Many governors have given lip service to a commitment to Eastern Washington, but infrequently put shoes to soil east of the Cascade Curtain. Booth Gardner, who died Friday after many years struggling with Parkinson’s disease, was not one of those governors.
Gardner visited Eastern Washington more often than any of his 18 predecessors during an eight-year term that concluded in 1993. He might have had another – he won with 62 percent of the vote in 1988 – but chose to step down.
He had no ties to Eastern Washington. His rather tumultuous childhood was spent in the Puget Sound area, and he earned his law and business degrees at the University of Washington and Harvard University. His political roots were in Pierce County, which he served as state senator and county executive.
Gardner was so little-known outside his home turf, he cleverly circulated “Booth Who?” campaign buttons that made a virtue of a low-key, affable style that won over voters but later served him badly when push came to shove in the Legislature. He carried the statewide vote in 1984, but lost in Spokane County by 1,000. Four years later, his margin of victory in the county was almost 18,000.
Gardner worked for it. Two weeks after he was inaugurated, Gardner spent a full day in the Mead School District getting a feel for how well the state was serving its students. At the time, in the middle of tight budget years much like the present, the answer was not well, and he dedicated a lot of time and resources during the remainder of his tenure trying to find the dollars to make up ground. Although he had some success, his most lasting contribution was implementation of Running Start, a program that has enabled thousands of qualified high school students to take college courses for credit, accelerating their secondary education and shrinking the cost.
Momentum, the business and government effort to jump start Spokane’s sullen 1980s economy, found a partner in Gardner, who early on supported a $4.3 million state contribution to expand the Ag Trade Center. Although initially reluctant, he also came to support SIRTI, which eventually became the catalyst for the Riverpoint Campus.
Gardner, with the help of another former governor, Chris Gregoire, also faced down federal efforts to make Hanford a nuclear waste repository, instead securing a deal that will – someday – get Hanford’s own waste removed.
Among his other achievements: Banning discrimination against gays in state hiring; getting legislation passed that locks up violent sex offenders like Kevin Coe for a lifetime; creating the Basic Health Plan; and passing the Growth Management Act.
In 1991, he made the largely symbolic, but appreciated, gesture of convening his full, 27-member cabinet in Spokane.
His one great misstep was a failed effort to implement an income tax, with offsetting cuts in the sales tax.
With such a record, it would be sad if Gardner was remembered for his last campaign on behalf of the Death with Dignity Act, to which he dedicated substantial amounts of his money and what energy his Parkinson’s had not taken by 2008. His greater achievements were for the living.