R. Ted Bottiger’s mind was always working, working, friends say, and sometimes it was someplace far away.
State Capitol regulars used to call state Sen. Bottiger’s legislative assistant, Keri Rooney, to ask if her boss was mad at them. They would say how Bottiger had passed them in the hallway without saying hello.
She would laugh and tell them the story Bottiger had once told her, “that he passed his wife on the street one time and walked right past her.”
At the peak of his career the Pierce County politician had a job that gave him a lot to think about: state Senate majority leader, guiding a narrow majority of strong-willed Democrats all with their own ideas of how to govern.
Rooney learned early Thursday morning Bottiger had died at age 81. He is survived by his wife, Darlene, two daughters, Tedene and Teri, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Details on arrangements and on the cause of his death were not immediately available.
A south Tacoma native and lawyer, Bottiger was first elected to the state House in 1964 and moved on to the Senate in 1972, where he represented rural Pierce County until 1987, including as majority leader in his last five years. He went on to serve on the Northwest Power Planning Council and Port of Tacoma Commission.
Bottiger was part of a powerful contingent in the Capitol known to some as the “Pierce County Mafia.”
With him as Senate majority leader and his former campaign manager, Wayne Ehlers, as speaker of the House, the county held sway in Olympia — especially once Booth Gardner became governor in 1985.
The nice way of saying it, Bottiger’s sometimes rival Jim McDermott said, was that he was “a fierce advocate for the interests of Pierce County, and since I was from King County, we didn’t always agree. But you could always work with Ted. He was a fine, honest legislator whose word you could trust.”
McDermott, now a congressman from Seattle, challenged Bottiger for leadership of Senate Democrats and ran against his favored gubernatorial candidate, Gardner. But Bottiger wasn’t one to hold grudges. Bottiger allowed McDermott to have the plum position of chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee even after besting him for majority leader.
The liberal McDermott was only one of many different personalities and ideologies among the Senate Democrats.
“It was quite a talented group he had to lead. It’s tough to ride herd over that many egos,” said another member of the group, Phil Talmadge.
The Democrats first made him their leader in 1980 at a time of turmoil. He succeeded a Democratic majority leader, Gordon Walgren of Kitsap County, who had been convicted of racketeering after an FBI sting caught legislative leaders agreeing to legalize gambling in exchange for a share of the profits.
Security officials did a sweep of the majority leader’s office as Bottiger moved into it. “They actually found a bug on the telephone,” recalled Rooney, who now works for Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy.
His first stint in the majority leader’s office was short-lived. Within just a few weeks, then-Sen. Peter von Reichbauer switched to the Republican Party and turned the Senate over to the GOP.
As leader of the minority, Bottiger was willing to cut deals. McDermott said Republicans didn’t have the votes to balance the budget in a recession, so Democratic leaders, over objections from some of their members, provided some votes for a controversial Republican move to charge a sales tax on food, which would later be reversed.
“The role of the queen’s loyal opposition must be just that, loyal,” Bottiger said during his status as minority leader. “We shouldn’t sink the ship.”
Bottiger returned as majority leader after voters swung the Senate back in 1982.
He led quietly, McDermott said. “He was not flamboyant. He wasn’t a guy who was going to elbow you out of the way to get to the television (cameras) first.”
He didn’t take credit for much, Ehlers said, but he helped stop proposals that would have been bad for Pierce County, like a merger of the Seattle and Tacoma ports.
He was seen as a pragmatist who loved politics but lacked passion for policy issues, according to a 1986 profile in The News Tribune.
Dean Foster, former chief House clerk and Gardner’s chief of staff, said Bottiger cared more than he let on about issues such as rural transportation and agriculture.
He was “more partisan than people realized, but he did a good job of hiding it, especially as he got more seniority,” Foster said. “And he was always interested in a lot of policy issues. He tried to hide that too because he never wanted people to know what he was really interested in — because he was afraid they’d use it against him.”
Bottiger, a Lincoln High School, University of Puget Sound and University of Washington Law School graduate, balanced his public life with work on his small farm near Graham.jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com