When Olympia knew hope

The promise and disappointment of the Booth Gardner years help explain how Washington state faces its problems today.
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As governor, Booth Gardner created hope for reform

The promise and disappointment of the Booth Gardner years help explain how Washington state faces its problems today.

The new biography of Booth Gardner is Booth Who? The title refers to Gardner's campaign slogan of 1984 when the then-Pierce County executive made light of his lack of statewide name familiarity, a problem he was able to solve with aggressive campaign spending. For a while, "Booth Who?" signs were ubiquitous, even cropping up in the deserts of Eastern Washington. As the book reminds us, the deep-pocketed Gardner, a scion of Weyerhaeuser wealth, was able to buy his way into public consciousness.

The title also reminds us that in Washington, political memories are rather short. Politicians rise and fall, machines are dismantled, reformed, or overwhelmed, often, by outsider candidates and populist initiatives. As a Western state that thrives on immigration and youth, there are likely many people who have never heard of Booth Gardner, Washington's mostly popular two-term Democratic governor who served from 1985 to 1993. As a subtitle on the book's cover tells us, Gardner was "Washington's charismatic 19th governor."

Now suffering from Parkinson's disease, the former governor's most recent foray into politics was 2008's Death with Dignity campaign. It says something about the arc of a career that our one-time youthful "Education Governor" who had a knack for working with kids (he was a young Jimi Hendrix's football coach) made his most recent crusade the so-called "last campaign" promoting the right to die. Political life, is fleeting, even for those who are long-lived like former governor Al Rosellini, who has passed the century mark, but was voted out of office in his prime in 1964. Rosellini has been sidelined nearly as long as Barack Obama has been alive.

Booth Who? (Washington State Heritage Center Legacy Project, $25) by John C. Hughes has gotten some nice notice, including from Joel Connelly, our one-man institutional memory machine. I have a few brief observations about the book.

It reads a bit like an "official" biography, but it also covers Gardner's warts. It's an appreciation, but no whitewash. Nevertheless, Gardner remains a bit of an enigma.

It's hard to say what makes him tick. Son of wealth, a businessman-turned Democrat, a reformer backed by establishment figures, a charmer with an elusive, aloof quality that makes him hard to pin down. Gardner is a public man whose parts don't quite add up. There's a there there, but he keeps some of it to himself.

Gardner reminds me a little of Obama: a relative rookie in politics whose Illinois was Pierce County. He emerged with a high-hope factor, as someone with charisma and a desire to reform education and health care. In contrast to his successor, Mike Lowry, and his competitor for the gubernatorial nomination, Jim McDermott, Gardner was more pragmatic, more a neo-Dem than true liberal believer.

He brought to Olympia a desire for bipartisanship, a disdain for the legislative process, a head full of ideas for how to manage things better. He literally rolled up his sleeves and took to the cubicles of Olympia to get to know the state workers who really run things. He applied the principles of In Search of Excellence and used "management by walking around."

It sounded great, and promised much, but wound up delivering less than expected. A virtual shoe-in for a third term, Gardener walked away, tired, frustrated, depressed, perhaps even showing the early signs of his disease.

A couple of things come into focus while reading Booth Who? One is that Gardner, while not perfect, was a good governor, and better, a smart and well-intentioned one. Booth Who? made me miss the man who tilted at Olympia's windmills.

The rap against him was that he was too nice and compromised too quickly. But he also tried to govern the whole: work with Republicans, reach out around the state, solve systemic problems. He did manage to get the Basic Health Plan for Washington passed; he did take on education reform by raising teacher's salaries, but also pushing for merit pay and accountability. He did advocate tax reform.

His years coaching kids, his volunteer work in Seattle's Central District stemming from his college days, gave him real-world skills that enabled him to relate and empathize.

He could also be inspiring. I had a chance to see Gardner close-up, and he had a knack for disarming people. His years coaching kids, his volunteer work in Seattle's Central District stemming from his college days, gave him real-world skills that enabled him to relate and empathize, unlike many of the folks from his socio-economic class. As one politico notes in the book, "He's the only politician I ever met who could go to the Rainier Club for lunch and the bowling alley on the way home and win votes in both places."

When he walked through state offices, he created buzz among the workers. He made you want to work for him, for us, to bring Washington into a better era of governance.

In retrospect, he seemed to have Gary Locke's smarts, Dan Evans' moderation, and Obama's ability to make you feel fired-up and ready to go. Gone was Dixy Lee Ray's snark and John Spellman's pipe-smoking woodenness. (Speaking of snark, Hughes has a funny line about Ray, describing her as like "Sarah Palin with a Phd. and a poodle.") Gardner's proteges include Christine Gregoire, a young talent Gardner spotted and appointed to head the Department of Ecology, and Denny Heck, a top aide who went on to found TVW and is a current Democratic candidate for Congress.

The reason to read Booth Who? is to get a sense of perspective about the state's current budget crisis. It is sobering, because Gardner struggled with many of the same forces that make progress still so difficult. His protege Gregoire and the Democratic legislature are slashing budgets, as Booth did for much of his tenure, only now, the bone-cutting is to the point where Gregoire is calling to rethink state government entirely, stripping it down to its "core" services.

Partisanship is worse, and leadership too: the GOP (with Spellman, Dan McDonald, Clyde Ballard) was better led in the Gardner years than now, and Tim Eyman was not yet a force. Gardner's hopes for education reform were partly dashed by getting crosswise with the teacher's union.

Gardner knew, too, that our tax system was woefully out of date; that our service economy required major adjustments in who was taxed and how. In the 1980s, 70 percent of Washingtonians wanted tax reform, yet 70 percent also believed reform would make things worse. Shades of the health-care reform debate. Public cynicism, some of it warranted, undercut reform efforts, along with lobbyists.

All of the problems Gardner dealt with are still with us, still unresolved, only now they are bigger, there's less money, and more anger.

We had a chance and a dynamic leader who wanted to tackle these things, but who was beaten by the system of special interests, politics, intransigence, dysfunction. His marriage was strained to the breaking point by eight years in Olympia. Management by walking around turned out to be as effective as management by sheet cake: everyone smiles a sugar-high grin for a while, then it's back to the gritty reality of the trenches.

Gardner wanted to be transformative, but the battle is like World War I's Western Front: a miserable slog, a bog-producing, hope-dashing miasma. Today, it's budget slashing, safety-net holes, dumber taxes, big solutions avoided, accountability dodged, defensive chess. Our state government is broken, and Booth Who? reminds us, it's been broken for a long while and it's beaten better people than we have there now.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.