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.
A Democrat who always wore a rosebud on his lapel, 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 while shepherding through 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.”
The family said Rosellini’s health had declined in recent weeks because of pneumonia. He died at a retirement community in Seattle.
Albert Dean Rosellini was born in Tacoma in 1910 and developed his characteristic 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.
In 1927, his father and a friend were arrested and charged with trying to smuggle drugs out of Mexico, according to a 1997 biography by Payton Smith. Gov. Rosellini reflected to Smith years later that his father’s arrest in the home, the sensational headlines and visiting his father in federal prison made an indelible impression on him and motivated him to enter law school.
King County Prosecutor Warren G. Magnuson hired Rosellini out of law school.
Rosellini met his wife, Ethel, when he was a young attorney defending a literary agent on trial for grand larceny. They got married in 1937, and were married for 64 years. She died in 2002.
In 1938, when he was 28, Rosellini was elected to the state Senate and served for 18 years. He championed the creation of the medical and dental schools at the University of Washington, but said he lost his seat in 1952 in part because of his Italian and Catholic heritage.
“Friends said, you are well qualified but with your name and your religion you’ll never make it in the state,” he recalled 10 years ago.
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 again, as bumper stickers at the time said: “Does Washington Really Need Another Godfather.” The Oscar-winning film “The Godfather” was released the same year.
“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.
Rosellini was friends with Seattle strip club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr. and represented the fellow Italian-American during his early years as an attorney.
Colacurcio was later implicated in a 2003 campaign finance conspiracy relating to donations made to three City Council members, at a time he was seeking to expand a strip club parking lot. Rosellini helped deliver several of the campaign contributions, but was not charged.
After leaving politics, Rosellini went on to become a mentor for Democrats in the state, providing U.S. Sen. Patty Murray her first endorsement, helping fundraise for U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and mentoring Gov. Gary Locke. He also bonded with Evans, his longtime political foe.
“One thing I really admired, he didn’t just retire and disappear,” Evans recalled Monday. “He kept working and was active right up to the last couple of years.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire said she has called on Rosellini for advice over the years.
“The rose he wore on his lapel to help people pronounce his name illustrated some of his traits I most admired: practical with a dash of charisma and a bit of fun thrown in for good measure,” Gregoire said in a statement. “He was a dear friend who I will forever remember as ‘The Gov.’ “
The family has not finalized details for a memorial service.