Politics & Government

Former state Sen. Bob Morton dies at 81

Bob Morton
Bob Morton

Former state Sen. Bob Morton, a folksy conservative who kept a wary eye on natural resource issues and served as a mentor to young legislators, died Friday morning. He was 81.

Morton, a Republican from Orient, had a varied background before winning election to the state House of Representatives in 1990. He grew up on a dairy farm, became a Methodist minister, raised cattle, flew as a bush pilot and a cloud seeder, and logged in northeast Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Morton took him under his wing when Schoesler arrived in the House in 1993. His seatmate Gene Prince said Morton would “never, ever get you out on a limb and give you bad advice,” Schoesler recalled, adding Prince was right.

“He was always a calming, spiritual influence,” Schoesler said.

Morton also was a mentor to a young college graduate from Kettle Falls whom he hired to manage his first campaign for the state House in 1990. Her name was Cathy McMorris, and she had never run a campaign.

“He took a chance on me. Then he believed in me,” said the one-time campaign manager, now U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

He believed in her enough to hire her to be his legislative aide after he won that 1990 race, and enough to encourage her three years later to seek the appointment to his House seat when he filled a vacancy in the state Senate. She won the appointment and held the seat through five successive elections before being elected to Congress.

“He’s the inspiration in getting me involved in politics,” she said. The two kept in touch, and Morton was one of two ministers who performed the ceremony when McMorris married Brian Rodgers. It was a service Morton provided for quite a few legislative staffers, Schoesler said.

Morton led by example, McMorris Rodgers said. He always told her to listen, listen, listen some more, learn, and then lead.

“That’s the way he approached things,” she said.

He usually held senior spots on legislative committees that oversee natural resource and agricultural matters and had a reputation for giving easy-to-follow arguments to back up his positions on irrigation and timber issues, Schoesler said. On some he was ahead of his time.

“He was warning about forest health and wildfires 20 years ago,” Schoesler said.

An outspoken advocate for Eastern Washington, he often teamed up with Sen. Bob McCaslin of the Spokane Valley in sponsoring legislation to split the state in two. Although the bills never went anywhere, they were statements about the way the two conservative Republicans felt Olympia-based government dealt with the other side of the state.

Morton retired from the Senate in December 2012 after 22 years in the Legislature. His back was bothering him and the session that year had lasted a month longer than the scheduled 60 days.

“It’s not the kind of session I’d like to have repeated,” he said at the time, and everyone knew the coming session would be even longer and tougher.

He said he’d step aside to let “new blood and a new way of looking at things” take his place. The retirement would allow him to fill in more at the Orient Community Church, and spend more time on the ranch with his wife and their grandchildren.

Morton is survived by his wife, Linda; daughters Bettina Jordan, Laura Eslick and Roxanne Eslick; sons Shawn Morton and Scott Moe; one brother and one sister; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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