Life sent him plenty of challenges: family tragedy near the beginning, Parkinson’s disease near the end.
Still, Booth Gardner could have coasted through much of his life on his family money and his charisma.
Instead he chose politics, and one difficult task after another -- leading Pierce County out of a corruption-plagued era; trying to run state government like a business; banging his head against the Legislature’s marble walls pushing an income tax; crusading late in life to change how Washingtonians are allowed to die.
Gardner, 76, died Friday night at his Tacoma home.
He served as Washington’s 19th governor as the timber industry declined and Microsoft emerged, as the politics of Washington turned decidedly blue, as a state coming to terms with its explosive growth tried to manage sprawl and water pollution.
A CEO-style leader who soon learned he wasn’t entirely in charge of the company known as state government, he struggled to handle the Legislature, partly because of a reluctance to play hardball. A columnist labeled him “Prince Faintheart.”
“Booth Gardner is the antithesis of a politician,” then-House Speaker Joe King told The News Tribune in 1989 in explaining his lack of legislative savvy. “The process is still difficult for him. I continue to think that’s why the public likes him so well. He seems like the opposite of a politician -- and he is.”
And the public did like him. His popularity never waned through his time as governor.
Gregarious and flirtatious, Gardner would meet people, learn a detail about their lives and remember to ask them about it. His cuddly, nice-guy demeanor earned another nickname, bestowed by state Sen. Barney Goltz of Bellingham in an ’80s pop-culture reference: “the cabbage-patch governor.”
ON THE TRAIL In his early days on the campaign trail, though, Gardner was shy about even asking people for their votes.
The Pierce County executive had such a low statewide profile in 1983 as he readied his run for governor the next year, his campaign printed up buttons with the slogan, “Booth Who?”
But he ousted a sitting governor, Republican John Spellman, beginning Democrats’ grip on the office that continues to this day.
Spellman had served through a recession and while the economy was on the rebound by 1984, he was saddled with the tough budget decisions he had made. Gardner was able to campaign as an outsider touting his business acumen, inoculating him to some degree against actually taking stands on issues.
“I didn’t get involved in government because of causes or issues,” he said on the campaign trail. “I just think the state can be run in a better, more businesslike manner.”
It didn’t help Spellman’s campaign that it originally focused on Jim McDermott as the likely Democratic opponent, only to be surprised by Gardner defeating McDermott in the primary election.
Four years later, Gardner won re-election in a landslide against a state lawmaker, Bob Williams of Longview.
Gardner’s last campaign was not for any office.
He had learned he had Parkinson’s soon after leaving the governor’s mansion, while living in Switzerland as the U.S. ambassador to what is now the World Trade Organization. Over the next years, he lost control over many of his motor functions, and worried he would lose control of his fate.
Gardner argued patients should have a right to assisted suicide. In 2008, he sponsored the so-called Death with Dignity initiative, modeled after the first law of its kind in Oregon.
It would later be the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary. In the film, “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner,” he described thinking constantly about when he would die. But in 2010, he said: “I don’t think about dying any more.”
“But,” he added, “I always go to the base, that people ought to have the right to choose.”
Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.
In 2011, according to the most recent available data, 103 people obtained medication to end their lives, and at least 70 actually took the lethal dose.
To obtain the medication, patients must be terminally ill with just six months to live. Parkinson’s patients don’t get such a timetable -- so Gardner wasn’t eligible to take advantage of the law.
EARLY DAYS William Booth Gardner was born Aug. 21, 1936, at Tacoma General Hospital, the scion of two families with a lineage in Washington: the Gardners of Tacoma and the wealthier Booths of Seattle.
His father Bryson, known as Brick, was an alcoholic who was often cruel to his son, according to Booth Gardner’s biographer, John C. Hughes. As his parents’ strained marriage fell apart, his mother Evelyn met Norton Clapp. They married when Gardner was 4, soon after Evelyn and Brick’s divorce was final.
Gardner would spend most of his childhood living with his father. But his tie to Clapp, heir to a timber-industry fortune and later Weyerhaeuser CEO, was key to his later business and political success.
When Gardner was just 14, and attending Clover Park Junior High in Lakewood before graduating from Seattle’s Lakeside School, his mother and sister flew to a flower show in Santa Barbara, Calif, where his mother was to receive a prize for an orchid. Their twin-engine airplane crashed in the Santa Ynez Mountains, killing both.
“That event had a greater effect on me than anything else in my life, before or after,” Gardner told Hughes. “I felt alone in the world and that I was somehow responsible for all of this.”
It also left him with an inheritance that made him a millionaire. And it led Clapp to promise his help if Gardner ever got in trouble, according to his biographer.
Clapp would eventually hire Gardner to run a company and help him on his campaigns, even though Clapp was a Republican at odds with some of Gardner’s politics.
“That had the effect of taking a big anchor and moving it out deeper,” Gardner told Hughes. “I knew I could go in the deep water now because I had a way out. I had a savior. And that’s when I started really thinking big.“
MOVING UP In spite of or because of his money, Gardner had an urge to help the needy from his early days, and he spent much of college at the University of Washington coaching football and baseball for kids in Seattle’s poor Central Area -- kids like future rocker Jimi Hendrix.
Gardner was often described as uncomfortable with his wealth -- and frugal. There was his lifelong penchant for fast food such asTacoma’s Frisko Freeze, a habit that paired well with Gardner’s being an exercise nut, until he was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. (Even then, Gardner didn’t always follow doctor’s orders to cut back on hamburgers.)
There was the first furniture he bought with his first wife, the former Jean Forstrom -- at Goodwill. And although the couple had a summer home on Vashon Island, Jean Gardner had to hang clothes out to dry and burn driftwood in a wood stove when they stayed there because of his refusal to buy a dryer or range, she said in a story in the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer.
“He always felt uncomfortable in fancy clothes, fancy cars or whatever,” she said then. “I really don’t know why. Maybe he felt guilty.”
The couple had two children, Doug and Gail. Booth and Jean Gardner would separate after leaving the Governor’s Mansion and officially divorce in 2001. Eight days later, Gardner married Cynthia Robin Perkins. They divorced in 2008.
Gardner earned his bachelor’s degree from UW in business administration, then a UW law degree, then a masters of business administration from Harvard University. After a stint as director of the University of Puget Sound’s business school, Gardner entered politics by unseating a state senator, Larry Faulk.
He stepped down without finishing his full term after Clapp made him president of his firm, the Laird Norton Co. Some thought new public-disclosure regulations requiring politicians to report their finances motivated his resignation three weeks before the rules took effect, according to a Seattle Times story at the time.
It was only a few years before he returned to politics. Federal agents had busted a criminal ring involving bail bonds, arsons, bribes and Pierce County officials. In reaction, city voters approved a new county charter including a county executive.
They elected Gardner as the first to hold the job.
As executive he pushed a controversial sewer project in Lakewood, and presided over a newly reorganized county government that saw a $4.7 million deficit turn into a $1 million surplus. That was partly because of an increase in local sales tax. It was also because Gardner reduced the county workforce, froze pay and reduced the number of county cars taken home by sheriff’s deputies and other employees.
“Deputies used to wave with their whole hand,” Gardner told a reporter in 1983. “Now they use only one finger.”
The budget turnaround, along with Gardner’s business acumen, helped him make his case to become governor.
LEGACY AS GOVERNOR Gardner campaigned as a proven manager, and once elected won plaudits from some for being an effective administrator. He touted his strategy of “Management By Walking Around,” making frequent trips to state offices to talk to employees.
He couldn’t achieve the tax reform he repeatedly sought, despite offering to lower the state sales tax and make other changes in exchange for an income tax.
He saw mixed results on K-12 education.
He butted heads with the teachers’ union but started a program that became a national model. Labeled “Schools for the 21st Century,” it allowed 33 pilot projects to experiment with changes in, for example, length of the school year and administrative requirements.
And Gardner convened a commission that proposed a major package of education reform, which didn’t pass as House Bill 1209 until after he left office. Among other changes, it led to creation of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests.
On another major priority, he pushed for and won a cigarette tax to fund cleanup of the Puget Sound. Early steps toward making preschool and health insurance available to the poor were taken on his watch.
He signed the Growth Management Act, regulating land use, and the law making Washington the first state in the nation to lock up violent sex offenders who had served their prison sentences. They would be confined at the Special Commitment Center, later to find a home on McNeil Island.
Gardner reached landmark agreements with the federal government to clean up nuclear waste at Hanford, with Indian tribes to set up a framework for negotiating key issues rather than going to court, and with state workers complaining of pay discrimination.
That last deal boosted pay for thousands of mostly female employees, and it wasn’t the only way Gardner promoted diversity in the state workforce. He also named the first ethnic minority to the state Supreme Court, Charles Z. Smith, and issued an order banning discrimination against gays in state employment.
Still, assessments of his administration at the time tended to focus on the personal.
“He humanized government,” then-Secretary of State Ralph Munro said as Gardner’s second term winded down. And Gardner’s chief of staff, Denny Heck, now a congressman, said at the time: “The secret to Booth Gardner’s popularity was that there were 15,000 people in the state, each of whom thought they had a personal relationship with Booth. ... and they were right.”
Staff writer Peter Callaghan of The News Tribune contributed to this report.