Nelson’s pragmatism served citizens well

Gary Nelson’s career stands as proof that elected leaders can be guided by partisan principles without abandoning common sense.

During 40 years in elected office, including 22 in the Legislature and 12 on the Snohomish County Council, Nelson’s conservative philosophy and Republican Party loyalty were never in doubt. Yet when it came time for him to vote on key investments — particularly in transportation — partisanship took a back seat to pragmatism.

As Nelson heads into retirement, forced from the County Council by term limits, we salute his public service, and the approach he brought to it.

“He took pride in being an independent spirit,” said fellow Republican pragmatist Dave Earling, who like Nelson served on the Edmonds City Council, though not at the same time. Yet, Earling is quick to add, “he was still a hard-core Republican.”

And a civil one. Acquaintances in both parties agree that while Nelson could be pugnacious in the legislative process, he never held grudges. Democratic County Council Chairman Dave Gossett noted that while Nelson served as council chairman, he handled the gavel with grace and patience, ensuring the views of others on the council, and those of citizens, were heard and fairly considered.

Nelson also served with integrity. Earling said you could always count on Nelson to keep his word, a trait that isn’t always a given in politics.

The underpinnings of Nelson’s political philosophy — limited government and the pursuit of self-reliance — aren’t radical, and he pushed policies that supported them, including low taxes. He hardly did so blindly, however, as his support for transportation investments suggests. As a state legislator, he voted consistently for gas taxes to support the state’s highway needs. He was a key supporter of HOV lanes, of Community Transit and of paratransit services. As a member of the Regional Transportation Investment District, he helped to develop the county’s list of highway-project priorities.

John Koster, who after Nelson departs will be the only Republican on the five-member County Council, said the council will miss his keen institutional memory. Indeed, Nelson can rattle off details of previous votes like he’s reading from an encyclopedia, a skill that provided important historical context to many discussions with fellow state lawmakers and County Council members. Political junkies love to have Nelson regale them with stories of political battles from decades ago. It’s a pastime he clearly loves, and one that speaks to the passion he has had for public service.

For 40 years, that passion has served the state and Snohomish County well. It will be missed.

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