Booth Gardner left his mark on state's history | Roegner

Booth Gardner (Aug. 21, 1936 - March 15, 2013) served as Washington
Booth Gardner (Aug. 21, 1936 - March 15, 2013) served as Washington's 19th governor between 1985 and 1993.
— image credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

Recently we lost one of the finest public officials of the last generation when Booth Gardner passed away from complications of Parkinson’s.

I had the opportunity to work with Booth, as his time in public office paralleled much of mine as mayor in Auburn. Booth also became a friend.

He was unknown to the public outside Pierce County, and so low key as Pierce County’s first executive that “Booth Who” became part of his strategy when he ran against incumbent John Spellman for governor in 1984. It was later the title of his biography.

I tried to talk him out of running for governor because I thought Pierce County really needed to have his stability for two terms to ensure that the new executive-council structure, which had replaced the board of commissioners after a series of scandals, was fully in place. And, I thought Spellman had been a pretty good governor.

But run he did, and won. He served two terms and could have easily won a third. One publication wasn’t reaching when it referred to him as beloved. He had an unusual charisma, and his ability to connect with individuals was so strong that if you met him, you became a fan. He was the best politician at working a crowd one person at a time I ever saw, but surprisingly he was uncomfortable giving speeches to large groups. When he spoke to the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and its 1,200 luncheon guests, I would meet him at the entrance and walk with him to the podium. He delivered an outstanding speech every time.

It’s well known that he had a fondness for Frisko Freeze burgers. One year, we had a fast food burger at his place at the luncheon rather than the salmon everyone else was eating. He relaxed much faster. One of his grandchildren even joked that Gardner couldn’t remember his daughter’s phone number, but always remembered the number to Frisko Freeze.

Gardner left an undeniable mark on our state’s history. He was smart, well read and had a passion for improving education and social services. He initiated a Basic Health Plan, and implemented the Growth Management Act to protect our environment from urban sprawl.

He was also ahead of his time, as he championed equal pay for women and supported gay and lesbian couples long before it gained public acceptance. He was a Democrat, but with a CEO style gained from his private sector experience, he brought business ideas into state government, and it helped him to work across party lines.

Booth encouraged many of us to learn MBA — “management by walking around” — as he felt talking to the people who actually did the work was the best way to find improvements. He was right. There are a lot of public employees that will tell you about the time the governor sat at their desk and asked them about their job. He valued people and they worked all that much harder for him.

Part of his popularity was based on his image as the anti-politician, and he felt elected officials should care about doing “what’s right,” not just what was politically expedient. Although he got better at it, he struggled with the hardball give-and-take that is part of the Olympia culture.

His humor was a naturally disarming talent. In his run for executive, he had heard his opponent’s speech more than 100 times, and since he was going first at one of the debates, and he was a little mischievous, he gave his opponent’s speech. Even opponents admitted they liked him.

He was also loyal. His bodyguard’s son was playing a basketball game at Auburn High School on a night the bodyguard was supposed to look after Gardner. Gardner changed part of his schedule, called me, and we went to the basketball game.

The governor attended a simple high school basketball game because he cared about someone who worked for him. He had several late nights in a row, but he was still in Auburn at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to kick off our centennial.

And despite a 20-hour plane flight from Europe, he still spoke at my retirement.

He was also notoriously frugal. Former Gov. Christine Gregoire noted he had to get a “loan” from an assistant for $2 to buy Girl Scout Cookies.

But frugality had a time and place. When he was governor, he was out to dinner with a friend, who fully understood Gardner’s frugal nature, and picked up the tab.

Gardner looked at the tip and said “that’s not enough.” The other person said, “I’m paying the bill, what do you care?” Gardner said. “They will remember how much that tip is, and they have no idea who you are, but they know who I am.”

The tip was increased.

He worked with former Gov. Dan Evans to rebuild our college campuses. And he championed the Death with Dignity law.

If you made a list of the professional and personal traits you wanted in a public leader, it would look like Booth Gardner. He was a rare talent who left footprints for the rest of us and a legacy today’s officials should try to match. He will be missed.


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