Former Washington Senator Slade Gorton dies at 92

Aug 19, 2020

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, a three-term Republican and 9/11 commissioner, died Wednesday at the age of 92. Gorton's death was confirmed by J. Vanderstoep, a former campaign manager and chief of staff. Vanderstoep said Gorton suffered from a condition related to Parkinson's disease.

Thomas Slade Gorton III was born in Chicago in 1928. He was a descendant of the Gorton Seafood family of Massachusetts. But it was politics that attracted him from a young age.

After college and law school in the east, Gorton came to Seattle in 1953. He practiced law and fell in with a group of young, moderate Republicans. They included future governor and senator Dan Evans who helped Gorton win his first campaign for state Legislature in 1958.

Gorton would go on to serve five terms in the Washington House, rising to majority leader. He played a key role in the redistricting battles of the 1960s. Dean Foster, a Democratic staffer at the time, said Gorton was a formidable redistricting opponent. “He’s the person that Democrats blame for anything that goes right for the Republicans," Foster said in a 2013 interview. 

Two years after redistricting passed, Republicans gained control of the Washington House. Gorton and Foster would reunite nearly 50 years later to do it all over again – this time as members of Washington’s Redistricting Commission.

Not only did Gorton help draw Washington’s electoral map, he subjected himself to it numerous times. After the Legislature, he served three terms as Washington attorney general during which he made numerous appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1980, Gorton decided to take on an institution: incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Warren "Maggie" Magnuson.

At an event in 2011, Gorton’s friend Dan Evans described how crazy that seemed.

“There were only two people I think in the state of Washington who thought Slade could win," Evans said. "Slade and Sally...and there’s some doubt about Sally.” Sally was his Gorton's wife, a former newspaper reporter.

Running as Washington’s “next great senator” Gorton unseated Magnuson. In the Senate, Gorton quickly emerged as a “deficit hawk” often at odds with President Ronald Reagan, a fellow Republican. In 2012, Gorton told an audience about one meeting with the president in particular.

“A spirited debate on the budget broke out and I made some kind of comment that caused him to break a pencil straight in half,” Gorton recalled. 

It was Gorton's straight-as-a-pencil bearing that was on display in 1985 when the Senate Commerce committee held hearings on explicit lyrics in music. 

During testimony, musician Frank Zappa mocked Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, the high-profile duo, behind the campaign to put warning labels on records.

When Zappa was through, Gorton gave him a withering dressing down.

“I can only say that I found your statement to be boorish, incredibly and insensitively insulting,” Gorton said.

State historian John Hughes, who wrote Gorton's biography, described Gorton as “a man who [did] not suffer fools gladly."

"There’s this daunting intellect that can spot BS at a hundred paces,” Hughes said in a 2013 interview.

Defeat … and return

Gorton’s fledgling senate career came to an abrupt end after just one term. In 1986, he was defeated by Democrat Brock Adams. But two years later, he was back -- running to replace Dan Evans in the Senate.

Gorton won that race just as the controversy was heating up over efforts to save the Northern spotted owl on the Olympic Peninsula. Soon Gorton was rallying to the cause of loggers shut out of the forests. Environmentalists put up Slade Gorton “wanted” posters. Gorton also ran afoul of Washington tribes -- over fishing rights, tribal sovereignty and even custody of the remains of the prehistoric Kennewick Man.

“He was always respectful," said Ron Allen the chairman of the Jamestown S’Kllalam tribe. "He would always give you time of the day to talk and debate issues. He would respectfully disagree with you. And he would tell you up front. He would be very candid about that.”

In 1994, Gorton won a third term as U.S. Senator and became a member of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s inner circle. But he would not be a senator for life. In 2000, Gorton lost his seat to Democrat Maria Cantwell. 

Gorton’s 18 years in the U.S. Senate were marked by positions that could seem at odds: he was pro-choice, anti-school busing, supported the Brady gun bill, but opposed the ban on assault weapons. He’s credited with putting a million more acres into wilderness in Washington, but wanted to amend the Endangered Species Act.

His critics called him “Slippery Slade.” Hughes, his biographer, called Gorton an “intellectual contrarian.”

“He is a polarizing figure, there’s no doubt about it," said Hughes. "But to those who saw the multi-faceted Slade Gorton, it’s definitely a picture with a lot of shades of gray.”

Notable achievements

Gorton told Hughes he believed his single most important achievement in the Senate followed the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Gorton championed legislation that gave permanent residency to Chinese students studying in the U.S. at the time of the crackdown.

In 2011, former Gov. Dan Evans said what he admired most about Gorton is that when he left the Senate, he came back to Washington state.

“He didn’t join the bevy of ex-senators who wander aimlessly around the halls of Congress," said Evans. "But his spectacular public service didn’t quit.”

The first time Gorton lost his Senate seat he was devastated. The second loss he called an “amazing gain.” Soon he became the go-to guy for national investigations: into the 2000 election debacle, the deadly 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas and, most notably, the 9/11 Commission. Gorton was credited as the Commission’s “consensus builder.” Hughes, his biographer, called it Gorton’s “singular achievement.”

Other notable moments from Gorton's career include:

  • In a 1963 libel case, he was a character witness on behalf of Democrat John Goldmark who had been labeled a communist.
  • In 1974, as state attorney general, Gorton was one of the first Republicans in the nation to call for Nixon’s resignation.
  • Not once, but twice, Gorton -- a big baseball fan -- brokered deals to save the Mariners from leaving Seattle.

Gorton was preceded in death by his wife Sally in 2013. He leaves behind three adult children and several grandchildren.

This story has been updated.