Booth Gardner, 76; ex-governor backed assisted suicide law

NEW YORK — Booth Gardner, a two-term governor of Washington whose diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease after he left office helped motivate him to lead a successful voter initiative to allow physician-assisted suicide, died Friday at his home in Tacoma. He was 76.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s, said Ron Dotzauer, a family spokesman.

Mr. Gardner’s condition did not qualify him to use the Washington Death With Dignity Act, which the state’s voters approved in 2008. The law, modeled on one passed earlier in Oregon, allows terminally ill adults to obtain a doctor’s prescription for a lethal dose of medication. Mr. Gardner knew that Parkinson’s was not considered terminal under the law.


‘‘I wish we could do a more liberal law, but we’re going to pattern it after the Oregon law, because it passed,’’ he said during the 2008 campaign.

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‘‘My goal,’’ he said then, ‘‘is to lessen the pain of dying.’’

Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, an advocacy group that helped lead the campaign in Washington state, recalled meeting Mr. Gardner at the group’s Seattle office in 2006.

‘‘Booth had not yet received the brain procedures that would later reverse some of his Parkinson’s symptoms, and it was sometimes difficult to understand his speech,’’ Lee wrote in a blog post Monday. ‘‘Nevertheless, he projected unwavering confidence and abiding good nature. He looked at us, the supposed ‘experts’ seated around the table. Then he jabbed his thumb back over his shoulder with absolute authority, and said, ‘We’re going to have a campaign, and I want you all to get in line behind me.’ So we did.’’

Mr. Gardner, a Democrat who was governor from 1985 to 1993, knew how to campaign. He was a little-known county executive when he first ran for governor in 1984 (his counterintuitive slogan: ‘‘Booth Who?”), but he went on to become one of his state’s most popular politicians.


In the late 1980s, he signed into law a health care program that provided state medical insurance for the working poor. He helped develop land-use and growth-management policies that made Washington an early environmental leader.

Mr. Gardner served when the Northwest was prospering amid the rise of such companies as Microsoft and Starbucks. He was unafraid to seek tax increases, but the Legislature did not always comply, and some critics accused him of backing down too quickly. A 2010 biography suggested his work should earn about a B.

‘‘This will sound strange,’’ Mr. Gardner told John C. Hughes, the author of the biography, ‘‘Booth Who?’’ “But I didn’t think it was worth the price to go for an A.’’

Mr. Gardner, Hughes wrote, was ‘‘alluding to the fact that after six years he was burned out from 16-hour days.

In retrospect, he realized he was also showing the early symptoms of Parkinson’s.’’