MILL CREEK — Augie Mardesich, the son of a commercial fisherman who was propelled into politics by family tragedy and became one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, died Monday.
He was 95.
A storyteller with fascinating tales of survival on the high seas, Mardesich made no secret of his distaste for campaigning and once said he had no great political agenda beyond seeing that the budgets were balanced.
Yet in Olympia, where he called everyone “boss,” he built a reputation as a tough and pragmatic negotiator always willing to reach across the aisle if necessary to seal agreements on legislation. His deal-making talents also inspired two criminal investigations.
“He was one of the wildest and smartest guys who ever occupied this building,” said Ralph Munro, a Republican and former secretary of state. “Some used to say Augie could get more done after a couple of drinks than the rest of the Senate could when they were sober.”
David Ammons, who was a reporter with the Associated Press during Mardesich’s time in office, said the former Everett man was considered the best bill reader in the Legislature and could change the meaning of a bill with a well-placed comma. That bolstered his ability to influence outcomes.
“He was a master of the back room game,” Ammons said. “He was a very powerful person who worked behind the curtain.”
Megan Lewis, the eldest of his four daughters, said he understood the complexities of legislation and made sure the intent of the bills was never overlooked. It was not about the deal, she said, but about getting the job done right.
“He understood how legislation affected people,” she said. “He was a working man. He brought the perspective of the working man to the table whenever he was negotiating on an issue.”
August Paul “Augie” Mardesich was born Feb. 11, 1920, in San Pedro, California.
His parents were Yugoslavian immigrants and his father, Nick Mardesich, worked as a commercial fisherman.
When Augie was 6, the family moved to Everett where a Slavic fishing community then thrived. And it was nearer Alaska where one could make more money catching salmon. Growing up, Augie and his three brothers learned the fishing business. It was the career Augie Mardesich desired but his parents steered he and his brother, Tony, into college. Augie Mardesich became a lawyer.
Tony entered politics first, winning a state House seat in the 38th Legislative District in 1948.
But tragedy struck the next year. On a fishing trip near the Aleutian chain in Alaska, Augie Mardesich lost his father and brother when their vessel overturned in a storm. In 1950, Mardesich didn’t seek the job but yielded to pressure to accept an appointment to replace his brother in the House.
He went on to serve six terms, rising to majority leader. In 1962 he decided to run for the Senate because he told biographers he wanted the longer four-year term so he would not need to campaign as often. He served 16 years in the Senate including three as Senate Majority Leader.
Former Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican, called Mardesich a “terrific guy.”
“We were barking at each other. We were conniving with each other,” he said. “He was a terrific legislator.”
Ultimately, he said, Mardesich put his career on the line when he pushed through a bill reforming the state public employee pension system in spite of ardent opposition of every major labor group.
“It was the right thing to do. He knew it was difficult and in the next election he paid the price,” Evans said. “I think that was his greatest single accomplishment.”
In 1978, unions representing teachers, law enforcement and firefighters united behind Vognild and helped him upset the heavily favored incumbent.
Mardesich’s legacy also included two rounds of criminal investigations in 1975.
Early that year he was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges stemming from alleged payoffs from garbage-hauling interests trying to ensure passage of 1971 bill favorable to the industry, according to details from HistoryLink.org and an oral history compiled by the secretary of state. On July 3, 1975, a federal jury found Mardesich innocent on all charges.
Later that year, Slade Gorton, then state attorney general, sued Mardesich and two banks, accusing them of influence peddling and violating public disclosure laws. A settlement was reached, though Mardesich said he never paid a penny.
“He was quite a politician and unlike politicians these days he knew how to get things done,” said Gary Baker, a Marysville attorney whose father ran nearly all of Mardesich’s campaigns.
His daughter summed it up this way: “It was a very colorful adventurous life that he led.”
Mardesich was preceded in death in 2014 by his wife, Rosemary. He is survived by his two sons, Tony and John; four daughters, Megan, Monica, Meran and Catherine, and 10 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held in the spring.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.