OLYMPIA — Former Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini, a son of Italian immigrants who became the oldest living former governor in America, died Monday. He was 101.
The family said Rosellini’s health had declined in recent weeks because of pneumonia.
A Democrat, Rosellini served as governor for eight years ending in 1965. His tenure in office was defined by efforts to reform state prisons and modernize mental health institutions. He helped push for the creation of the 520 floating bridge that now bears his name.
Rosellini’s daughter, Lynn, recalled how he was able to connect with voters so quickly because of his ability to identify with average people and his interest in their concerns.
“He always said if he shook somebody’s hand it was a vote,” Lynn Rosellini said. “He would look at you like there was nobody else in the room.”
Albert Dean Rosellini was born in Tacoma in 1910 and developed his work ethic as a child. He remembered selling newspapers at age 9 while also doing odd jobs for a woman for a penny a day.
He was a boxer in college and took three jobs to put himself through school, working as a butcher in Pike Place Market, working on an Alaska steamer and law clerking. King County Prosecutor Warren G. Magnuson hired Rosellini out of law school.
Rosellini was elected to the state Senate in 1938, when he was 28 years old, and served for 18 years. He championed the creation of the medical and dental schools at the University of Washington.
Rosellini went on to serve as governor from 1957 until 1965 before losing to Republican Gov. Dan Evans.
In 1972, Rosellini made another run for governor, winning the Democratic primary but losing to Evans in the general election. Rosellini believed ethnic and religious prejudice defeated him, as bumper stickers at the time said: “Does Washington Really Need Another Godfather.”
“That Mafia crap really hurt. Overnight, I dropped over 12 percent in the ratings. I don’t think people believe it so much as it scared the hell out of them. They were scared away from me,” he said during a 1986 interview with The Associated Press.
Still, he went on to become a mentor for Democrats in the state and eventually bonded with Evans, his longtime political foe.
Secretary of State Sam Reed said Rosellini was charming and affable.
“This is a tremendous loss for the state of Washington,” Reed said.