Former governor still kicking at 95 and lovin' the noise
An unmarked office in a former beer warehouse in Seattle's Georgetown district is a curious place to find the dean of Washington politics...
Seattle Times staff columnist
An unmarked office in a former beer warehouse in Seattle's Georgetown district is a curious place to find the dean of Washington politics.
Yet here former Gov. Al Rosellini sits every day, surrounded by photos of himself glad-handing Elvis, Liberace, JFK, Sinatra, the pope.
Scores of people find their way here to visit him. Business owners want his legal help. Charities ask him to raise money.
Most often, it is aspiring politicians — mayors, judges, city council wannabes — who come to pay homage and hope he will make some rain for their campaigns.
It's hard to tell if this is his job, or his life. He says he never takes a penny of payment.
"It doesn't seem like work to me," he says. "I do it because I enjoy people. I'd go crazy if I stayed home."
Not the lifestyle you'd expect from a guy who turns 95 today.
He still heads an Olympic committee to raise money so that world-caliber athletes from the state can train.
He still swims in Puget Sound.
He still drives himself around town in a white Cadillac DeVille.
And yes, controversy still tails him like a state trooper. Last month, a Seattle ethics commission subpoenaed his personal bank records. The commission apparently wants to know whether Rosellini doled out improper campaign contributions during "Strippergate," a low-rent scandal involving the City Council and a rezone at a strip club.
He is dismissive, calling it "a lot of noise about nothing."
But you can tell he also enjoys the noise. How many 95-year-olds are important enough to get their bank records subpoenaed?
"It lets people know I'm alive," he says, chuckling.
Rosellini has always been complicated. Many say the Democrat was the best governor in state history.
From 1957 to 1965, he reformed the state prisons, launched the UW Medical Center, built four bridges — including the floating one across Lake Washington that bears his name — and brought the World's Fair to Seattle.
He is charming with a famous humility. After I met with him, he sat for an hourlong interview with some school kids for a class assignment.
Yet the state never loved him. He barely won re-election in 1960 and was voted out in 1964. He lost two subsequent campaigns, for King County executive in 1969 and again for governor in 1972.
His biographer, Payton Smith, writes that Rosellini's extraordinary public service was often overshadowed by prejudice against his Italian-Catholic heritage, allegations of corruption and whispering campaigns about his ties to seedy club owners.
Rosellini told me his greatest achievement was not a bridge or government program, but "breaking this barrier of discrimination" — this notion that if you're Italian, you must have crime connections.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that two years ago, at the age of 93, he is said to have toted stacks of checks in to Seattle City Council members on behalf of strip-club owners and their associates, one of whom is a convicted racketeer.
It's history repeating itself. It was an alleged connection to that same racketeer, Frank Colacurcio Sr., that had brought down Rosellini's 1972 campaign for governor.
He says he has done nothing wrong, and that strip clubs are businesses like any other, deserving of representation in the halls of government.
"Nothing occurred that's not part of the regular political system," he insists.
Three council members did pay ethics fines related to lobbying by Rosellini and another attorney. And the King County Prosecutor's Office has launched a criminal investigation, though it's not known whether Rosellini himself is a target.
He's not the least bit worried the scandal will stain his legacy, he says.
"No, I haven't even thought about it," he said. "If it does, then so be it."
This is all apparently vintage Rosellini. Smith writes in "Rosellini: Immigrants' Son and Progressive Governor" that the governor was combative when challenged and had a "moral neutrality" about the sometimes disreputable people who ran nightclubs and gambling establishments.
I don't know how Rosellini will be remembered. His record makes most governors after him look like slackers. Prior to Strippergate, he was undergoing a resurgence as people recalled him as a governor who got things done.
My guess is this flap will die out, and people will rightly focus on his gifts to the state, not his flaws.
But today, on his birthday, I salute him for a simpler thing: his unwillingness to fade away.
After all he's done, Al Rosellini's not content to sit around pondering his legacy.
At 95, he's still creating it.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday.
Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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