In 1984, Booth Gardner initiated what is now the nation’s longest stretch of consecutive Democratic governorships by emphasizing his business background, management skills and moderate politics to defeat incumbent Republican John Spellman by almost 7 percentage points. Gardner that year overcame the popularity of another Republican incumbent, President Ronald Reagan, who rolled to victory in Washington state by 13 percentage points over Democrat Walter Mondale.
In many ways Gardner was a study in contrasts: an heir to the Weyerhaeuser timber fortune who self-effacingly lived on the cheap; a private- and public-sector manager in a political party attuned to labor interests; an inherently shy person who voluntarily became a very public figure.
He leaves an enduring gubernatorial legacy that was abetted by holding office during good economic times. He signed the state’s Growth Management Act, won legislative approval of education reforms like standardized testing, open enrollment, early childhood education, smaller classes and Running Start, and instituted social programs like the Basic Health Plan and First Steps, which helps low-income pregnant women get needed services. Amid those accomplishments, there were observers who said he could have accomplished more had he wanted to mix it up a bit more with the Legislature.
But the public largely approved. He easily dispatched Republican challenger Bob Williams in 1988, winning 62.2 percent of the statewide vote, and would have been a clear favorite for a third term in the Democratic year of 1992 had he decided to run. He didn’t, announcing in 1991 that he was “out of gas” and was stepping out of public office. He didn’t step out of public life, though, as President Bill Clinton appointed him a deputy trade representative to the precursor of the World Trade Organization. But a more personal fight — and legacy — lay ahead in his home state.
In 1994, the year after his trade appointment, Gardner was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2000 he helped found the Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Care Center in Kirkland. In 2008, he mixed it up on a very controversial issue by campaigning for Washington’s “Death with Dignity” initiative to allow assisted suicide. Gardner told the Seattle Times in 2006, “When the day comes when I can no longer keep busy and I’m a burden to my wife and kids, I want to be able to control my exit.”
The 2008 initiative passed — with a 57.8 yes vote statewide — and Washington became the second state after Oregon to approve such a measure. But Gardner was unable to employ the new law to — as he put it — control his exit; Parkinson’s is not a considered terminal disease.
He died Friday night at age 76 as a public figure whose policies have had a lasting impact in Washington state — and whose personal struggles rendered a poignancy to his final political fight.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.