Former Gov. Booth Gardner dies at 76

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SEATTLE — When Gov. Booth Gardner first ran for the state’s highest office in 1984, many in Washington did not even know his name. That soon changed and he went on to become a two-term governor and one of the most popular politicians in state history.

From his time in Olympia to his recent campaign championing the “Death with Dignity” initiative, Gov. Gardner’s legacy is still widely felt today.

Washington state’s 19th governor, he died Friday night at his Tacoma home from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 76.

“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,” the former governor’s daughter, Gail Gant, said in a news release.

“I learned so much from Booth because he was a man that led by example,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said after learning of Gardner’s death. “He demonstrated that governing is about the people you serve — and serve with — by learning everyone’s name, what issues they cared deeply about, and by taking the time to work with anyone that shared his desire to make Washington state a better place to live.”

Under Gardner’s tenure from 1985 to 1993, with an economy that was largely booming, the state took notable steps on education and the environment and on expanding social and health services.

The state began to institute requirements for students to pass standardized tests before graduating from high school, raised state university faculties’ salaries, enacted the Growth Management Act, initiated the Basic Health Plan and began First Steps, which helps low-income pregnant women obtain health and social services.

Gardner also had an astute eye for talent, assembling a Cabinet whose members — including former Gov. Chris Gregoire — have gone on to further prominence.

“He brought people together and he had a vision,” said John C. Hughes, author of the book “Booth Who?,” a biography of the former governor that is part of the Office of the Secretary of State’s project documenting Washington’s history makers.

Gregoire said Gardner “leaves a lasting legacy of nurturing a generation of leaders, including me.”

For Gardner, “the importance of education was paramount — investing in programs that helped young people escape poverty and drugs,” Hughes said. And he had “just his sunny optimism and idealism. He had this bully pulpit that investing in people was crucial and would pay real dividends.”

In recent years, Gardner, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, was perhaps best known for championing an initiative allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients seeking to hasten their own deaths. Voters passed that measure by a wide margin in 2008.

Throughout his life, Gardner had a likability that served him well, from his days as a business leader to those serving as the first Pierce County executive, from the statehouse in Olympia to the U.S. deputy trade representative in Geneva.

Born in Tacoma, William Booth Gardner was 4 when his parents divorced. He spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between his parents, Evelyn Booth Gardner Clapp, a socialite, and Bryson “Brick” Gardner, a sales manager for a car dealership whom news stories described as a free spirit with an alcohol problem.

His father remarried, as did his mother. She married Norton Clapp, whose family members were substantial investors in Weyerhaeuser, and who eventually became president of Weyerhaeuser. He also became Gardner’s stepfather.

When Gardner was 14, his mother and sister died in a plane crash in California.

After his father moved to Hawaii, Gardner attended a boarding school in Vermont, then finished high school at Lakeside Academy. While attending the University of Washington, he didn’t fit in at the fraternity he joined and moved into his aunt’s house.

His aunt pushed him to find a part-time job with the city’s parks department and it was there that Gardner had an epiphany, coaching and tutoring kids at parks and recreation centers in the Central Area.

“I realized I could make a difference in people’s lives,” he is quoted as saying in “Booth Who?” At the UW, he met his first wife, Jean Forstrom, who encouraged him to run for student vice president. They married four years later and had two children: Douglas and Gail.

Gardner earned an MBA from Harvard, and at 25, inherited his mother’s fortune. Though he still penny-pinched in his day-to-day life, he contributed money to everything from establishing the Central Area Youth Association to creating Seattle Treatment Center, an alcohol-detoxification program. And he invested money in businesses including the Alpental ski resort, an oil-recycling business and apple orchards. He became associate director of the University of Puget Sound School of Business Administration and Economics.

And he began to think about entering politics.

His entree into politics began in 1970 when he won a Pierce County seat in the state Senate against Republican incumbent Larry Faulk. He wasn’t a standout legislator, according to news accounts at the time.

When his stepfather asked him to take over running the family’s corporate empire, he agreed, managing for seven years Laird Norton Co., which included building-supply, real estate and property-management operations. He also succeeded Clapp in serving on the boards of major corporations including Weyerhaeuser.

The pull of politics drew him back in and he won the 1981 election for Pierce County executive.

In 1984, he decided to run for governor, despite a lack of statewide name recognition that prompted his campaign staff to come up with the slogan: “Booth Who?” It wasn’t a question statewide voters asked for long, as he defeated incumbent Gov. John Spellman.

As governor, he made some notable appointments to state agencies.

Besides Gregoire, whom he appointed as head of the Department of Ecology, he named Denny Heck his chief of staff and later founded TVW, a public-affairs television network; and Charles Z. Smith, appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court — the first African American to hold such a position.

Gardner handled some political hot potatoes, including the issue of environmental protection versus property rights, and he helped broker an end to a teachers strike that affected thousands across the state.

It was a lack of willingness to dive into the rough and tumble of politics that some say led to his not being able to accomplish all he could.

He was unable to get many of the tax increases he sought, which eventually laid the groundwork for the fiscal crisis his successor inherited. While he established a high-level commission to lay the foundation for education reform, lawmakers rejected his proposed tax increases to finance a public-school-improvement plan.

In retrospect, others have given his time in office a B grade — an assessment he agrees with, according to the book “Booth Who?”

“This will sound strange,” Gardner said in the book. “But I didn’t think it was worth the price to go for an A.”

After Gardner ruled out a run for a third term, President Bill Clinton appointed him a deputy U.S. trade representative. He served as the U.S. ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — the precursor to the World Trade Organization (WTO) — in Geneva.

Gardner was candid about how his own 1994 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease affected the decision to get back into the political fray.

“Since I’ve had Parkinson’s, obviously I’ve thought about the end,” he said in a 2006 Seattle Times story. “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.”

Ironically, the Death with Dignity Act, which voters approved with nearly 58 percent of the vote, would not be applicable to the former governor because his disease is not considered terminal.

Gardner’s efforts on the issue were documented in an Oscar-nominated short documentary, “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner.”

Besides daughter Gail, (and her husband Stephen Gant) of Tacoma, he is survived by son Douglas Gardner (wife Jill Gardner) of University Place, and eight grandchildren.

Arrangements for a public memorial service will be announced shortly.

Gov. Gardner’s family requests that memorial donations be made to the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation, 400 Mercer St. No. 504, Seattle, WA, 98109.

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