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Remembering Booth Gardner

Booth Gardner seemed the most unlikely of gubernatorial candidates when he first hit the campaign trail as “Booth Who?” in 1984. Sure, he was the Pierce County executive and a former legislator, so he wasn’t a complete political novice. And he was a Weyerhaeuser heir, which meant he had money.

But the money wasn’t strictly an advantage in the beginning, at least with some of Spokane’s entrenched Democrats . . .

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. . . who were backing Jim McDermott, the more liberal Seattle legislator spoiling for a rematch with Republican Gov. John Spellman. How can a millionaire be a Democrat, one longtime 3rd District legislator asked at a McDermott fund-raiser in North Spokane, conveniently forgetting names like Roosevelt and Kennedy.

The ever ebullient Gardner was a “Business Democrat”, relatively rare for those days, a Harvard MBA more comfortable with corporate executives than labor leaders. McDermott’s people tried to paint him as a spoiled rich kid, a dilettante; he beat them handily in the primary. Rather than continue that theme, Spellman’s people fell back on the old GOP playbook and tried to paint Gardner as a tool of the “big labor bosses.”

Suddenly, unions who were lukewarm to Gardner were red hot for him. When he came to the Spokane Labor Council’s rally a month after the primary, rank and file members, their spouses and their kids were sporting buttons that read “Hi! I’m a Big Labor Boss”. Gardner accepted one, pinned it on and the crowd went wild.

Spellman later tried to recover, accusing Gardner of MBA doubletalk for referring to some economic program as a “zero-sum game” which in 1984 wasn’t a common phrase for politicians. But trying to paint Gardner as too cerebral – the kids’ soccer coach with the almost perpetual smile, whose voice was described by one political writer as Elmer Fudd on helium – didn’t work either. Gardner won handily.

Four years later, the “Booth Who?” buttons were replaced by ones that said “Voting Booth” and he won in a walk. By then, he was a rising star of the national party, a friend of presidential nominee Mike Dukakis, and given a slot to make a speech on national television at the national convention. Midway through the speech, the TelePrompTer died and he had to ad lib while technicians fixed it.

Were you a little scared addressing the convention and a national audience, he was asked afterwards. “No. I was a lot scared,” he replied.

In his eight years, he made regular trips to Spokane. He cut a ribbon for the Centennial Trail, visited classrooms, spoke at business luncheons. Many of the jokes he told were self-deprecating. One of his favorites, that when he stepped out of the shower on a recent morning, he asked his wife Jean what his constituents would think if they could see him. “That I married you for your money,” he’d say she told him.

Or he’d admit a fondness for junk food, which other people were trying to rein in, and that on a trip back to the mansion on a recent evening, he told the trooper driving the car to pull off at a burger joint for a late-night snack. Can’t do it, governor, the trooper reportedly said, I’ve got strict orders from my boss not to make those stops. “Trooper, I’m your boss’s boss. We’re pulling over.”

In October 1991, when the worst wildfires in recent history ripped through Spokane County, Gardner flew to Spokane where a National Guard helicopter was waiting, to survey the damage. He invited me to ride along, and we flew over northern sections of the county still smoldering, then put the chopper down on an empty stretch of Highway 2 near Chattaroy. The Guard officer pointed left, to a stand of scorched pines; until the previous day, a mobile home park was there.

Gardner walked across the highway and into the rubble, listening to the stories and comforting the burned out residents. When he got back to Spokane, he made a detour to a legislative committee meeting in the city and promised the state would do whatever it took to help rebuild.

His visits to Spokane were less frequent after he left office in 1993. But in 2008, Gardner had a new campaign, for a ballot measure that would allow physicians to assist a terminal patient commit suicide. When he came to the Spokane County Democratic Convention to urge delegates to sign Initiative 1000, some former allies now on the other side of the initiative fight circulated a letter suggesting the measure was so poorly written that healthy people could use it because technically, everyone is “terminal.”

Gardner didn’t know about the letter before he spoke, and later shrugged it off. “Politics is a contact sport. I’m thankful it hasn’t been worse.”

By then he was grayer, slower, struggling with Parkinson’s disease, and when he spoke to the crowd in the University High School auditorium, he sometimes lost his way in the speech. Eventually, he felt the need to apologize: “With Parkinson’s, I have memory lapses. But it’s nice to be here in Walla Walla.”

And then he smiled the old smile. “See, a sense of humor helps.”

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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