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When Gov. Booth Gardner first ran for the state’s highest office in 1984, many in Washington did not even know his name. That soon changed, and he went on to become a two-term governor and one of the most popular politicians in state history.

Gov. Gardner’s legacy is still widely felt. He spent his tenure championing education, health care, social services and the environment, and later became the public face of a “Death with Dignity” campaign.

In campaigning for the rights of the terminally ill, Gov. Gardner’s argument — that those who had always made their own decisions in life be allowed to decide how and when to die — resonated with voters. In 2008, the state passed the nation’s second law allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients to die.

Washington state’s 19th governor, who served from 1985 to 1993, died Friday night at his Tacoma home from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 76.

“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,” the former governor’s daughter, Gail Gant, said in a statement.

Former members of Gov. Gardner’s staff started sending each other emails after word of his death circulated.

“We all understood he was getting close to the end of his journey because of his illness,” said U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, a former chief of staff for the Democratic governor.

“Yet the theme this morning is pretty consistent (from former staff), namely ‘I just didn’t expect to be hit so hard,’ ” he said Saturday. “I think that says something about the kind of bond that people worked for him felt toward him.”

Gov. Gardner’s friends and acquaintances recalled a masterful politician who worked across party lines to leave a significant legacy, including Running Start, a program that allows high-school students to earn high-school and college credit by taking classes at state community colleges.

Under Gov. Gardner’s tenure with a largely booming economy, the state also instituted requirements for students to pass standardized tests before graduating from high school, raised university faculty salaries, enacted the Growth Management Act, initiated the Basic Health Plan and began First Steps, which helps low-income pregnant women obtain services.

For Gov. Gardner, “education was paramount — investing in programs that helped young people escape poverty and drugs,” said John C. Hughes, author of “Booth Who?,” a biography of the former governor that is part of a state project documenting Washington’s history makers.

And he had “just his sunny optimism and idealism. He had this bully pulpit that investing in people was crucial and would pay real dividends.”

Gov. Gardner also had an eye for talent, assembling a Cabinet whose members — including former Gov. Chris Gregoire — went on to further prominence.

Gregoire recalled Gov. Gardner taking a risk by appointing her to run the Department of Ecology in 1988, when she was a relative unknown. He later encouraged her to run for state attorney general and governor.

“Booth has been instrumental in my personal career,” she said. “But that’s who Booth was. He was instrumental in a lot of people’s careers.”

Throughout his life, Gov. Gardner displayed a likability that served him well, from his days as a business leader and as the first Pierce County executive, to the statehouse in Olympia and his appointment as U.S. deputy trade representative in Geneva.

In recent years, Gov. Gardner, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, was perhaps best known for championing the initiative allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients seeking to hasten their own deaths.

Prominent family

Born in Tacoma, William Booth Gardner was 4 when his parents divorced. Young Booth spent his childhood shuttling between his parents, Evelyn Booth Gardner Clapp, a socialite, and Bryson “Brick” Gardner, a sales manager for a car dealership whom news stories described as a free spirit with an alcohol problem.

His parents remarried — she, to Norton Clapp, whose family were substantial investors in Weyerhaeuser, and who eventually became president of Weyerhaeuser.

When Gov. Gardner was 14, his mother and sister died in a plane crash.

After his father moved to Hawaii, Booth attended a boarding school in Vermont, then finished high school at Lakeside School in Seattle. At the University of Washington, he didn’t fit in at the fraternity and moved into his aunt’s house.

His aunt pushed him to find work with the city’s parks department and there he had an epiphany, coaching and tutoring kids at parks and recreation centers in the Central Area.

“I realized I could make a difference in people’s lives,” he is quoted as saying in the “Booth Who?” biography. At the UW, he met Jean Forstrom, who encouraged him to run for student vice president. They married four years later and had two children, Douglas and Gail.

Gov. Gardner earned an MBA from Harvard, and at 25, inherited his mother’s fortune. Though he still penny-pinched in day-to-day life, he gave money to everything from establishing the Central Area Youth Association to creating Seattle Treatment Center, an alcohol-detox program. He invested in businesses and became associate director of the University of Puget Sound School of Business Administration and Economics.

And he began to think about politics.

Political life

In 1970 he won a state Senate seat from Pierce County.

When his stepfather asked him to take over the family’s corporate empire, he agreed, managing for seven years Laird Norton Co., which included building-supply, real estate and property-management operations. He also succeeded Clapp on the boards of corporations including Weyerhaeuser.

He was drawn back to politics, winning election as Pierce County executive in 1981. He distinguished himself, erasing a $4.7 million deficit by freezing top salaries, cutting back on contributions to nonprofits and eliminating jobs. He also cleaned up the reputation of the then-scandal-plagued government.

In 1984, he beat incumbent John Spellman, overcoming a lack of statewide name recognition that prompted his campaign staff to come up with the slogan: “Booth Who?”

Ron Dotzauer, who ran that campaign, said Gardner was not a natural candidate.

“He did not like asking people to help him. He spent too much of his life helping other people. He thought he was always an imposition,” Dotzauer said. “We figured out we couldn’t book call time for him because he wasn’t going to call for money. He wouldn’t do it.”

Instead, they organized fundraising events where Gardner could mingle, something he was very skilled at.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray recalls that when she first ran for state Senate, Gardner showed up at a campaign event in Shoreline to help.

“I didn’t know him or anything and he came into the room and was so personable. He came in and talked to everybody, he remembered people’s names and knew family members,” Murray said.

As governor, he handled some political hot potatoes, including signing the Growth Management Act that required state and local governments to concentrate growth and protect natural resources and helped broker an end to a teachers’ strike.

He also was able to fund early-childhood education, cut class sizes, invest in programs to help the young escape poverty and expand social services.

It helped that he served during a prosperous time.

But it was his aversion to rough and tumble politics that some say led to his not being able to accomplish all he could.

He was unable to get many of the tax increases he sought, which laid the groundwork for the fiscal crisis his successor inherited.

In Gov. Gardner’s second term, he became a champion of health reform rather suddenly, remembered Dr. Bob Crittenden, then Gardner’s special assistant for health.

At first, it was a financial issue. Health-care costs were cutting into education money. Then a man told him about how he couldn’t work full time because he’d lose Medicaid for his son, who had a pre-existing condition.

“That one story alone motivated him to start looking at the health-care system and doing something about it,” Crittenden said. His advocacy led to a state health-reform law, which was later dismantled.

“The work he did was instrumental in raising the issue nationally and locally,” said Crittenden, now senior health policy adviser for Gov. Jay Inslee. “That was the beginning point of what became the Affordable Care Act 15, 20 years later.”

In retrospect, others have given Gov. Gardner’s time in office a B grade — an assessment he agreed with, according to the book “Booth Who?”

“This will sound strange,” Gov. Gardner said in the book. “But I didn’t think it was worth the price to go for an A.”

Clinton appointee

After Gov. Gardner ruled out a run for a third term, President Clinton appointed him a deputy U.S. trade representative. He served as U.S. ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) — in Geneva.

In 2001, he and his wife, Jean, divorced. He married Cynthia Perkins and they later divorced.

Gov. Gardner kept a relatively low profile after leaving office until 2006, when he announced that he would head up the “assisted death” initiative.

He was candid about how Parkinson’s affected his decision to get back into the political fray.

Even though he eventually realized the initiative, as offered, wouldn’t apply to him, “he embraced an initiative he wasn’t even going to be able to use,” said Robb Miller, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Washington.

In 2006 Gardner told The Seattle Times, “Since I’ve had Parkinson’s, obviously I’ve thought about the end … When the day comes when I can no longer keep busy and I’m a burden to my wife and kids, I want to be able to control my exit.”

Gov. Gardner’s efforts were documented in an Oscar-nominated short documentary, “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner.”

Besides daughter Gail, (and husband Stephen Gant) of Tacoma, he is survived by son Douglas Gardner (wife Jill Gardner) of University Place, and eight grandchildren.

Arrangements for a public memorial service will be announced shortly.

Gov. Gardner’s family requests memorial donations be made to Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation, 400 Mercer St. No. 504, Seattle, WA, 98109.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

Staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times archives.