Like many of those who attended Saturday’s memorial service for Booth Gardner, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell was wearing an old Gardner campaign pin.
Hers was rather traditional, not the self-deprecating “Booth Who” button from the 1984 campaign or the word-play message of “Voting Booth.”
But neither was it a button of the same era that Cantwell herself had designed.
Those had “PCP” printed on them with the international slash through the middle – as in “No Pierce County Pork.”
Cantwell did not have anything against the state’s second-largest county. It’s just that as a representative from Snohomish County, she wondered whether the state’s resources were being fairly distributed.
This was the golden era of Pierce County clout in the Legislature – 1985 to 1995. Wayne Ehlers was speaker of the House, Ted Bottiger was Senate majority leader, Dan Grimm was House budget chair, George Walk – later replaced by Ruth Fisher – was House transportation chair. The rest of the delegation was well-armored with seniority and chairmanships.
And then, Booth Gardner was elected governor.
At a memorial in the state Senate a week ago, Olympia Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt dubbed Gardner the leader of the Pierce County Mafia.
He meant, of course, the Pierce County political mafia, not the Carbone gang that enlisted a corrupt county sheriff to cover for a rather inept criminal enterprise. That scandal birthed reforms that culminated in Gardner becoming the first county executive. It was Gardner’s success in cleaning up county government and resolving a recession-ravaged budget that formed the narrative for his successful campaign for governor.
But if Booth Gardner was the head of the Pierce County Mafia, he was a very reluctant Don. Despite being from Tacoma, Gardner had spent many years in Seattle as well – in college and as the head of businesses started by his stepfather Norton Clapp. As such, Gardner seemed less consumed by the Tacoma inferiority complex and less in need of curing it by imposing the Pierce County solution to all budget issues – half for Pierce and half for the other 38 counties.
As governor, Gardner could identify with something his step-father who often said: “I have spent half of my adult life in Tacoma and half in Seattle, and my whole adult life explaining each city to the other.”
Gardner figured he was governor of Washington state, not governor of Pierce County. And he seemed a bit embarrassed each time the powerful delegation from his home county came up with a new project. The Puyallup tribal land claims settlement was a big one. So was the theater district renovations that were used to spark downtown’s rebirth. Oh, and the Washington History Museum was the way to restore the majestic but derelict Union Station. If that wasn’t enough for south Downtown, then how about a campus of the University of Washington?
Grimm recalls that Gardner was not an early advocate of the university campus or the museum effort.
“He wasn’t going to get involved in schoolyard fights, but there was always the prospect he would not tolerate any sucker punches and discouraging words just might be remembered,” Grimm recalled.
“I don’t remember ever being critical of him for his lack of enthusiasm,” Grimm said. “All I expected was for him to sign whatever we could get to him.”
Which he did. And for that – for not saying no – Tacoma has its restored theaters, its university campus, its business partnership with the Puyallup Tribe, it’s gleaming Union Station and history museum. Grimm thinks none would have happened had Gardner not been governor.
Which leads us back to Cantwell and her buttons. Before she could distribute them to non-Pierce County lawmakers, she discovered her mistake. The security guard who printed them on his home button maker had been appointed by then-House Speaker Brian Ebersole ... from Tacoma.
The entire bag of buttons went into a credenza in Ebersole’s office where they stayed until that session ended, until Pierce County’s spoils were safely in the budget and until Booth Gardner’s signature was safely on the budget.