Booth Gardner, the charismatic Democrat who ousted Washington’s last Republican governor in 1984, launched the Basic Health Care program and later used his long personal battle with Parkinson’s disease to spearhead the state’s death with dignity law, has died. Gardner was 76.
Gardner died March 15 of complications related to Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Because Parkinson’s itself is not fatal, the death with dignity law approved by voters in 2008 did not apply to Gardner.
“We’re very sad to lose my father, who had been struggling with a difficult disease for many years, but we are relieved to know that he’s at rest now and his fight is done,” said Gardner’s daughter, Gail Gant.
Gardner, an heir to the Weyerhaueser timber fortune, was Pierce County executive and little known elsewhere in the state when he entered the governor’s race in 1983. His campaign team adopted the signature slogan Booth Who?, and he went on to defeat now-U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott in the Democratic primary and upset incumbent Republican John Spellman in the general election.
“Governor Gardner was a progressive visionary ahead of his time. His leadership helped give us environmental and land-use laws that shaped the successful Washington of today. And he championed gay rights and basic health care access for the poor long before they were popular,” said former Gov. Christine Gregoire. “He also leaves a lasting legacy of nurturing a generation of leaders, including me.”
Gardner disliked many of the public speaking aspects of campaigning and governing but was famous for his common touch both on the campaign trail and in the halls of Olympia. Although he had an MBA from Harvard University, the charismatic and popular Gardner liked to refer to his management style as MBWA -- Management By Walking Around.
“Booth Garner was one of the most confident, compassionate people I have ever known,” said Ron Dotzauer, Gardner’s campaign manager in his first run for governor. “Even though he came from great wealth, he had a deep ability to connect with people and they sensed that he truly cared about them.”
As governor, Gardner built a progressive record and was in many ways ahead of his time. He championed education initiatives, including funding for early childhood education and the University of Washington. He launched the state’s Basic Health Care program, the first program of its kind in the nation, to provide health services to the working poor. He appointed the first minority justice to the Washington State Supreme Court, Charles Z. Smith, and was hailed for recognizing Indian tribal sovereignty. He worked to advance the careers of minorities and women in state government, including now former Gov. Gregoire, and he championed gay rights. He banned smoking in state workplaces and helped usher in modern growth management and environmental regulations to rein in sprawl, clean up waterways and protect farms, wetlands and wildlife.
Later in life, Gardner agreed with the critics who faulted his rocky relationship with the Legislature and his reluctance to horse-trade and cut deals with lawmakers.
“I hated it!” Gardner later said. “It was so distasteful to me. I almost wish I could do it all over again. It was a missed opportunity. I should have been better at it.”
He won reelection easily in 1988 and served as the chair of the National Governors Association. He chose not to run for a third term. President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which later became the World Trade Organization.
A year after his retirement in 1994, Gardner was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He remained active in public life, however, teaming with former Republican Gov. Dan Evans to champion spending for higher education and speaking out against a proposed expansion of casino gambling in Washington.
He also became an activist in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. He helped found the Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Care Center, which offers specialists, physical therapy and other assistance to patients and their families.
In 2008, in what he described as his last campaign, Gardner became the public face of Washington’s Death With Dignity initiative. The measure passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 58 percent of the vote.
A 2009 documentary on the campaign, “The Last Campaign of Booth Gardner,” was nominated for an Academy Award.
Gardner was born in 1936 in Tacoma to Evelyn Booth Gardner and Bryson R. “Brick” Gardner, who were both from wealthy and prominent families. Their marriage ended in divorce when he was 4 years old, and his mother married Norton Clapp, a powerful member of the family behind Weyerhaeuser Co. Gardner’s mother and younger sister died in a plane crash a decade later, leaving him wealthy at a young age. Their deaths were just one of the challenges throughout his life – Gardner called them “curve balls” -- that imbued him with compassion and determination to “make a difference.”
When he was a student at the University of Washington, Gardner, a natural athlete, took a part-time job working for the Seattle Parks Department and began coaching youth sports in the city’s predominantly African American district through the Central Area Youth Association. The experience helped stoke an interest in public service.
“I realized I could make a difference in people’s lives,” Gardner told journalist and historian John Hughes, author of “Booth Who? A Biography of Booth Gardner.”
He won his first campaign, an upstart bid for a state Senate seat, in 1970 when he was 34.
Gardner, who was married twice, is survived by his daughter, Gail Gant, his son Douglas Gardner, eight grandchildren, and two half-brothers, Bill Clapp and Steve Clapp. In the past seven years he has lived in North Tacoma and particularly enjoyed spending time with his children and grandchildren, and attending their athletic events, graduations and other milestones.
His funeral will be private, but a public memorial is being planned in Tacoma.