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News / Northwest

Slade Gorton, former Washington U.S. senator, dies at 92

By Associated Press
Published: August 19, 2020, 11:23am

SEATTLE — Slade Gorton, a patrician and cerebral politician who served as a U.S. Senate Republican leader before he was ousted by the growing Seattle-area liberal electorate in 2000, has died. He was 92.

Gorton died Wednesday in Seattle, said J. Vander Stoep, who served a Gorton’s chief of staff in the Senate.

Gorton was the Chicago-born scion of the New England frozen fish family. A 40-year political career in Democratic Washington began when he won a legislative seat within two years of arriving in Seattle as a freshly minted lawyer.

He went on to serve as state attorney general, a three-term U.S. senator and member of the 9/11 Commission.

Gorton was known for his aggressive consumer-protection battles as attorney general, his defeat in 1980 of the state’s legendary Democratic Sen. Warren Magnuson at the height of his power and his work on the GOP inner team in the U.S. Senate.

Former Republican Gov. Dan Evans called Gorton an intellectual giant who was always the smartest person in the room and a strategic thinker who helped define the GOP in Washington state during a time when they could still prevail in major, state-wide contests.

Gorton, runner-thin to the point of being gaunt, struggled with an image of an icy, aloof Ivy Leaguer. He was sometimes compared to the frozen fish sticks his grandfather once sold and squired under the sobriquet “Slippery Slade.” At the 2000 state Republican convention, he acknowledged that he was no Bill Clinton in the warm-and-fuzzy department, tough for a politician in an era that valued personality and charm.

“I’m always been different — I’m not a good politician like Bill Clinton,” Gorton said. “I’m not very good at feeling your pain. I’ve never been able to ‘reach out and touch someone.?

“I’m more comfortable reading a book than working a room … and my idea of fun is going to a Mariners game with my grandkids, keeping score and staying to myself.”

Gorton chalked it up to Yankee reserve, not disdain for people.

Once, when he was attempting a Senate comeback after suffering the first defeat of his long career, Gorton’s closest allies said if he didn’t knock off his know-it-all, aloof behavior, they were through campaigning for him and he’d never win again.

A chastened Gorton made a point to listen better, set up sounding boards across the state and boned up on his people skills, said former top aide Tony Williams.

Thomas Slade Gorton III was born and grew up in the Chicago area, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth, got a law degree from Columbia and served in the both the Army and Air Force. He picked Seattle so he could enjoy both sailing and skiing nearby and break into law and Republican politics easier than in clubby, Democratic Boston.

He quickly landed a top law job, married former Seattle Times reporter Sally Clark, and within two years won a seat in the state House.

Seattle, now overwhelmingly Democratic, was then a two-party town. Gorton became friends with a liberal Republican set that included Evans, later the three-term governor and senator, and Joel Pritchard, who went on to Congress and served as lieutenant governor.

“Right from the beginning, it was clear he had brains to spare,” recalled Evans, two years his senior.

The young Republicans later took over the state House with help from a few Democrats. Gorton became majority leader.

Evans was elected governor in 1964, and Gorton began his own climb in 1968. First came three terms as attorney general. In 1980, he won a coveted U.S. Senate seat by knocking off the legendary “Maggie” — Warren G. Magnuson, appropriations committee chairman and Senate president.

Gorton was a youthful 52, and Magnuson was mentally and politically agile but shuffled, mumbled and looked older than his 75 years — a difference that Gorton played up.

Aided by President Ronald Reagan’s landslide, Gorton pulled off his upset. Within three years, he was writing the federal budget, working on Social Security and budget reforms, and winning a reputation as one the best of the new crop.

But a funny thing happened on his way to fame and glory: He lost the next election. Brock Adams, former congressman and Jimmy Carter’s transportation secretary, edged him by 26,000 votes.

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Gorton retreated home, assuming he was washed up in politics. But within a year, Evans decided to vacate the other Senate seat, and Gorton launched his comeback.

He was startled when his advisers told him he had to look at his own foibles and change his ways. A newfound humility helped ease him back into office in 1988. He narrowly defeated liberal Democratic Rep. Mike Lowry.

Gorton easily won a third term in 1994, a strong year for Republicans nationally. He rose in Senate seniority and was appointed to the leadership circle by then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, who praised Gorton’s “wise counsel.”

By 2000, Gorton was 72, looking over his shoulder at a challenger 30 years his junior.

Democrat Maria Cantwell borrowed a page from Gorton’s playbook. She said, “It’s not about age,” but what she called “a 19th-century view of where we need to be.”

Cantwell, a dot-com millionaire, plowed $10 million into her campaign. It was a Democratic year, and Gorton, who had been in public life since 1958, the year Cantwell was born, lost.

He later served on the 9/11 Commission and on the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, as well as numerous civic boards and campaigns.

He was also a self-described baseball nut who twice went to bat to successfully keep the Mariners in Seattle.

Gorton and his wife had a son, Tod, and daughters Sara and Becky and their children.