Jerry Grinstein unpacks his bags

The former Maggie staffer and corporate Mr. Fix-it is feted upon returning home from his latest adventure, rescuing Delta Airlines.
Crosscut archive image.

Jerry Grinstein in the flesh and immortalized by <i>The Wall Street Journal</i>.

The former Maggie staffer and corporate Mr. Fix-it is feted upon returning home from his latest adventure, rescuing Delta Airlines.

While the Puget Sound press corps clamored to hear businessman-turned-politico Dino Rossi announce his rematch with Gov. Chris Gregoire last week, politico-turned-businessman Jerry Grinstein, the redeemer-pooh-bah of Delta Airlines, made his homecoming at a luncheon to benefit the Seattle Children's Playgarden.

Which of these, do you figure, was instructive, hilarious, and fiercely cliche-free?

The Playgarden fundraiser featured several alums of the get-things-done school, including the triumvirate of Abe Bergman, the gadfly pediatrician who elbowed for flame-resistant kids' pajamas and helped spark the consumer-protection revolution of the 1960s and '70s; Grinstein, the boy-wonder chief-of-staff to U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, who midwifed a series of landmark, Bergman-inspired laws and breathed life back into Magnuson's legislative legacy; and Rick Redman, the Rhodes Scholar and staff scribe who documented the alchemy of ideas, egos, and lawmaking in his seminal book, The Dance of Legislation.

Redman, serving as emcee, observed that local-boy Grinstein earned that coveted notch of all CEOs – an ink-stenciled portrait in The Wall Street Journal. Nearly four decades before, Grinstein was the subject of Redman's college thesis and merited the lead in his unpublished novel.

The stories flew: Grinstein at Duke Zeibert's, a Washington, D.C., eatery famous for the famous, his hands on the back of the chair of 1970s femme fatale Elizabeth Ray, announcing, "Elizabeth Ray? I don't see Elizabeth Ray!"

Or Grinstein's post-Magnuson greenness as a trial attorney, captured vividly when he asked the judge after closing arguments, "OK, now what? Do we take a vote?"

Old-school digressions were (mostly) kept in check. Bergman and Grinstein are seventysomethings, a vulnerable age for nostalgic hand wringing, yet neither got frozen in glory-days schmaltz.

Bergman currently champions the reform and improvement of Washington's foster care system and chairs the board of the Seattle Children's Playgarden, a non-profit offering play space for children with special needs. And Grinstein? From Maggie consigliere to the old Preston Gates law firm to CEO of Western Airlines to CEO of Burlington Northern (forgive him that) to chair of the University of Washington Board of Regents to Delta savior.

Grinstein took the reins of Delta during the post-9/11 industry fallout, steered it through a bankruptcy spurred largely by Hurricane Katrina's damage to Gulf of Mexico refineries, and left it renewed and in the black. He also famously shamed the golden-parachute class by returning his $10 million bonus to Delta workers.

Grinstein had a beast to yoke: The company was hemorrhaging between $15 million and $20 million a day, he said. There was the bone-headed use of resources, including the operation of jumbo jets for Georgia-Florida routes and the imperative to expand international flights.

There was also the pressure for a merger with US Airways that would have spelled doom for Delta and its employees.

What to do? Grinstein canoodled Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens who now (literally) occupies Warren Magnuson's desk.

"Why should I help you?" Stevens asked.

"Well, senator, Delta uses Boeing planes, the other guys use Airbus."

"I'm with you."

Grinstein's subsequent Senate testimony was a triumph. The merger chatter was squelched.

Bergman provided the capstone (and money pitch for the Playgarden) by discussing his experience years before with Grinstein in the U.S. Senate dining room.

"There you had Fulbright and Humphrey and all those senators," Bergman said. "But all the wait staff, everyone came up to Jerry. They loved the guy."

"It's the little things. He talks to people. He listens."

Rossi, Gregoire, all souls, political and non, take note.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson