EVERETT — 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 flew 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 effort 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 off 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-profit 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: 360-352-8623; email@example.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.
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