Lawmakers honor ex-governor, leader of ‘Pierce County mafia’

The Booth Gardner era was also the golden age of Pierce County power in Olympia.

The top echelons of state government were stocked with Pierce County residents for much of Gardner’s eight years as governor, starting in 1985: A speaker of the House. A Senate majority leader. A budget chairman. A transportation chairman. Collectively, they were the “Pierce County mafia.”

But during a joint session of the House and the Senate to honor Washington’s 19th governor, the longest-serving state lawmaker said Gardner acted like “the governor for the whole state” — such as on efforts to help areas hard-hit by the decline of the timber industry.

“Even though he headed up the Pierce County mafia, he reached out and helped a freshman legislator from Grays Harbor,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, a Democrat like Gardner. “So I’m going to miss him.”

Lawmakers reminisced about Gardner and saluted him Friday, a week after his death at 76 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Some wore “Voting Booth” or “Booth Who?” buttons from his campaigns.

Flags dropped to half-staff, and the House and the Senate — now with leadership heavily weighted toward King County, including the speaker, the majority leader, and House and Senate budget chairmen — met in a rare joint session in front of Gov. Jay Inslee, Gardner’s daughter Gail Gant, son Douglas Gardner and many more relatives.

Lawmakers recalled Gardner’s charm and ease with people, especially kids. They recalled his accomplishments while governor and after, including championing Washington’s “Death with Dignity” assisted-suicide ballot measure.

An official resolution honoring him contains such passages as: “WHEREAS, He loved the Frisko Freeze in Tacoma and other fast-food outlets, but he was also passionate about physical fitness.”

At a reception after the ceremony, Thurston County Sen. Karen Fraser confirmed the physical-fitness part. Gardner took a day and night away from the Governor’s Office to join a leg of a backpacking trip organized by Fraser and some friends on the Pacific Crest Trail.

“Sure enough, late afternoon, here comes Booth hiking up the trail with his backpack, all by himself,” Fraser said. And despite his desk job, she said: “He was a very strong hiker. He really kind of led the way.”

His order at the Frisko Freeze? A double burger, hold the cheese, lots of mustard, and a medium Coke, Rep. Jan Angel of Port Orchard told fellow lawmakers.

“They didn’t mention the fact that Booth never paid for those Frisko Freezes,” laughed Becky Bogard, a lobbyist who worked in his administration.

Paying seemed to fall to the governor’s staffers who picked up the burgers, despite Gardner’s personal wealth.

Opening the ceremony with a prayer, Sen. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup alluded to that wealth — and Gardner’s decision to go into government rather than just enjoy the money.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Dammeier said, drawing from a Biblical parable. “Booth Gardner lived that.”