. 

When we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair last year, it was hard not to wonder whether we’re capable of doing such exceptional things anymore. Have we become too smug, too complacent to pull out all the stops and come together as a community the way our civic leaders did in 1962 to make something truly monumental happen? Have our politics become so diluted by individual greed and self-interest that instead we collectively lurch from fad to fad without regard for the future we’re giving our children and our community?

I wonder — and so should you. The most glaring indicator that such worry is well-founded is education, where our constant under-investment and lack of meaningful recent reform and improvement is flat-out shocking. As a result, instead of laying the foundation for an even better future, our education system has become an albatross around our necks; one that will hold us back and hold us down if we don’t wake up and do something about it. We seem to have lost sight of a fundamental truth in the education reform debate: This is not about taxes. It’s about our children. It’s about our future. When we put counting dollars first, we rob our children and short-change our future.

What are our elected officials and business leaders doing about the education crisis? Where is the leadership and vision we need for progress? Where is the decisive action that puts our children first and works budgetary issues later?

As citizens and voters, we’re still willing and able to debate and make change. We remain a city and state that welcomes diverse points of view, and Washington citizens clearly still care and are willing to get involved. This was evident in last November’s election, with grass-roots triumphs on same-sex marriage and marijuana reform that drew national attention. However you voted on those two measures, we should all share the justified pride that this was proof positive that the civic dialogue is vibrant and healthy in our great state. 

As citizens and voters, we must be at least as committed to education reform and get mobilized and more vocal now. But we also need and must demand stronger, more visionary leadership and bold action from elected officials and leaders of the business community. We must support and rally behind leaders who are willing to take bold action. And if they aren’t willing, let’s find and elect leaders who are. 

We should collectively and adamantly insist on better leadership today. But we must also recognize that tomorrow’s leaders will come up through our education system — for better or for worse. Education reform gives us the opportunity to prepare future leaders capable of delivering better tomorrows.

I like to do things my way, and it seems only fitting that I am unable to resist at least a modest tirade where it’s needed, right to the end. It’s not because I’m bitter, or can’t resist an argument. It’s because I care as much as I hope you do.

It’s been a great ride, and I’ve had a wonderfully fulfilling life. I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the Seattle and the state of Washington that showed the rest of the country that we care about elevated and lively public dialogue, meaningful causes and exceptional achievements. Now it’s up to all of you. We’ve proved before that we believe in and are capable of greatness. It is my ardent hope and parting wish that we will find that collective greatness again. I wish you good luck and urge you to continue fighting the good fight, for it’s in that fight that our greatness begins to show.

And one last thing, one last time: Thank you.

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