Death with Dignity was Booth Gardner and Blair Butterworth’s legacy

Christian Sniderman
Christian Sniderman

Christian Sinderman is a political consultant based in Seattle, Washington who’s worked on campaigns for former Gov. Chris Gregoire, Gov. Jay Inslee and other transportation and education measures. This article originally appeared in the Seattle Times, and it’s republished with permission.

Last month, Washington lost two important, provocative voices. Former Gov. Booth Gardner, a public figure and master of the understatement, succumbed to a decadelong battle with Parkinson’s disease. Democratic strategist Blair Butterworth, a behind-the-scenes figure and master of bombast lost a tragic battle with cancer.

Each sought different paths to make a lasting mark on our political landscape. Booth served as governor for two terms; Blair helped elect two governors. Booth quietly shaped public opinion; Blair launched expletive-laden rants to bend political will. They united in 2008 to seek passage of Initiative 1000, which codified Washington’s Death With Dignity Act.

Both men passed within weeks of one another, almost four years to the date of the law taking effect. Blair used the law they fought to pass.

The law stands as a testament to Booth’s inspiring perseverance—taking on a statewide campaign while suffering the daily challenges of Parkinson’s—and Blair’s iconoclastic determination to vanquish the opponents of ultimate self-determination.

Working with these two men, whom I considered friends and mentors, was an honor for me, a testament shared by others on the campaign. Unlike many campaigns, this one was personal. For Booth, his passion was shaped by personal journey into disease and loss of autonomy. Blair told a harrowing story of a grandparent in England who suffered needlessly, and expressed his own concerns for end-of-life options. For me, it was seeing a beloved grandfather slip into depression, and ultimately, suicide at the hands of slow-burn cancer.

That a life lived with dignity and pride can devolve into fear and dependence is a concern shared by many. Initiative 1000 was approved by a healthy majority of Washington voters, although we remain one of only two states where the end-of-life choices are legal.

I-1000 was in many ways a bookend to careers that spanned decades and impacted lives at every age. After all, what is the point of a death with dignity if life isn’t lived to its fullest potential?

In addition to a passionate devotion to their own children, Booth and Blair were dedicated to success for every Washington child. Booth was an education governor who delivered more than rhetoric. Blair’s final campaign was the February 2013 passage of the Seattle schools levy—the last of many levies he worked to pass to assure quality education and opportunity in communities across the state.

I never got to know Booth as a healthy man. By the time we met during Maria Cantwell’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign he was already suffering the impacts of early-onset Parkinson’s, but that didn’t stop him from being an active and engaged participant, strategist and needed calming force.

We became fast friends. He had a lifetime of easy, engaging social relationships to draw from but still made room for new people.

Blair was a harder nut to crack, but over cocktails he would share incredible stories of growing up overseas, his early Peace Corps work and the kids in Africa he supported decades later through a library named in his honor.

The lessons both men leave the people currently serving in the spotlight, and shadows, of public life are clear: Act with conviction, courage and compassion. Focus on the people whose lives stand to benefit from our actions. Oh, and don’t forget to have a little fun in the process.

Since leaders like Booth and Blair started their path more than 30 years ago, Washington has grown tremendously, but we remain a state where ideas matter, where innovation is embraced, and where good ideas, applied with charm or profanity, can achieve acceptance.

Ultimately, it was this universal belief in human dignity and self-determination that drove both men. Their lives are a reminder that in politics and public life, it is more about winning and losing, it’s about the legacy you leave behind.

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