“Washington Has Lost A Giant”, Says Senate Republican Leader of Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton’s Passing
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, offered these thoughts on the passing of former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
Gorton, 92, died Wednesday at his daughter’s Clyde Hill home, following a long and storied career in Washington politics as a state representative, House Republican Leader, state attorney general, U.S. senator from Washington state and elder statesman of his party.
“Washington has lost a giant – a man who exemplified the very best in politics, and who inspired those of us who followed him into the public arena.
“Slade brought his keen intellect to every issue he dealt with, from the redistricting battles of the ‘60s to the effort that saved the Mariners in the ‘90s. He took on leadership roles when others shied away, and he found ways to strike compromises that could win broad support. Slade recognized that it’s not enough to be right on the issues. You also need to find a way to win, and the best way to do that is to convince the other team that it is in their interest to agree. He brought a practical vision to everything he approached, something that is sadly missing from many of our political debates today.
“Slade’s accomplishments were tremendous. As House Republican Leader, he helped assemble the coalition that unseated a Democratic speaker in 1963, and set the stage for the responsible, pragmatic Republican leadership that modernized state government and dominated Washington politics for more than a decade. The role he played in the enormous redistricting battle of 1965 is a legend around the statehouse even today. Slade was an early leader on environmental issues, in a time before environmental debates became skewed by ideology and professional activism. As attorney general for 12 years, he presented oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court 14 times. I pity anyone who attempted to argue against him.
“In the U.S. Senate, if he was on your side, you couldn’t ask for a stronger ally, and if he wasn’t, you would never have a greater intellectual adversary. He distinguished himself on deficit reduction and education reform. Even after Slade’s retirement in 2000, he remained active in public life. He chaired the federal 9-11 Commission, which ultimately produced a clear and cogent report about the tragedy and its causes, and led to needed reforms in our national security apparatus. In the Legislature, he was our champion in the redistricting battle of 2011, and his advice was an important contribution to the decisions we made when we held the majority in the Senate. Continuing his service, Slade and I had a long meeting this January to talk through the upcoming 2021 redistricting process.
“What I think everyone will remember about Slade is his cerebral and thoughtful nature, his ability to recognize the political trends that would shape our state, and his willingness to capitalize on them. In his 1988 and 1994 campaigns for Senate, he recognized the growing divide between the prosperous Central Puget Sound area and the rest of the state – what many called the ‘Cascade Curtain.” Slade became the spokesman for the disenfranchised. He became the first candidate to win a statewide election while losing King County. He predicted the divide would grow, and history has certainly proven him right.
“We also can’t forget the Mariners. Slade was involved from the beginning, pressing the lawsuit on behalf of the state that led the American League to offer a franchise to Seattle. And when the future of the team was in doubt in the early ‘90s, he worked to retain local ownership and helped convince the opinionmakers of this state that the issue was more than baseball. A winning 1995 season also had something to do with what happened, but if any one person can be credited with keeping the Mariners safe at home, Slade was the MVP. And whenever he and I were at games, he liked to intently follow the action – a true fan.
“Whenever Slade was around, you knew he was the smartest person in the room. And it’s going to seem a whole lot emptier with him gone.”
– WA State Republican Senate Caucus
Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a towering figure in Washington state, dies at 92
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.
-Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times
‘We can learn from Slade’s life’: Gorton touched many here – The Everett Herald
He’d long admired him from afar, but it wasn’t until last year that Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring finally met former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton in person. Gorton, then 91, seemed genuinely interested when he asked Nehring about what he was doing as mayor.
To Nehring, the conversation was warm and friendly. He’d always felt that Gorton was vested in the kitchen table issues affecting the masses, like how long it might take to get to and from work and how to ease that commute.
Gorton, whose political career spanned nearly a half-century in Washington state and Washington D.C., died Wednesday.
A pillar and ideological beacon for the state’s Republican Party, his death brought admiration from many in and around Snohomish County and of different political persuasions.
“His legacy and hallmark was the ability to reach consensus and reach across the aisle, something I think we are missing today on all sides,” said Nehring, who’s also chairman of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington. “It’s something we can learn from Slade’s life and try to recapture that.”
Nehring said he has aspired to emulate Gorton in other ways, from trying to treat his staff well to writing constituents when they reach out to him personally. “They deserve a response,” Nehring said. “Slade took that very seriously.”
Bob Drewel, a former Snohomish County executive, knew Gorton from their respectively long tenures in public service. To him, Gorton was the proverbial workhorse, not the showhorse. “He was genuine and straightforward and someone who gave a good gosh darn,” Drewel said. “So many people missed that about Slade.”
Gorton had a hand in many causes, including his work on the 9/11 Commission and keeping the Mariners in Seattle. Closer to home, he was part of the bipartisan regional effort to bring a Navy base to Everett and to prevent its closure in the early 1990s.
In the late 1990s, with Taiwan’s national airline poised to close an airplane deal with Airbus rather than Boeing, Gorton ew to Taipei to try to convince the airline’s president and CEO to stick with Boeing. It was a day of meetings and back to Washington, D.C. He ultimately wasn’t successful, but that demonstrated his commitment to the aerospace firm.
In more recent times, Drewel and Gorton served on the William D. Ruckelshaus Center board of directors, helping guide a Washington State University and University of Washington e ort to foster collaborative public policy in the state and region. “When he spoke, it made a difference,” Drewel said. “So many people have lost their listening skills over the years. I will remember Slade for his candor and his listening ability.”
Dave Earling, who served on the city council and later as the mayor of Edmonds, remembers a conversation with Gorton in the 1990s. Earling was chairman of the Sound Transit board at the time and federal financing had hit a snag. The meeting was set up at a Northgate restaurant. Staff members
soon excused themselves and it was just Earling and Gorton at the table. For the better part of an hour, Gorton asked him direct questions and Earling did his best to give him straight answers. “It became clear to me that Slade wanted to know if he could trust me,” Earling said. “That was really the start of our relationship.”
That was the first of many encounters Earling would have with Gorton. The senator’s intellect was all it had been cracked up to be, his questions probing in breadth and depth, but Earling also concluded that Gorton was “a fabulous listener,” quickly gleaning and storing in his mind the relevant facts. “He had a complete devotion to improving government and improving people’s lives,” Earling said.
Dave Earling’s son, Eric, would end up working for Gorton’s senate staff. “Slade was an introvert in a world of politics dominated by extroverts,” Eric Earling wrote in an online tribute. “He was a man modest in stature but, a giant in intellect. He was a long-time Republican elected official in a state that is now so very blue. He was a man often accused in politics of being cold yet, who could exude the most fabulous warmth and sincerity.”
In an interview, Earling said Gorton was “part of a generation of Republicans that believed in governing and how best to govern and in governing you have to reach across the aisle once in a while.”
Gorton entered public office in 1958, when he won a seat the state House of Representatives. He spent 10 years in the House, followed by 12 years as state Attorney General. In 1980, he won his first term in the U.S. Senate but lost re-election. He came back in 1988 to win the other Senate seat and then got re-elected in 1994. He’s the last Republican to represent Washington in the U.S. Senate.
Gorton’s electoral career ended in 2000 with a razor-thin loss to Maria Cantwell, a Democratic congresswoman from Snohomish County. A recount was needed to confirm the result. Yet the day after the election, Gorton delivered a handwritten note to Cantwell complimenting her effort, recalled her campaign manager, Ron Dotzauer of Snohomish. “In it he said, ‘You ran a ‘strategically driven campaign that was flawlessly executed,’” Dotzauer said. “Slade was a decent man and a man of character.”
Dotzauer, who runs the consulting firm Strategies 360, praised Gorton’s commitment to civic life. “This is a guy that came from an extraordinarily wealthy family and could have done anything he wanted to do,” he said. “He chose a lifetime of public service.”
Throughout his career, Gorton dazzled many with his absolute command of the granular knowledge of electoral politics.
“He could drive around Washington state and o the top of his head tell you what precinct you were in and how they voted in an election,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman. “I think his brain really worked like a computer.” His recall of facts paid dividends in policymaking and negotiating. “He won so many things on the details,” noted Bill McSherry, a Boeing Co. executive who worked on Gorton’s 1994 campaign and then four-plus years on his staff.
On Aug. 11, with Gorton hospitalized and unable to have visitors due to COVID-19, alums of “Team Gorton” gathered on Zoom to record personal goodbye messages. In the course of three hours, 80 people spoke of the values and lessons imparted by the man they considered a mentor, not a boss. Forged decades earlier, the bond, for each of them, remained solid as they rose to prominent positions in the public, private and non-pro t sectors. “Contrary to the stereotype, he was one of the ultimate people persons that I’ve ever met,” McSherry said. “Every interaction with Slade was a teaching opportunity and a learning opportunity.”
Eric Earling, a longtime Snohomish County resident now living in Idaho, is an executive for a health insurance firm. He took part in the call. “Slade was the kind of guy that inspired an incredible amount of loyalty from people who worked for him,” Earling said. “A huge part of his legacy in Washington state … is what these members of his staff have gone on to do. It is significant. “Those of us who worked for the man loved him. He set standards we still adhere to and aspire to today.”
In 2011, John Hughes penned a 444-page biography drawn from hours of conversations with Gorton. In one of the final questions, Hughes said he asked him to reflect on the course of his life.
“He shot me this beaming smile,” Hughes began, “and said, ‘I’ve had an absolutely marvelous life.’”
-Jerry Cornfield, Everett Herald