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Spin Control: Gardner’s humor always helped him

Booth Gardner seemed an unlikely choice for governor when he first hit the campaign trail as “Booth Who?” in 1984. The Pierce County executive and former legislator wasn’t a complete political novice, but he was an unknown in Eastern Washington and much of the state.

He was a Weyerhaeuser heir, which meant he had money. But that wasn’t strictly an advantage in the beginning – at least not with some entrenched Spokane Democrats 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 huffed at a McDermott fundraiser 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 blue-collar unions. McDermott’s people tried to paint him as a spoiled rich kid, a dilettante; he beat them handily in the primary.

Spellman’s people shifted to the old GOP playbook and called him a tool of “big labor bosses.” Suddenly, unions previously 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 sported buttons proclaiming “Hi! I’m a Big Labor Boss.” Gardner accepted one and pinned it on to the crowd’s delight.

Spellman later tried a different tack, accusing Gardner of MBA doubletalk for referring to some economic program as a “zero-sum game.” But painting Gardner as too cerebral – the kids’ soccer coach with the almost perpetual smile, who stressed instead his MBWA (“management by walking around”), whose voice was described by one political writer as Elmer Fudd on helium – didn’t work either. He won easily.

Four years later, the “Booth Who?” buttons were replaced by “Voting Booth” buttons, 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 awarded a slot to make a televised speech at the national convention. But Spokane supporters of Jesse Jackson appreciated that he deviated from the Dukakis campaign script to praise their guy in a call for unity.

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

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

In October 1991, when the worst wildfires in recent history torched Spokane County, Gardner was at Spokane International Airport the next morning, where a National Guard helicopter was waiting. It flew over still-smoldering sections of the county, finally setting down on an empty stretch of Highway 2 near Chattaroy. A Guard officer pointed left to a stand of scorched pines; until the previous day, he said, that was a mobile home park.

Gardner got out of the chopper, 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, promising the state would do whatever it took to help rebuild.

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

Some delegates thought it disrespectful. Gardner shrugged it off. “Politics is a contact sport. I’m thankful it hasn’t been worse.”

By then he was grayer, slower and 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, showing he knew exactly where he was. “See, a sense of humor helps.”

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at spincontrol.

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