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Originally published March 29, 2013 at 8:53 PM | Page modified March 29, 2013 at 10:48 PM

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Obituary: Strategist Blair Butterworth helped Democrats win elections

Longtime Democratic political consultant Blair Butterworth died Friday at 74.

Seattle Times political reporter

When Democratic campaign consultant Blair Butterworth met gubernatorial candidate Dixy Lee Ray in her small trailer in 1976, the irascible pair shared a bottle of scotch and shouted at each other in an hours-long political argument.

Nevertheless, a few months later Mr. Butterworth ran Ray’s successful campaign to become Washington’s first female governor.

But after four years, Mr. Butterworth, like many Democrats, was at odds with Ray and helped then-state Sen. Jim McDermott oust her in the Democratic primary.

Over a career that spanned more than three decades, Mr. Butterworth earned a reputation as one of state’s top political strategists, electing governors and mayors, passing school levies and the state’s Death With Dignity initiative.

Mr. Butterworth died Friday at his Seattle home after a long battle with cancer, his family said. He was 74.

A tall man with a booming voice and a mischievous smirk, Mr. Butterworth was a fountain of confident political advice for clients and of colorful, often expletive-laced comments for reporters.

“He was one of a kind,” said Gary Locke, the former two-term Washington governor now serving as U.S. ambassador to China. “He was kind of a crusty old guy, opinionated, but down deep, very loyal and in some ways gentle.”

Locke recalled it was Mr. Butterworth who, after showing up at his home clutching a poll and a strategy memo, persuaded him to run for King County executive in 1993.

Mr. Butterworth later helped run Locke’s gubernatorial campaigns. His strong personality rubbed some the wrong way.

Locke said the first campaign manager hired for his 1996 gubernatorial campaign approached him after a few days and insisted he jettison Mr. Butterworth.

“He said, ‘It’s Blair or me.’ I said, ‘Goodbye,’ ” Locke recalled.

Mr. Butterworth recruited a replacement campaign manager, DeLee Shoemaker, and Locke went on to win two terms as governor.

“He was my rock in really helping guide the strategy and truly understanding the different communities in the state of Washington,” said Shoemaker. “He really knew the lay of the land and how the different candidates would play.”

Born in London in 1938 to a career Foreign Service officer and his wife, Mr. Butterworth grew up in countries that included Spain, India, China, Sweden and England.

After graduating from Princeton University, Mr. Butterworth worked on the inaugural staff for the Peace Corps and then for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

He moved to Washington state in 1973 to work on development of health-care programs.

From the late 1970s on, Mr. Butterworth was a sought-after political consultant, advising dozens of prominent candidates, including former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, the late U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson and McDermott.

He also advised politicians and business clients in other states and countries.

Dean Nielsen, a younger political consultant who worked for Mr. Butterworth for a decade, recalled traveling with his mentor on a 2011 trip to Singapore and Hong Kong.

“He had a love for life. There are not too many people my age who would go on vacation with a 72-year-old (at the time),” Nielsen said. “He was 72 going on 35.”

Mr. Butterworth had a fondness for martinis, and for years he had a tradition of making Election Day predictions over cocktails with friends.

While he was a hired gun, Mr. Butterworth was devoted to many of the causes he championed. A father of two sons, he was a passionate advocate for better schools.

In an unpublished op-ed he recently submitted to The Seattle Times, Mr. Butterworth lamented “our constant underinvestment and lack of meaningful recent reform” in education.

“When we put counting dollars first, we rob our children and shortchange our future,” Mr. Butterworth wrote. “Where is the vision and the leadership we need for progress?”

Mr. Butterworth is survived by his wife, Celia Schorr, and sons Christopher Butterworth, of Nashville, Tenn., and Parker Butterworth, of Seattle.

Plans for a memorial service have not been announced.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner

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