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Slade Gorton, Who Was Voted Out of Senate and Then Back In, Dies at 92

2020-08-19 19:47:58

Slade Gorton, a Washington Republican who in three nonconsecutive terms in the Senate championed his state’s logging, aviation and technology industries and feuded with Native American tribes over fishing rights and sovereignty in the casino age, died on Wednesday at his daughter Sarah’s home in the Seattle area. He was 92.

J. Vander Stoep, who served as Mr. Gorton’s chief of staff in the Senate, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.

In his interrupted Senate service, from 1981 to 1987 and again from 1989 to 2001, Mr. Gorton achieved a little-noticed distinction: He was one of only 16 senators in history to win the office back after having been turned out by the electorate. (Senators have been directly elected by voters only since 1914, when a constitutional amendment removed that power from the various state legislatures.)

First elected on the coattails of Ronald Reagan’s presidential landslide in 1980, Mr. Gorton became known as a “giant killer” for upsetting Senator Warren G. Magnuson, a 75-year-old Democratic institution who began his congressional career during the Depression and ended it as the Senate’s senior member.

Although Mr. Gorton was 52 and had been a state official for two decades, he looked youthful — a bit like the actor Henry Fonda — and he was a marathon runner. To demonstrate his vigor to the voters, he ran 62 miles from his home in Seattle to Olympia, the state capital, to pay the filing fee for his Senate campaign.

He also said it was “time for a change,” a cliché that would come back to haunt him 20 years later when a younger opponent used it to end his Senate career. But in 1980 Mr. Gorton trounced Senator Magnuson with 54 percent of the ballots and joined a Senate that was controlled by Republicans for the first time since 1954.

Calling himself a “passionate moderate,” Mr. Gorton soon established himself as a contrarian. He won a seat on the Budget Committee and backed President Reagan’s programs to cut taxes and social-welfare spending and to support a military buildup. But he broke with the president by endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment and favoring the use of federal funds to pay for abortions for poor women.

His vote against a rise in Social Security benefits rankled voters, and critics said he failed to dispel the impression that he had not been forceful enough in challenging the federal government when it was considering using the Hanford nuclear power plant in southeastern Washington State as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. In 1986, he lost his re-election bid to Brock Adams, President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of transportation.

Back in the Senate, Mr. Gorton became known as “Senator Microsoft” for his support of that Seattle-based technology giant. He also became a leading advocate of timber interests in the West, and of Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Airborne Express and other Washington aviation interests.

When the Senate voted on articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, Mr. Gorton voted yes on the obstruction-of-justice charge and no on perjury.

Mr. Gorton feuded with Native American tribes for many years over treaty rights that allowed Indians to take up to half the annual runs of salmon and steelhead trout in Puget Sound and the Columbia River. He sought cuts in the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget and fought tribal immunity from some civil suits. His public hearings in Seattle attracted people waving American flags and shouting anti-Indian slogans.

In 2000, tribes flush with casino revenues fought back, contributing $1.3 million to Maria Cantwell, a former Democratic representative 30 years younger than Mr. Gorton. She echoed lines he had used in 1980, saying it was “time for a change.” Mr. Gorton stressed his seniority and influence — points Mr. Magnuson had made 20 years earlier — and the result was the same: The incumbent lost.

Thomas Slade Gorton III, who almost never used his first name, was born in Chicago on Jan. 8, 1928, the oldest of four children of Thomas Slade Gorton Jr., the founder of a successful fish business, and Ruth (Israel) Gorton. Slade and his siblings, Mary Jane, Mike and Nat, grew up in Evanston, Ill.

He graduated from Evanston High School in 1945, served a year in the Army and earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1950 and a law degree from Columbia University in 1953. He joined the Air Force as a lieutenant and rose to colonel. Resuming civilian life in 1956, he practiced law in Seattle but joined the Young Republicans with a political career in mind.

In 1958, he married Sally Jean Clark. She died in 2013. His survivors include their three children, Thomas Gorton, Sarah Nortz and Rebecca Gorton; his brothers, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton and Mike Gorton Sr.; his sister, Mary Jane Gorton; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Gorton served five terms in the Washington House of Representatives from 1959 to 1969. As the state’s attorney general over the next 12 years, he pressed for health warnings on cigarette packages, unit pricing on groceries and campaign finance disclosures.

After leaving the Senate, he joined the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks in 2002 and helped write its final report, which concluded that successive administrations had failed to read warning signs leading to the Sept. 11 attacks.

An authorized biography by John C. Hughes, “Slade Gorton: A Half Century in Politics,” appeared in 2011.

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.


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