Former Gov. Booth Gardner dies

Staff writerMarch 16, 2013 

Life sent him plenty of challenges: family tragedy near the beginning, Parkinson’s disease near the end.

Still, Booth Gardner could have coasted through much of his life on his family money and his charisma.

Instead he chose politics, and one difficult task after

another – leading Pierce County out of a corruption-plagued era; trying to run state government like a business; banging his head against the state Legislature’s marble walls pushing an income tax; crusading late in life to change how Washingtonians are allowed to die.

Gardner, 76, died Friday night at his Tacoma home of complications from Parkinson’s.

“We’re very sad to lose my father, who had been struggling with a difficult disease for many years, but we are relieved to know that he’s at rest now and his fight is done,” said Gardner’s daughter, Gail Gant, who oversaw his care in his final years.

The family said arrangements for a public memorial service in Tacoma will be announced soon.

Elected in 1984, Gardner served as Washington’s 19th governor as the timber industry declined and Microsoft emerged, as the politics of Washington turned decidedly blue, as a state coming to terms with its explosive growth tried to manage sprawl and water pollution.

A CEO-style leader who soon learned he wasn’t entirely in charge of the company known as state government, he sometimes struggled to handle the Legislature, partly because of a reluctance to play hardball. A columnist labeled him “Prince Faintheart.”

“Booth Gardner is the antithesis of a politician,” then-House Speaker Joe King told The News Tribune in 1989 in explaining his lack of legislative savvy. “The process is still difficult for him. I continue to think that’s why the public likes him so well. He seems like the opposite of a politician – and he is.”

And the public did like him. His popularity never waned through his eight years as governor.

Gregarious and flirtatious, Gardner would meet people, learn a detail about their lives and later remember to ask them about it. His cuddly, nice-guy demeanor earned another nickname, bestowed by state Sen. Barney Goltz of Bellingham in an ’80s pop-culture reference: “the cabbage-patch governor.”

Friends remember a sly sense of humor. At one campaign stop recalled by former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, Gardner shared the stage with opponent Larry Faulk, with whom he had sparred so many times they could have recited each other’s lines. So Gardner did just that – and gave his rival’s speech.

ON THE TRAIL

Yet at times, he was shy about even asking people for money and for votes. And despite his mastery of one-on-one politicking, Baarsma said, Gardner – with his distinctive high-pitched voice – could be uncomfortable speaking to large groups.

Campaign manager Ron Dotzauer learned just how deep his boss’s loathing of campaigning went when he got a call from Gardner’s driver, a former Washington State Patrol trooper.

“He said, ‘Booth’s not going to get out of the car. He’s not going to go to the event,’” Dotzauer said.

After letting loose an expletive or two, Dotzauer was able to cajole Gardner into going. But there were meetings he skipped, such as his rehearsals for the first debate with his rival for the 1984 Democratic nomination for governor, Jim McDermott.

“He got his rear end handed to him at that first debate,” Dotzauer recalled.

But the defeat, combined with Gardner’s competitive fire, motivated him to change.

“A couple hours after the debate, Booth comes walking into my office,” Dotzauer recalled. “He sits down in a chair in front of my desk, rather sheepishly I might add. He says: ‘OK. I’m ready now.’”

The Pierce County executive had such a low statewide profile in 1983 as he readied his run for governor that his campaign printed up buttons with the slogan, “Booth Who?”

But he toppled the favorite in the primary, McDermott, and then ousted a sitting governor, Republican John Spellman – beginning Democrats’ grip on the office that continues to this day.

Spellman had served through a recession and while the economy was on the rebound by 1984, he was saddled with the tough budget decisions he had made. It didn’t help Spellman’s re-election campaign that it originally focused on McDermott as his likely opponent.

Gardner was able to campaign as an outsider touting his business acumen, inoculating him to some degree against taking stands on issues.

“I didn’t get involved in government because of causes or issues,” he said on the campaign trail. “I just think the state can be run in a better, more businesslike manner.”

Four years later, Gardner won re-election in a landslide against a Republican state lawmaker, Bob Williams of Longview.

Like other former rivals, Williams has nothing but good to say about Gardner – so open to hearing all sides, he said, that he invited Williams over to the governor’s office one snowy day in Olympia after other appointments were canceled, just to sit around and talk.

Gardner’s last campaign was not for any office.

He had learned he had Parkinson’s in the mid-1990s, soon after leaving the governor’s mansion, while living in Switzerland as the U.S. ambassador to what is now the World Trade Organization. Over the next years, he lost control over many of his motor functions and worried he would lose control of his fate.

Gardner argued that patients should have a right to assisted suicide. In 2008, he sponsored the so-called Death with Dignity initiative, modeled after the first law of its kind in Oregon.

It later would be the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary. In the film, “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner,” he described thinking constantly about when he would die. But in 2010, he said: “I don’t think about dying any more.”

“But,” he added, “I always go to the base, that people ought to have the right to choose.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.

In 2011, according to the most recent available data, 103 people obtained medication to end their lives, and at least 70 took the lethal dose.

To obtain the medication, patients must be terminally ill with just six months to live. Parkinson’s patients don’t get such a timetable – so Gardner wasn’t eligible to take advantage of the law.

EARLY DAYS

William Booth Gardner was born Aug. 21, 1936, at Tacoma General Hospital, the scion of two families with a lineage in Washington: the Gardners of Tacoma and the wealthier Booths of Seattle.

His father Bryson, known as Brick, was an alcoholic who often was cruel to his son, according to Booth Gardner’s biographer, John C. Hughes. He spent most of his childhood living with his father, who later would die in a drunken attempt to scale a hotel balcony when the younger Gardner was not yet 30.

But another man would be more crucial to Gardner’s later business and political success. As his parents’ strained marriage fell apart, his mother Evelyn met Norton Clapp, heir to a timber-industry fortune and later Weyerhaeuser CEO. They married when Booth was 4, soon after Evelyn and Brick’s divorce was final.

When Gardner was just 14, and attending Clover Park Junior High in Lakewood before graduating from Seattle’s Lakeside School, his mother and sister flew to a flower show in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his mother was to receive a prize for an orchid. Their twin-engine airplane crashed in the Santa Ynez Mountains, killing both.

“That event had a greater effect on me than anything else in my life, before or after,” Gardner told Hughes. “I felt alone in the world and that I was somehow responsible for all of this.”

It also left him with an inheritance that made him a millionaire. And it strengthened his bond with Clapp, who would later hire Gardner to run his company and help Gardner on his campaigns, even though Clapp was a Republican at odds with some of Gardner’s politics.

In spite of, or because of his money, Gardner had an urge to help the needy from his early days, and he spent much of college at the University of Washington, coaching football and baseball for kids in Seattle’s poor Central Area – kids like future rocker Jimi Hendrix.

Gardner often was described as uncomfortable with his wealth – and frugal.

There was his lifelong penchant for fast food such as Tacoma’s Frisko Freeze, a habit that paired well with Gardner’s being an exercise nut, until he was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. (Even then, Gardner didn’t always follow doctor’s orders to cut back on hamburgers.)

There was the first furniture he bought with his first wife, the former Jean Forstrom – at Goodwill.

And although the couple had a summer home on Vashon Island, Jean Gardner had to hang clothes out to dry and burn driftwood in a wood stove when they stayed there because of her husband’s refusal to buy a dryer or range, she said in a story in The Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer.

“He always felt uncomfortable in fancy clothes, fancy cars or whatever,” she said then. “I really don’t know why. Maybe he felt guilty.”

Gardner earned his bachelor’s degree from UW in business administration, then a UW law degree, then a master’s of business administration from Harvard University. After a stint as director of the University of Puget Sound’s business school, Gardner entered politics by unseating a state senator, Faulk.

He stepped down without finishing his full term after taking the job at Clapp’s firm. Some thought public-disclosure regulations requiring politicians to report their finances motivated his resignation three weeks before the rules took effect, according to a Seattle Times story at the time.

It was only a few years before he returned to politics. Federal agents had busted a criminal ring involving bail bonds, arsons, bribes and Pierce County officials. In reaction, voters approved a new county charter including a county executive.

They elected Gardner as the first to hold the job.

As executive he pushed a controversial sewer project in Lakewood, and presided over a newly reorganized county government that saw a $4.7 million deficit turn into a $1 million surplus. That was partly because of an increase in local sales tax. It also was because Gardner reduced the county workforce, froze pay and reduced the number of county cars taken home by sheriff’s deputies and other employees.

“Deputies used to wave with their whole hand,” Gardner told a reporter in 1983. “Now they use only one finger.”

The budget turnaround, along with Gardner’s business acumen, helped him make his case to become governor.

LEGACY AS GOVERNOR

Gardner won plaudits for being an effective administrator. He touted his strategy of “Management By Walking Around,” making frequent trips to state offices to talk to employees.

Beyond style, he could tick off an impressive array of accomplishments. He pushed for and won a cigarette tax to fund cleanup of the Puget Sound. Early steps toward making preschool and health insurance available to the poor were taken on his watch.

He signed the Growth Management Act, regulating land use, and the law making Washington the first state in the nation to lock up violent sex offenders who had served their prison sentences. They would be confined at the Special Commitment Center, later to find a home on McNeil Island.

He reached landmark agreements with the federal government to clean up nuclear waste at Hanford, with Indian tribes to set up a framework for negotiating key issues rather than going to court, and with state workers complaining of pay discrimination.

That last deal boosted pay for thousands of mostly female employees, and it wasn’t the only way Gardner promoted diversity in the state workforce. He named the first ethnic minority to the state Supreme Court, Charles Z. Smith. He issued an order banning discrimination against gays in state employment – a controversial stand in 1985.

“They threatened him with his political life,” said Denny Heck, his chief of staff and now a congressman. “There were a lot of public quotations to the effect: ‘We guarantee you won’t be re-elected.’”

He faced down similar threats from teachers unions. His attempts at education reform included a program that became a national model allowing 33 pilot projects to experiment with changes in, for example, length of the school year.

But he couldn’t achieve the school funding he repeatedly sought through defeated attempts at tax reform, including an income tax.

While some chalked his failures up to an inability or unwillingness to play the legislative game, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray disputes that perception.

“I never saw it that way,” Murray said. “I was just a brand new state senator and had some bill that I was trying to pass and the governor called me into his office. I was just, ‘Oh my gosh, the governor wants to talk to me,’ and when I went in he said, ‘Well, you have this bill you need passed. Well, I have a budget I need passed too.’”

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Booth and Jean Gardner separated, and they officially divorced in 2001 eight days before Gardner married Cynthia Robin Perkins. His second marriage ended in 2008.

Gardner is survived by his two children from his first marriage, Doug and Gail, eight grandchildren and two half-brothers, Bill Clapp and Steve Clapp.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com Staff writer Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.

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