Honoring Booth Gardner | Don Brunell

The tributes to former Gov. Booth Gardner, who died March 15 at the age of 76, remind us of a better time. Throughout his political career, Booth was known for his respectful demeanor, good humor and dedication to consensus.

The tributes to former Gov. Booth Gardner, who died March 15 at the age of 76, remind us of a better time. Throughout his political career, Booth was known for his respectful demeanor, good humor and dedication to consensus.

That is in stark contrast to today’s reality.

Now, partisan rancor is the norm in a high-stakes blood sport where the only goal is political advantage, and people with opposing views are assailed as enemies. This scorched earth mentality has become so pervasive, people assume it’s the nature of politics.

But that’s true only if we continue to allow it.

If the politicians and others who laud Booth Gardner genuinely want to honor him, we can do so by emulating him — by tempering our behavior and that of our colleagues. It is easy to praise a good man; it is much harder to be like him.

I always considered Booth a friend, even though our friendship got off to a rough start.

When he ran for governor in 1984, I was working for Crown Zellerbach, and we supported Gov. John Spellman (R) for re-election. When Booth won, he could have given us the cold shoulder. That didn’t happen. In fact, it was just the opposite. For Booth, the election was over, and it was time to govern. His first priority was always to do what was right. 

That commitment would be sorely tested in his first term.

In 1986, my first year at the Association of Washington Business, the Legislature passed a hotly debated and very divisive lawsuit reform bill. The measure was intended to curb lawsuit abuse to reduce the cost of liability insurance. It was supported by a coalition of business owners, local governments, schools, hospitals, doctors and insurance carriers. But it was vigorously opposed by trial lawyers — one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful constituencies. Key Democratic legislative leaders aggressively pressured Booth to veto the bill.

Before making his decision, the governor met with supporters and opponents. When he asked me point blank why he should sign the bill, I said, “Governor, it is the right thing to do. We need to find a way to make liability insurance more affordable and available, and this bill does that!”

After listening to all sides and stewing over the decision for days, he signed the bill, incurring the wrath of many in his party. But his decision wasn’t based on partisanship, it was based on what he thought was best for Washington.

Booth’s quiet demeanor belied a strength of character that served him throughout his life.

In 1995, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive and debilitating neurological disorder marked by tremors and loss of coordination. In true form, he worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the disease, served as the first chair of the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation and helped establish the Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Care Center in Kirkland.

In 2005, Booth and I hit the road for a series of editorial boards in support of federal class action lawsuit reform. Even though he was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s, I was amazed at his ability to captivate people with his arguments, logic and goodwill.

With all the hard work, we managed to have fun. We both loved hamburgers, and Booth knew where the best hamburger places were — we tried them all. Looking back, I realize that this trip was like his swan song, a barnstorming tour of his beloved state.

My fondest memories are of Booth’s humility and humor. The first time he called our house after becoming governor, one of our young children answered the phone and yelled, “Dad, there’s some guy named BOOF who wants to talk to you!” We had lots of laughs over that one. Even though Parkinson’s ultimately took Booth’s life, it can never erase his legacy as governor or the profound effect he had on those who knew him.

If we truly want to honor Booth Gardner, we can be more respectful to those we disagree with and remember that our goal should be to work together to get things done.

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