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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Booth Gardner, Washington’s 19th Governor, Dead At 76

Washington State Archives
Washington State Archives

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Booth Gardner, Washington’s 19th governor, has died at age 76. Gardner’s family says he passed away Friday night from complications of Parkinson's disease. Gardner had lived with the illness for more than a decade.

Democrat Booth Gardner took office in January of 1985. He was a Harvard-educated businessman with a playful manner. Longtime newspaper columnist Joel Connelly offers these snapshot memories.

“I remember his deep emotion and sense of obligation on the night that he won the governorship. I remember Booth in the company of adults choosing the company of children. I remember a voice that sounded like Elmer Fudd on helium,” Connelly remembers.

A former state senator, Gardner ascended to the governorship straight from county executive. In fact, he was so unknown statewide that his campaign famously adopted the slogan: “Booth Who?” Still he managed to beat one-term Republican governor John Spellman in a year when Ronald Reagan won the state. Dean Foster was Gardner’s first chief of staff.

“Booth’s message was that he governed by walking around and that caught on, his ‘Booth Who? buttons caught on, his youthful image caught on and Democrats got excited,” Foster says.

In some respects, a life in politics was an unlikely path for William Booth Gardner a self-described “introvert.” Born into a society family, he suffered under its dysfunction. In “Booth Who?” – a recent biography by John Hughes – Gardner’s father is portrayed as an alcoholic with a mean streak. His parents divorced when he was young. His mother quickly remarried a wealthy executive at Weyerhaeuser. When Gardner was 14, tragedy struck. His mother and sister were killed in a commercial airline crash. Suddenly Gardner found himself a trust fund orphan. Later his father died in a drunken plunge from a hotel balcony in Hawaii. Laird Harris was a close advisor to Gardner. He reluctantly offers a bit of armchair psychology about the former governor.

“I do know that people who grew up in this kind of a environment often have troubles later in their life and I think if it manifested itself anyway in Booth it was that he was always trying to please people,” Harris says.

On the one hand it was his greatest asset. Gardner is often referred to as Washington’s most popular governor – a leader who could genuinely relate to the people with the poll numbers to prove it. He won re-election in 1988 with a whopping 62 percent of the vote. Even Republicans liked him. Dan McDonald is a former chair of the senate budget committee.

“Booth Gardner was truly the most personable governor I have known,” McDonald says.

But Gardner’s likability was also his Achilles heel. In his first term especially, the new governor struggled to assert himself with the legislature. “Prince Faintheart” was how one newspaper columnist described him. McDonald, the former budget chair, offers a similar assessment.

“For instance, Booth Gardner was referred to as the ‘education governor’ and he always had good intentions, but the implementation of actual policy. He a lot of times left his leadership at the door of the legislature,” says McDonald.

Gardner himself admitted he shied from the “head-knocking” that goes on in the legislature.

“I didn’t like the legislative side and if I had life to live over again and I were governor I’d spend a lot more energy on the legislative side because I think I could do it now. I just wasn’t comfortable there,” he said in a 2000 interview on TVW.

Still, Gardner chalked up a number of wins during his two terms. Running Start – a popular program that allows high school students to earn college credits. Health care and pre-school for low-income children. AIDS legislation, the Growth Management Act. And he appointed the first ethnic minority to the state Supreme Court. But it was his veto pen that helped him overcome the “Prince Faintheart” tag. Denny Heck, another former chief of staff to Gardner, says the year was 1989.

“The governor vetoed in part or in whole more bills than any governor in the history of this state,” Heck says.

Heck says Gardner used the power of the veto to re-assert himself as a coequal branch with the legislature.

“And it worked. We did become more productive. He became more productive,” says Heck.

Throughout his two terms, Gardner put much of his energy into K-12 education. That’s also where he took the most heat. He’d been elected with the backing of the state teacher’s union. But by the spring of 1991 teachers all over the state were on strike over pay. Former chief of staff Heck remembers Gardner going before a mass of angry teachers.

“They completely occupied the rotunda area, thousands of them. He went out and they booed him loudly and long,” Heck says.

Steve Kink is a former top official with the teachers’ union. He’s blunt in his assessment of Gardner.

“I liked Booth Gardner. I think he did some good things as governor of the state. But with regard to education his performance there was pathetic at best,” says Kink.

Others though credit Gardner with ushering in the era of standards-based education.

Gardner delivered his last State of the State address in January of 1993. He had decided not to run for a third term despite the likelihood he could win. He was feeling fatigued. Instead of battling for office, he would soon find himself battling Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed while serving overseas in the first Clinton administration. Two deep-brain surgeries would follow. Then in 2008, a clearly debilitated Gardner re-emerged for what he would call his “last campaign”

It was an initiative campaign to adopt an Oregon-style “Death with Dignity Act.” Ironically, it wouldn’t apply to someone like Gardner with a non-terminal disease such as Parkinson’s. But he led and helped fund the effort nonetheless. Duane French is a quadriplegic who helped lead the opposition campaign. Calling it assisted suicide, he argued the disabled would be made vulnerable. Nonetheless he considered Gardner a friend.

“I felt he was misguided, but I didn’t think that he intended to harm anyone,” French says.

In the end, nearly 60-percent of voters approved Initiative 1000 allowing physicians to write a lethal prescription to terminally ill patients. After that last campaign, Gardner’s health continued to deteriorate. The former governor struggled just to maintain a conversation. His once bright eyes rarely blinked. Gardner spent his final years splitting his time between his homes in Tacoma and on Vashon Island. He leaves behind two children and eight grandchildren.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."