Between Assignments: Remembering Slade Gorton

Slade Gorton

Over the past several days, the passing of Slade Gorton has been justly covered in all of the media. I have thought long about writing a personal view on Sen. Gorton and how that view could add to the conversation. After all, Slade’s long career spawned many friendships and relationships that knew him far better than I did. My conclusion is, if for no other reason, I need to reflect on the enormity of impact he brought to so many of us.

In all of my years around many elected officials, Slade Gorton towered above most. An amazing intellect who served our state and the nation in a variety of ways — from the Washington State House of Representatives to Washington State Attorney General to our United State Senator. He served the public for over 40 years.

My view of leadership styles may be narrow, but in my observation there are two basic styles: noisy and quiet. Both styles can be effective and I am not saying I think one is better than the other. Slade Gorton made great use of the quiet style. Slade was a great listener and thinker — thoughtful, analytical, and asked great questions. I was always in awe of his quick mind.

The first contact I had with Slade was when I was chair of the Sound Transit Board and the agency had lost some important credibility and federal funding. I got a call from the lead Sound Transit Government Affairs staff person and was told Sen. Gorton wanted to meet with me. A luncheon was  arranged at a restaurant near Northgate. There were four of us at the luncheon: the Sound Transit staffer, Sen. Gordon’s Chief of Staff, the Senator and me. After the first 10-15 minutes and with pleasantries exchanged, the two staffers excused themselves. And yes, that made me very nervous!

In the next hour over lunch is where I found out what a great listener he was, and about his great mind. His ability to ask probing questions, how analytical he was and how quickly he grasped the even the smallest detail was amazing. About half way through the meal, I also came to realize he was taking the time to get to know me and — more importantly — could we work together and, bottom line, if he could trust me.

I guess it worked out just fine, because over the next few years, Slade, –along with much of our Washington delegation — “carried the water” for Sound Transit. During my seven or eight trips to D.C., I had to a chance to see and further admire the character and skill Slade used in working to find solutions on a variety of important issues. He is the first person I heard use the phrase, “perfection is the enemy of good.” He knew how and when compromise was the proper solution. He was an artist in moving an issue to success.

A success we can all appreciate is saving the Seattle Mariners. Slade loved baseball and when the Mariners were in desperate shape financially, Slade help assemble local purchasers to keep the club here. He was also involved in an important bi-partisan effort to bring the Navy base to Everett. While he voted to impeach President Clinton, he was not willing to support President Trump. He was pragmatic and was always clear on decisions he had to make.

While the senator worked across the aisle on many issues, he could also take a firm position against his own Republican party. Years ago there was an effort to eliminate The National Endowment for the Arts by some of his own party. As chair of the Senate Interior Committee, he rejected the effort and frankly helped keep the arts alive and well. I will always admire that difficult decision.

One final thought, which has left a permanent impression on me, is the intense loyalty and devotion Slade’s staff had toward him. (Including our oldest son, Eric) During the years I had contact with him, I came to understand and admire the quality of his staff, how devoted and loyal they were to him, and how many of them would become leaders in government, business, industry and the non-profit world. Slade had the ability to inspire and set the example for others to follow. The nation will continue to benefit from the strength he passed on to staff and others.

 (Photo by Jon Anderson)

— By Dave Earling

Former Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling is a music educator and business owner. He and his wife Susan have three adult children and four grandchildren.


  1. After meeting with Senator Gorton I remember him as the senator who helped make some of our international business possible. Our country needs more elected officials like Slade.

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