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Sunday Spin2: Janet Gilpatrick will be missed

Janet Gilpatrick never held elective office but put her stamp on the politics and governance of Eastern Washington for some 17 years by making sure things got done right for someone who did.

That someone was Tom Foley, the Spokane congressman who rose through the ranks to become speaker of the House. While Foley rose from committee chairman to majority whip to majority leader to speaker, Gilpatrick headed up the staff taking care of business back in Spokane.

To many, she was eyes and ears of Tom Foley in Eastern Washington, meeting with business leaders, school officials, farmers and just about anyone else who had an idea or a request for their congressman when he wasn’t around. When he was, she was the person who made sure he got where he needed to be when he needed to be there, no small trick with a boss who lingered at one event talking to constituents while the time got shorter to get to the next one.

But Gilpatrick was adept at covering the miles between cities and towns in the far reaches of the 5th District at speeds that would impress a NASCAR fan. Ever been stopped for speeding, she was once asked after covering the stretch from Spokane to Pullman in an impressively short time span. Oh yes, she replied. Does having the speaker of the House in the car get you out of a ticket? It might if they were allowed to mention it, she said, but they weren’t, so she would just take the ticket and pay the fine.

She also saved my life -- well, kept me on my feet, at least -- during the 1988 Democratic National Convention by taking pity on a starving reporter and equally famished newspaper photographer who had wandered into a gala political event for her boss and pointed to a table of fancy food and beverages all but untouched by crowd of politicians who were too busy schmoozing. 

Eat before you collapse, she said. Can't do it, we replied, ethics rules say we can't take anything of value from sources, and that food's definitely of value. It's going to be thrown out in a few minutes, she said, I won't tell anyone if you don't.So she fixed us to-go bags and we worked another eight hours straight covering the convention. She never told anyone because Janet Gilpatrick was a woman of her word.

When campaign season came around, as it did every other summer for Foley, she split her time between the congressional office and the campaign. There were things she could tell a reporter on the record, things off the record, and things she couldn’t tell at all. She was the rarest of political operatives – passionate and knowledgeable about issues and loyal to her boss without ever steering anyone wrong.

She took those talents to a career in public relations after closing up Foley’s office. She’d had some health problems lately and went downhill after her longtime husband Thomas passed away, daughter Annie Gilpatrick said. Her memorial will be May 14 at Hennessey Smith on North Division.

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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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