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Gov. Booth Gardner, part-time islander, dies

March 19, 2013 · 10:53 AM
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Booth Gardner, the charismatic Democrat who ousted Washington’s last Republican governor in 1984, launched the Basic Health Care program and later used his long personal battle with Parkinson’s disease to spearhead the state’s “death with dignity” law, has died. Gardner was 76.

Gardner, the state’s 19th governor, died March 15 of complications related to Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Because Parkinson’s itself is not fatal, the law approved by voters in 2008 — allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients seeking to hasten their own deaths — did not apply to Gardner.

“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,” said Gardner’s daughter, Gail Gant.

Gardner, an heir to the Weyer-haueser timber fortune, was Pierce County Executive and little known elsewhere in the state when he entered the governor’s race in 1983. His campaign team adopted the signature slogan Booth Who?, and he went on to defeat now-U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott in the Democratic primary and upset incumbent Republican John Spellman in the general election.

“Governor Gardner was a progressive visionary ahead of his time. His leadership helped give us environmental and land-use laws that shaped the successful Washington of today. And he championed gay rights and basic health care access for the poor long before they were popular,” said former Gov. Chris Gregoire. “He also leaves a lasting legacy of nurturing a generation of leaders, including me.”

Gardner disliked many of the public speaking aspects of campaigning and governing but was famous for his common touch both on the campaign trail and in the halls of Olympia. Although he had an MBA from Harvard University, Gardner liked to refer to his management style as MBWA — Management By Walking Around.

“Booth Garner was one of the most confident, compassionate people I have ever known,” said Ron Dotzauer, Gardner’s campaign manager in his first run for governor. “Even though he came from great wealth, he had a deep ability to connect with people, and they sensed that he truly cared about them.”

As governor, Gardner championed education initiatives, including funding for early childhood education and the University of Washington. He launched the state’s Basic Health Care program, the first program of its kind in the nation, to provide health services to the working poor. He appointed the first minority justice to the state Supreme Court, Charles Z. Smith, and was hailed for recognizing Indian tribal sovereignty.

He banned smoking in state workplaces and helped usher in modern growth management and environmental regulations to rein in sprawl, clean up waterways and protect farms, wetlands and wildlife.

Later in life, Gardner agreed with the critics who faulted his rocky relationship with the Legislature and his reluctance to horse-trade and cut deals with lawmakers.

“I hated it,” Gardner later said. “It was so distasteful to me. I almost wish I could do it all over again. It was a missed opportunity. I should have been better at it.”

He won reelection easily in 1988 and served as the chair of the National Governors Association. He chose not to run for a third term. President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which later became the World Trade Organization.

A year after his retirement in 1994, Gardner was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He remained active in public life, however, teaming with former Republican Gov. Dan Evans to champion spending for higher education and speaking out against a proposed expansion of casino gambling in Washington.

He also became active in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. He helped found the Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Care Center, which offers specialists, physical therapy and other assistance to patients and their families. He did much of his work in the later years of his life from his part-time residence in Burton, a spacious house perched above Governor’s Row.

In 2008, in what he described as his last campaign, Gardner became the public face of Washington’s Death With Dignity initiative. The measure passed with nearly 58 percent of the vote. A 2009 documentary on the measure, “The Last Campaign of Booth Gardner,” was nominated for an Academy Award.

Gardner, who was married twice, is survived by his daughter, Gail Gant, his son Douglas Gardner, eight grandchildren and two half-brothers. In the past seven years he has lived in Tacoma and particularly enjoyed spending time with his children and grandchildren.

His funeral will be private, but a public memorial is being planned in Tacoma.

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