Remembering Booth Gardner: A people's politician and an advocate for dignity

Booth Gardner's death from Parkinson's complications is a reminder of his compelling personal presence and his last great political struggle.
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Former Governor Booth Gardner and Crosscut's Knute Berger.

Booth Gardner's death from Parkinson's complications is a reminder of his compelling personal presence and his last great political struggle.

For two terms, Booth Gardner breathed life into stale old Oly. Gov. Dan Evans had moved on, followed by prickly Dixy Lee Ray (once described as Sarah Palin with a PhD) and the constant-yet-colorless pipe-smoker John Spellman. In 1984, Gardner swept onto the political stage with youth, charisma, money and optimism.

He was a new face. His famous campaign slogan in the 1984 governor's race was "Booth Who?" and those campaign signs dotted the landscape from the Mima Mounds to the Yakima artillery range. But he wasn't a total rookie: He'd served in the state Legislature, had been Pierce County executive, had lots of money (personal and campaign) as a member of the Weyerhaeuser clan, plus he had Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson's donor lists, print-outs of which were stashed at his South Lake Union campaign headquarters. They were, a staffer told me, his secret weapon.

They weren't his only one. In his early campaigning days, he was uncomfortable on the stump. Asking for votes, pressing the flesh seemed a tad unseemly. Covering Gardner's appearance at a barn-dinner fundraiser in Snohomish County in '84, I asked an old-time Democratic operative how he thought the newly-minted candidate was doing. "He's got to take his hands out of his pockets," he grumped. "He's got to be like a hooker and pretend he likes it!"

Gardner did come to like it. If not campaigning per se, he connected with people, especially on a one-on-one basis. Over the course of his career, Gardner's charisma seemed to be in inverse proportion to the number of people in the room. His speech-making voice could be high and squeaky, but walk through the Capitol with him and his appeal was Kennedy-esque. Said one politico, "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."

He practiced "management by walking around," and brought a kind of personal, compassionate approach to state government. He worked the cubicles and impressed the troops. He had an eye for talent and the ability to get people moving. He jogged, he laughed, he was smart and full of promise. And he remembered you. He was the boss or coach you just liked, and who seemed to like you too.

And he tackled big issues — ones we're still wrestling with. Education reform, health care, making government leaner if not meaner. He was willing to take on his own party on issues, determined to be bipartisan. A liberal businessman with a technocrat's impulse to get policy right. He had Evans' moderation, Jay Inslee's quarterback charm, Gary Locke's smarts and quality staffers, like a young Christine Gregoire. When I read John Hughes' excellent 2010 biography of Gardner, "Booth Who," I was left with the sense that if Gardner couldn't get consensus for smarter, better, reformed state government, who could?

He succeeded to a point. He got us Basic Health, he raised teacher pay, he asked for more accountability, he pushed economic development smartly. But, like Obama, he also disappointed his followers who had hoped for Transformation with a capital "T." The Olympia glacier wore him down and that glacier included the powers of both parties. His gubernatorial legacy seemed to be that of a decent politician with a golden opportunity to make big, fundamental change, but who produced what seemed like incremental progress.

Of course, today, when dysfunction reigns and amateurs are in ascendance at every level, his accomplishments seem bigger than they once did. Hope has turned to cope. So, let's hear it for incremental progress over the wholesale dismantling of the state and its programs. Readers, there was a time when you could look down to Olympia, squint just a bit, and see a kind of Cascade Camelot with Booth Gardner at the roundtable. I'm glad I got to see that first-hand, even if it was a passing phase or an 80s illusion.

One of Gardner's greatest accomplishments, I believe, was his campaign for the Death with Dignity Act, which passed in 2008. He stood on principle, he became the poster-child — and whipping boy — for a controversial policy. It was tough to see his once-youthful vigor diminished by Parkinson's disease, and it was inspiring to see him battling for what he believed in a fight that became personal, that revealed family fissures, that saw Booth's crusade absurdly compared to Nazism by the far right.

It was a battle worth fighting, worth winning, and it will mean much to those people who destiny will set on a slow, painful path to the end. He poignantly called it his "last campaign." It did turn out to be that. It was a brave and honorable one that helped answer the "Booth Who?" question once and for all.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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