Gardner fostered era of action based on good ideas

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TACOMA — Elected officials, especially one as prominent as a governor, tend to accumulate enemies.

Booth Gardner, who died Friday night, is the exception to the rule. When he left office after two terms as Washington’s 19th governor, his approval-to-disapproval ratio was two-to-one – robust enough that he probably could have won a third term if he wanted.

He didn’t, which is also rare for a politician (and explains a bit about why he remained popular).

The anti-politician. That’s as a good a label as any. Affable, charming, a bit of a flirt, comfortable with small groups (but much less so with crowds), likeable if not really knowable.

I first met the future governor in 1983 when I was working for the Everett Herald and he was rumored to be considered challenging then-incumbent Gov. John Spellman.

In his office in the County-City Building with no staff hovering, the first-ever Pierce County executive sat in a government-issue desk chair with one leg propped over the arm, his hands clasped behind his head and talked about the mess he’d inherited. Two years before, voters had changed the government from a three-commissioner form to an executive-council form. It was a direct and firm response to a racketeering scandal that including the elected sheriff providing cover for a hapless gang that sought to control bars and nightclubs.

Gardner had to restore credibility to county government while resolving a deep budget crisis. He did both for the most part and after pledging to stay for eight years and then go back to business, he was already considering a race for governor.

Still, it was easy, to write him as an easily bored dilettante who’d never been tested, who relied on a wealthy stepfather and inherited wealth to get where he was. I can’t name many insiders or a single newsie who thought he would get past the Democratic primary, let alone defeat a vulnerable Spellman.

Sure, Gardner was wealthy. And yes, he spent a lot of his own money on the campaign. But as we saw just last year, having and spending personal wealth doesn’t guarantee success. Gradually a lousy campaigner became a pretty good one and neither the primary nor the general election vote counts were close. Booth Gardner, it turned out, did have the fire in his belly that many doubted. And he quite simply clicked with voters.

But what appealed to voters wasn’t always appreciated by the political class. Then-Speaker Joe King often shook his head at the naivete of the man, saying “Booth doesn’t think politics is a contact sport.”

Again, Booth agreed with the criticism. “I thought a lot more could be accomplished based on logic,” Gardner joked as he was leaving office. “I put that thought to rest very quickly.”

But he was a pretty good manager, becoming the first of a series of technocrats in the office, not just talking about efficiency but doing the hard — and mostly unrewarded — work to make it happen.

Toward the end of his second term, Gardner articulated the dichotomy of his governorship. He ran on the platform of good management to restore faith in government “but I quickly learned two things,” he told the Spokane Rotary Club in 1991. “First, that while everybody is in favor of good management, hardly anybody is inspired by it. And second, that good management is a means to an end.”

His policy ends were significant — welfare reform, early childhood education expansion, the state Water Quality Program, the first response to the AIDS crisis, the three-party agreement for cleanup at Hanford, targeted health care for pregnant women and later for low-income children. His most-lasting policy legacy may be the education reform movement that emerged from the 1991 teachers strike and the commission he convened.

As he was packing up his office, Gardner was wrestling with his legacy, wondering if he had done enough. As usual, he was his toughest critic.

“You’re not giving him any credit for the notion that he allowed good things to happen,” said his former press secretary Jim Kneeland at the time. “He created an environment where people could act and develop ideas.”

When I read Gardner that quote, he smiled. That was as good a legacy as any he could come up with.

“I’m not uncomfortable with others getting the credit, he said. “In fact, I’m uncomfortable when it’s focused on me.”

Email Callaghan at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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