Joel Pritchard, who enjoyed blurring political lines during a stellar 32-year career as state legislator, congressman and lieutenant governor, died Thursday night. He was 72.
Pritchard, who had battled lymphoma three times, slipped into a coma Wednesday morning and died at 9:22 p.m. Thursday at his Seattle apartment, his son Frank Pritchard said.
One of the lions of Washington’s modern Republican Party, Pritchard occasionally tweaked his own party and earned admiration for working with colleagues from both sides of the political aisle.
He had plenty of practice with bipartisanship. He was frequently in the minority in Olympia and Washington, D.C., and for his entire eight years as lieutenant governor, he was second banana to a Democratic governor.
And he loved it.
And the Democrats loved him back.
“I consider Joel a giant of our political process for the entire second half of the 20th Century,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach.
A moderate-to-liberal Republican, Pritchard practiced centrist politics long before it became fashionable. When he was first elected to the state House, he bunked with two colleagues who would later join him in remaking the state GOP in a futurist, fiscally conservative, but socially liberal image - Dan Evans, later governor and U.S. senator, and Slade Gorton, later attorney general and U.S. senator.
Pritchard sponsored the state’s first voter-approved abortion rights referendum and in later years chided his party for what he saw as rigid socially conservative views and giving too much weight to religious conservatives.
He also decried what he saw as a loss of civility and too much raw partisanship at the state and national capitols.
Pritchard espoused environmental concerns, gun control, literacy, foreign trade, education and higher education, creation of a state income tax, and other interests more often associated with Democrats.
An affable, unassuming politician, Pritchard was remembered as a man of his word. Friends recall trying their best to talk him out of keeping a pledge he made to serve only six terms in the U.S. House. He would hear nothing of it.
The same issue surfaced years later when he left the lieutenant governor’s office after two terms, although re-election would have been a sure bet. A wrinkle in the state’s new term limits law would have allowed him to seek a third term, but he said he would abide by the spirit of term limits, not just the letter of the law, and retire. He did not seek reelection last fall.
“It’s time to move on,” he said. “By and large, people stay too long.”
Pritchard was also was a fun-loving extrovert who loved a good joke or war story. He invented pickleball.
Friends from both sides of the aisle say perhaps his best attribute was his ability to bring people together from both parties.
“Joel told me recently one of the smartest things I have ever heard about politics,” recalled a top Olympia lobbyist. “He said, ‘It’s totally amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”’
For his entire congressional career, Pritchard was in the minority and quickly learned he would have to network with the Democrats if he was to have any clout at all. Democrats, including Tom Foley, treated him as something of a class pet, bringing him into their delegation meetings and helping him protect his Seattle-area 1st District.
Foley, later to become speaker, headlined a testimonial dinner for Pritchard, joking: “This is an unprecedented event. It is unusual to get 650 people together to wish any member of Congress well.”
He called Pritchard “the cement that bonded us together.”
In a 1989 interview, Pritchard shrugged off the praise for his bipartisan approach: “Most of the time the delegation was eight (Democrats) to one (Republican) when I was in the House. When you’re the one, who wants to start a brawl?”
He was high on integrity. “You don’t have to give up your principles to work with people and be pleasant,” he said. “I have always been able to get along with people I disagree with, to help find a way out of impasses.
“It’s hard to be effective when you’re fighting with people. I can try to be a bridge, but you’ve got to have support from both sides of the aisle.”
Pritchard, the grandson of Washington settlers, served in the state House from 1959 to 1967 from Seattle’s “silk stocking” 36th District, later moving to the state Senate for a four-year term. He took on an entrenched incumbent Republican congressman in 1970, Tom Pelly. Pritchard lost, but Pelly got the message and retired. Pritchard served six two-year terms in the House and was a U.S. delegate to the United Nations.
He became director of government relations for a major Seattle law firm, Bogle & Gates, and was a television commentator. After a brief hiatus, he won an open race for lieutenant governor after the incumbent, his old high school football coach John Cherberg, retired.
Pritchard also was state director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group of federal deficit hawks, and was active on educational reform, literacy efforts and other projects.
Married and divorced twice, he had four children, Peggy, Frank, Anne and Jeanie. He was a graduate of the University of Washington.
Funeral plans were pending.