Gov. Rosellini: Out of office since 1965, not out of sight
Albert D. Rosellini, who served as Washington's governor from 1957 to 1965, died Monday in Seattle. He was 101.
Seattle Times political reporter
Though he left office more than four decades ago, former Gov. Albert D. Rosellini had been anything but forgotten in recent years.
Perhaps best known for championing the Highway 520 floating bridge that bears his name, Gov. Rosellini was honored as the father of the University of Washington Medical School and sought out as a mentor by successive generations of Democratic politicians.
Gov. Rosellini, who served as governor from 1957 to 1965, died Monday in Seattle after complications of pneumonia. He had turned 101 in January.
As he approached 100, Gov. Rosellini's birthdays became media events, celebrated at gatherings for all living Washington governors. Many local political leaders mourned his loss Monday.
"He was a trusted mentor and beloved friend, and the countless lives he touched, including mine, may be his greatest legacy," Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement. Gregoire ordered state flags lowered to half-staff in his memory.
King County Executive Dow Constantine noted in a statement that Gov. Rosellini led the state during "a transformative period in our history that cannot be underestimated," citing the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, which Gov. Rosellini had promoted, as well as his relentless advocacy for public infrastructure.
Even some former political foes came to praise Gov. Rosellini's record of cleaning up atrocious conditions in state prisons and mental hospitals.
"He was the first of what I would call the modern governors of our state," said former Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican who beat Gov. Rosellini in two bitterly contested elections. "He really emphasized the need for excellence in institutions and social services. That was his major direction."
Despite his accomplishments, Gov. Rosellini was hounded throughout his career by suspicions that he was doing improper favors for friends and political supporters.
Even well into his 90s Gov. Rosellini found his way back into the headlines for connections to strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr. and the 2003 campaign-finance scandal at Seattle City Hall dubbed "Strippergate."
A life in law
Gov. Rosellini was born in 1910 to Italian immigrant parents in Tacoma. His father, Giovanni Rosellini, opened a saloon but was forced to close it during Prohibition. The family moved to Seattle's Rainier Valley, a neighborhood nicknamed "Garlic Gulch" for its large Italian-American community.
Like many of his generation, Gov. Rosellini worked from an early age. His first job at age 7 or 8 was to get up early and light a furnace for two elderly women who lived down the street, according to a 1997 biography by retired Seattle attorney Payton Smith. By age 9, the future governor was delivering newspapers and by high school he'd worked in a door factory, a meat market and a pharmacy.
In 1926, his father was sent to prison for a year for trying to smuggle drugs out of Mexico, a traumatic experience that Gov. Rosellini later said pushed him to study law.
After graduating from the University of Washington School of Law, Gov. Rosellini went to work as an attorney in 1933. In that role, he forged lifelong ties to liquor distributors and tavern owners by representing them in challenges to Prohibition-era restrictions known as "blue laws."
He met his wife, Ethel, while working on a case in which she appeared as a witness. They married in 1937. Ethel Rosellini died in 2002.
It was also as an attorney that Gov. Rosellini had his first recorded dealings with Colacurcio Sr., defending him on a statutory-rape charge. Colacurcio was convicted in 1943 and sent to prison. The two remained lifelong friends — a connection that at times would prove politically costly to Gov. Rosellini.
Gov. Rosellini entered politics in 1934, challenging a powerful state senator, "Tiger Jim" Murphy. Gov. Rosellini narrowly lost, but his campaign caught the eye of Warren Magnuson, then running for King County prosecutor. Gov. Rosellini accepted a job as a deputy prosecutor.
After Murphy died, Gov. Rosellini easily won election to that seat in 1938. At 29, he was the youngest member of the state Senate. He quickly rose in power and by 1941 was considered "the unquestioned leader of the Senate and a widely recognized Democratic spokesman," according to Smith's biography.
Though an unpolished public speaker, Gov. Rosellini's one-on-one charm made him a formidable political force.
His youngest daughter, Lynn Rosellini, said part of her father's appeal was his relentless optimism. "If anything would go wrong, his motto was things could be worse. Mom would burn the toast and he'd say, 'I like it like that,' " she said.
As Senate majority leader, he clashed frequently with Republican Gov. Arthur Langlie. Gov. Rosellini ran for governor, losing in the Democratic primary.
Langlie left to run for the U.S. Senate in 1956, and Gov. Rosellini ran again, easily defeating a weaker opponent. Supporters handed out red rose lapel pins as a way to remind people how to pronounce and spell his name — "Rose-llini," not "Ross-ellini." The rose pins became his best-known political symbol.
Gov. Rosellini's first term as governor has been praised as one of the most effective and progressive in state history.
In particular, he was credited with improving nightmarish conditions in state prisons, mental hospitals and juvenile homes.
"He brought the institutions into the modern era," said Smith, the biographer. "They were languishing in a situation where they were almost like they would have been in the Civil War."
At the time, some inmates still were bound in manacles and housed in cells with buckets for toilets. Gov. Rosellini fought for more modern facilities, training for staff, jobs for inmates and forestry camps for low-risk offenders.
Gov. Rosellini also overcame political opposition and daunting funding problems to build a second bridge across Lake Washington. The Highway 520 floating bridge opened in 1960, coming in under budget. The bridge was officially renamed in his honor in 1988.
And Gov. Rosellini worked to support the UW Medical Center, whose creation he'd proposed as a state legislator. As a New Deal Democrat, he believed strongly in public education.
Despite his accomplishments, Gov. Rosellini faced increasing criticism from newspapers and political opponents.
In the late 1950s, The Seattle Times published a series of articles probing irregularities in the state purchasing department and funds set up to pay the governor's political expenses. Gov. Rosellini accused the newspaper of a double standard, saying they'd "winked" at similar practices by previous administrations.
Meanwhile, Republicans and some conservative Democrats bashed Gov. Rosellini's proposals to raise taxes — dubbing him "Taxellini."
He won re-election in 1960, but his popularity had declined.
Lost in a landslide
In 1964, Gov. Rosellini was challenged by Evans, then a young Republican state legislator who campaigned as a reformer.
Gov. Rosellini continued to be dogged by suspicions of cronyism in state government. A scandal erupted when a state liquor-board employee admitted to taking payoffs. Newspapers also reported that liquor-board and ferry-system employees had been told to sell tickets to Gov. Rosellini's political functions.
Though nothing was tied definitively to Gov. Rosellini, he lost the election in a landslide.
He tried to mount a political comeback in 1969, losing a race for King County executive to Republican John Spellman.
A final play for political office came in 1972, when he challenged Evans' bid for a third term.
Gov. Rosellini led in the polls, but his numbers took a dive after late-campaign missteps and political attacks.
First, there was a debate in which Gov. Rosellini kept mockingly referring to Evans as "Danny Boy."
Then, in late October, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Gov. Rosellini had tried to intervene on Colacurcio's behalf for a club license in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, some Evans supporters distributed "We Don't Need A Godfather" bumper stickers. Gov. Rosellini's supporters were furious at the anti-Italian smear.
"That was really hard because he was so proud of being Italian," Lynn Rosellini said.
The loss ended Gov. Rosellini's political career. He went into the beer business, opening Premium Distributors, a Seattle distributor of Olympia Beer.
Over the years, Gov. Rosellini became regarded as a grandfatherly figure to generations of Democratic politicians he'd help with fundraising and advice.
He even became cordial with his old foe Evans in recent years.
"You fight bitterly at the time, but then you go on, pick up and forget," Gov. Rosellini said in a 2010 Seattle Times article about his 100th birthday celebration, which was attended by Evans and other governors.
It was Gov. Rosellini's connection to his longtime friend Colacurcio Sr. that put him back into headlines during the "Strippergate" scandal of 2003.
Gov. Rosellini personally delivered campaign contributions connected to Colacurcio to some City Council members. The effort came around the time Colacurcio was pushing for a rezone of a parking lot for Rick's, a Lake City strip club. Gov. Rosellini owned the gas station and carwash next door.
Ethics investigators determined that many of the donations were illegal and that Colacurcio had used straw donors to sidestep campaign-contribution limits.
Gov. Rosellini dismissed the scandal and was not accused of criminal wrongdoing. But it led to the defeat of two City Council members who had sought Gov. Rosellini's fundraising help, and criminal convictions for Colacurcio, his son and an associate. On the day Colacurcio was charged, he was seen dining with Gov. Rosellini at a Lake City Italian restaurant.
Colacurcio died in 2010 at 93.
"A living history book"
Gov. Rosellini remained active even as he neared the century mark, driving around town to political and social events in his white Cadillac with the license plate "GOV ADR."
Until age 99, he still showed up every day at his Georgetown office filled with political mementos and photographs. Friends marveled at his mental sharpness even at an advanced age.
"He was a living history book," former Gov. Mike Lowry said. "It was better than any oral history."
Gov. Rosellini is survived by sons John Rosellini, of Vashon Island, and Al Rosellini Jr., of Seattle; daughters Lynn Rosellini, of Washington, D.C.; Sue Stiller, of Cupertino, Calif.; and Jane Campbell, of Bellevue; 15 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.
This report includes material from Seattle Times archives.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628
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