Karen Marchioro, a powerful and prominent Bellevue Democrat credited with reshaping the state party in the early 1980s, died this morning...

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OLYMPIA — Karen Marchioro, a powerful and prominent Bellevue Democrat credited with reshaping the state party in the early 1980s, died this morning from cancer. She was 73.

Marchioro “was like a force of nature. She pushed and moved things in the same way a river will reshape the terrain,” said David McDonald, a friend and Seattle attorney involved in Democratic politics.

Friends say she first got involved in politics in the late 1960s as a Vietnam war protester. She campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, became active with the 48th legislative district Democrats, and later became chairwoman of the King County Democratic Party.

In 1981, she became the first woman to chair the state Democratic Party and held that job through 1992. She was one of four state party representatives to the Democratic National Committee until her death.

Marchioro was a major force in state politics. Presidential candidates came knocking on her door seeking support, as did local politicians.

“Karen’s support of a candidate, and early on, was an important thing because it was a seal of approval,” former Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry said, noting that was true up until her death.

Lowry said Marchioro was very good at picking candidates with promise.

“In 1990 or 1991, I remember Karen coming back from a national Democratic committee meeting and talking about Bill Clinton. I don’t think many of us had him on our radar as ‘this guy is going to be president.’ But she absolutely had that sense,” he said. “Her political judgment on those types of things was exceptionally good.”

However, she would only support candidates who had policies she supported, Lowry said.

“She was strong for her candidates but they were her candidates because she thought their policies were what’s needed for this country,” he said.

Paul Berendt, who chaired the state Democratic Party for several years after Marchioro stepped down, agreed.

“She would not just go with the winner. She wanted to support candidates who really stood for something,” he said. “She wasn’t afraid she’d end up on the losing side. She was willing to take the heat of being on the losing side if there was a principal at stake.”

Friends say she was witty, outgoing, intense and sometimes scary.

“When I first met her I was scared to death,” said former Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner. “She’s was so forceful … but she was fair.”

Gardner said he didn’t go through Marchioro when he decided to run for office. “But it would have been simpler if I had,” he said.

Berendt credited her with reshaping the state party. She did so before taking over as the party chair, he said.

“At that time she was appalled that the party was organized in a fashion that the biggest county in the state, King County, had the same voice on the state party governing board as the state’s smallest county,” he said.

Basically the party’s central committee was made up of two people from each county in the state. That gave rural counties in Eastern Washington with few Democrats the same voice as the central Puget Sound, which has the largest concentration of Democratic voters.

Marchioro started, and eventually won, a fight for proportional representation that gave urban areas a much greater voice in party politics.

“After her reforms there were more minorities, more labor people and more city dwellers,” Berendt said. “It certainly resulted in a more progressive and liberal party.”

Friends also say Marchioro was an early advocate for voter identification and computerized lists and was instrumental in modernizing the party. And she pushed to recruit more woman as political candidates.

McDonald said Marchioro never seemed very interested in running for public office herself.

“Karen was more interested in converting the party into a power base, than running to be one of the boys,” he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com