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, 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.
“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 Hughes, author of “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.
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.
His entry 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.
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.