Former three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, whose 40 years in public service made him a towering figure in Washington politics and whose stance on some environmental issues and tribal fishing rights inspired both loyalty and fury, died Wednesday morning after a brief illness. He was 92.
Gorton died at his daughter’s Clyde Hill home, where he was in hospice care.
Gorton served a decade in the Legislature, three terms as state attorney general, and was deemed “giant killer” for his win over the legendary Warren Magnuson to capture his first term in the U.S. Senate. His comeback to serve two more terms after losing to challenger Brock Adams was just as remarkable, and his loss to Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell in 2000 was the closest Senate race in Washington history.
In the Senate, Gorton built a reputation as a unique combination of brains and analytical skill that enabled him to dislodge colleagues from stuck positions.
“Slade was the person who could somehow find a way to communicate and find common ground,” said Tom Daschle, a Democrat who represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1987-2005, serving as minority leader during Gorton’s third term and majority leader in 2001. “He was indispensable, he had an enormous ability to keep us focused on the most important thing.
“I only wish there were a few more Slade Gortons in the Senate right now, we need them, we need people who can communicate and are willing to compromise and be conciliatory and build consensus to get things done.”
Born in Chicago on Jan. 8, 1928, Thomas Slade Gorton was raised in Evanston, Illinois. It didn’t take him long working in his father’s seafood warehouse to decide he didn’t want to take over the family business.
Gorton graduated from Dartmouth and received his law degree from Columbia. He also served in the Army from 1945-1946, and in the Air Force from 1953 until 1956, continuing to serve in the Air Force reserves until 1980 when he retired as a colonel.
Gorton arrived in Seattle in 1953 and it didn’t take long for the young man from a Republican home in Illinois to connect with young Republican leaders around the Puget Sound.
“He was like a lot of people in that era when World War II was over, they were looking for new opportunities,” said former senator and three-term governor Dan Evans. “We got a lot of great new leaders who came West and Slade was one of them.”
Evans was serving in the state House when he sat with his new friend on the couch one Saturday, using a reverse telephone directory to help Gorton identify people he knew for Gorton’s first run for office, a House seat in North Seattle’s 46th District.
“There were maybe 10 people,” Evans said. “I said, ‘Well, that is a start.’
“He really just outworked everybody, nobody could keep up with him. He won, and that was the beginning.”
With that victory in 1958, Gorton became part of a team of rising young Republicans.
“He was just a freshman, but he was just brilliant, his mind was well ahead of everybody else, and he got responsibilities no freshman would have,” Evans said. “He was an indefatigable worker.”
In 1958, the same year as his first win for elective office, he married Sally Clark, a Seattle Times reporter. They remained married 55 years, until her death in 2013.
His other first love was public service. Gorton held public office for 40 years, including in the Washington state House of Representatives from 1959-1969, as Washington state attorney general from 1969-1981, and in the U.S. Senate from 1981-1987 and 1989-2001.
Through it all, he earned a reputation as an independent thinker and actor.
He stood up to the right wing of his own party early in his career, in 1963 serving as a character witness when the far right tried to smear a fellow legislator, Democrat John Goldmark, as a communist.
John Hughes, chief historian in the Washington Secretary of State’s Office, recounts in his biography of Gorton that Gorton said of that decision ” … I knew that if I said yes it would cost me. And I knew that if I said no I’d be a coward. Looking back that may have been the pivotal moment in my career in politics. There had been no incident in those first three terms that had really tested my character. I said yes.”
Gorton, Hughes recalls, then began to recite — from memory — a poem about the moment that comes to each person in life to choose “for the good or evil side.”
Those who knew Gorton well in or out of office wouldn’t be surprised by that story, either the recital of a poem by heart, or the choice Gorton made.
Businessman John Stanton, chairperson and managing partner for the Seattle Mariners, remembers encountering Gorton as a surprise seat mate on a cross-country flight. Gorton was engrossed in a scholarly book, never raising his head from the print.
“It was something nobody in Congress would ever read, the history of Mesopotamia or something. I thought, ‘this guy is focused.’ ” Stanton said.
He worked closely with Gorton, who loved baseball, to assemble the local team that bought the Mariners, to keep Major League Baseball (MLB) in Seattle. “He was very concerned that a local group was the successor,” Stanton said. “For him, that was really important, that it was baseball fans, people who loved the sport that would make sure the team was here.”
It was one of several times Gorton worked to save baseball for Seattle, suing as attorney general to force MLB to bring another team to the city, when the Pilots departed for Milwaukee in 1970, after only one season.
Gorton made a career of taking on the powerful. While attorney general, Gorton was among the first in his party to call for President Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal.
In the U.S. Senate, he took on President Ronald Reagan over deficit spending. In 1999, during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, Gorton was among 10 Republican senators who voted to acquit Clinton of perjury, although he voted to convict the president of obstruction of justice. In 2016, he argued Donald Trump was not fit for office. In November 2019, he urged his party in a New York Times opinion piece to “follow the facts” and vote for impeachment of President Trump.
He earned the ire of environmentalists for fighting logging reductions on public lands; delaying implementation of dam removals on the Elwha River; and working with lobbyists to craft a rider on legislation that permitted a controversial gold mine. But Gorton also called for the resignation of Exxon’s CEO after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and he subsequently sponsored legislation to require tankers in state waters to only travel with a tug escort.
As attorney general, he joined with other Republican leaders in 1976 to take on SeaWorld and shut down orca whale captures in state waters.
Perhaps on no other issue did he draw more opposition than his long fight as attorney general against the 1974 decision by U.S. District Court George Boldt that recognized the right reserved by Western Washington tribes under the treaties to get half of the salmon catch.
Gorton fought the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — it was one of 14 cases as attorney general that he personally argued before the nation’s highest court.
His opposition was based in upholding what he believed should be equal protection under the laws for all citizens — on or off reservations, tribal or not. Gorton lost his case 6-3 before the Supreme Court and ultimately his Senate seat, after tribes around the country targeted him for defeat.
During that 2000 campaign, W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and a former president of the National Congress of American Indians, said, “Slade Gorton’s name is known on reservations from Alaska to Florida. If we say we have a chance to beat the dean of the anti-Indian movement, I think tribes everywhere will scramble for money.”
Yet that wasn’t the whole picture of Gorton’s relationship with Washington tribes.
Willie Frank Jr. III, a member of the Nisqually Tribal council, remembers two Slade Gortons. The one his late father Billy Frank Jr. fought with over treaty rights, and the senator who moved quickly to assist in rebuilding the tribal school at Nisqually after it washed out during a flood.
It wasn’t the only time: Darrell Hillaire, former chairman at the Lummi Nation, remembered when the tribe’s request for a new school was at the bottom of the list for funding. Gorton moved it to the top.
“There was just a feeling of hatred,” Hillaire said, over the fishing-rights fight, and other conflicts with Gorton. “But boy, when we got this school, you had to just say, ‘thank you.’ ”
Gorton also was there for the tiny Shoalwater Bay tribe, providing money to address a tragic epidemic of infant mortality on the reservation. It was an unknown tribe at the end of a two-lane road, and an action not likely to earn him any headlines, remembers J. Vander Stoep, a former chief of Gorton’s Senate staff. But Gorton felt it was the right thing to do.
“He was probably the most misunderstood politician in D.C. with respect to Indian affairs,” Allen said in an interview.
“He was always respectful in debate,” Allen said. “We could agree to disagree, and we could be passionate with him and he would get passionate right back at us. But he would never leave the room, that was big part of his character. He was there to do what he thought was right for America and for Washington state.”
An advocate of high achievement in all people, Gorton earned the enduring loyalty of women on his staff for his support for their unfettered professional success. “Everyone who worked for Slade loved him,” said Mariana Parks, deputy state director for Gorton during his second Senate term.
Gorton nurtured the career paths of many future leaders, including former attorney general and two-term Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire.
After one term he lost reelection but had a second chance at the Senate when Evans let him know he would not run again.
It was time for the staff that had been trained to level with him to step up, telling Gorton in an intervention he was perceived as arrogant and cold. He had to do a better job showing people that he listened and cared, or they would not staff him in another campaign, remembered Chief of Staff Mike McGavick. Gorton listened — and voters returned him to office for two more terms.
Over time, Evans came to believe Gorton was the most brilliant lawmaker he knew in the Legislature or Congress, Evans said.
“He looked at all of the issues and arguments on all sides to make up his own mind,” Evans said. “He cast every single vote based on his own reading and determination.”
Many saw a stark contrast in Gorton with the politics of today.
“He was a man of incredible principle,” said two-term Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, who also served as U.S. Commerce secretary and ambassador to China during the Obama administration. But Gorton also was pragmatic, and driven to get things done.
“He always lamented that various politicians or constituent groups were rejecting compromise because they were seeking the perfect solution,” Locke said. “He had that phrase, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Gorton went out of his way to help newly-elected lawmakers, Locke said, and was among the first to call when he was elected King County executive in 1993, “just to see if he could help, or if I needed anything.” Gorton also was quick to call if he perceived he had messed up, Locke said.
That was Gorton, saying what he thought, no matter whether it was popular, or with the party line.
“He was not lockstep on anything, and that is what is so different from both sides today, just sitting in their trenches and shooting at each other,” Vander Stoep said. “Slade was never in anybody’s trench and as a result he got shot at a lot.”
After his loss in 2000, Gorton stayed involved in public life, serving as a member of the 9/11 Commission from 2003-2004 and the Washington State Redistricting Commission in 2011.
Beyond his ferocious work ethic was the side of Gorton that was fun loving. The man who would hop on a bicycle with his family to ride across the country.
“Mom said, ‘Slade if that is what you want to do for the summer, that’s fine,’ ” remembered daughter Sarah Nortz of Clyde Hill. Gorton carefully planned the route using survey maps to find the railroad grades for a flatter and more scenic ride. The family pedaled for 47 days, sleeping in church basements across the U.S. Gorton, then attorney general, arranged to have papers from work sent ahead to him at post offices along the route.
Skiing, sailing, even sailboat racing when Sarah was 14 days old — there wasn’t anything Gorton wouldn’t do to keep life interesting, always taking the family along. “Mom was game,” Nortz said.
In recent weeks, as Gorton’s time was growing near, Gorton wanted two things: a better season for the Mariners, and visitors in the hospital. Friends could do neither for him, in this pandemic summer like no other.
So instead, a Zoom call was hastily mustered, with 80 people on the line, on three hours’ notice, from all over the country, for more than three hours. Just to share their memories and affection for the man they were instructed to call Slade, never senator.
In addition to daughter Sarah Nortz, Gorton is survived by son Thomas Gorton, of Seattle, and daughter Rebecca Gorton Dannaker, of Duvall; brothers U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, of Boston, and Mike Gorton Sr., of Needham, Massachusetts, and sister Mary Jane Gorton, of Floral City, Florida; seven grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
The Mariners planned a moment of silence for Gorton at 6:26 p.m. Wednesday, and Gov. Jay Inslee in a statement announced he will order state flags lowered on the day of Gorton’s memorial service.
Requests for memorial contributions and service arrangements will be announced.
Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report, which includes material from The Seattle Times archives.