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Pacific NW Cover Story Steve Miletich

Al Rosellini

From Garlic Gulch to the governor's mansion, Al Rosellini has walked a risky line

The lunch

Jan. 22, 2007

The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Seattle

Gov. Christine Gregoire is presiding as five former Washington governors gather in the crystal-and-linen opulence of The Georgian, one of the city's most elegant restaurants. They've come — Gregoire, Republicans Dan Evans and John Spellman, Democrats Booth Gardner, Mike Lowry and Gary Locke — for one main reason: to honor former Gov. Albert D. Rosellini in celebration of his 97th birthday.

It's a rare gathering of an exclusive club. They sit down at a large circular table, opting to eat in the main dining room — instead of the private room they were mistakenly assigned — because Rosellini was a politician of the people.

Locke rises to urge those seated at other tables to join them in singing "Happy Birthday" to the man of the hour.

"You're my hero," Evans declares, putting aside the bruising campaigns he and Rosellini once waged against each other for the state's biggest political prize.

Basking in the convivial glow, Rosellini gladly accommodates about a half dozen reporters who'd been invited to cover the event. His long life, he tells them, is the result of "hard work and clean living."

The dinner

July 12, 2005

The Italian Spaghetti House, Seattle

Rosellini pulls his Cadillac with the vanity license plate "GOV ADR" into the parking lot of the aging family restaurant on Lake City Way. He's coming to join Seattle strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr. for dinner. Earlier the same day, Colacurcio had been charged with funneling illegal campaign contributions to three Seattle City Council members. The money poured in at a time Colacurcio's son, Frank Jr., was seeking to expand parking at his strip club, Rick's, just up the street and next door to a gas station and car wash owned by Rosellini.

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Though Rosellini has not been charged in the so-called "Strippergate" case, charging papers show he helped deliver 11 of the suspect campaign checks, totaling nearly $7,000.

Rosellini and Colacurcio sit with a small gathering at a long table. Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner, who was driving home when he happened to spot the two going into the restaurant, approaches. Rosellini, his usual affable self, smiles and makes small talk. Colacurcio, surly and blunt, says he's got nothing more to say about the charges. The talk turns to reminiscences about the restaurant's original owner, who has died, and Brunner continues to chat until someone else in the group cuts in. This, he announces curtly, is "a private party."

Two events; two portraits of Al Rosellini:

The Al Rosellini who, as governor from 1957 to 1965, earned a reputation as the politician who got things done — things like the Highway 520 bridge over Lake Washington that is named after him.

And the Al Rosellini who, throughout his political career and since, has fought off allegations that he got things done for Colacurcio — a man with a long history of criminal behavior.

It was in Rosellini's first year as governor that a U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime identified Colacurcio as a racketeer. In those days, Colacurcio was accused of using strong-arm tactics to control Seattle's jukebox trade. He was later sent to federal prison three times: once for racketeering and illegal gambling, and twice for evading taxes at his strip clubs.

That first image of Rosellini — as the effective political leader — is well-documented: better mental-health institutions, budget reforms, transportation improvements, economic development.

The second image — which hurt Rosellini when he lost to Evans in 1964 and again in a 1972 comeback run — is murkier. In part, it stemmed from Rosellini's lifelong support of the liquor industry and his liberal views on liquor laws. Some of the criticism reflected the public's harsher view of alcohol consumption at the time. But his political foes also accused Rosellini of catering to illicit interests.

His alleged link to Colacurcio derailed Rosellini's 1972 campaign when a last-minute newspaper story said Rosellini had, after leaving office, helped a Colacurcio relative with a liquor-license issue in Hawaii.

During the same campaign, someone circulated bumper stickers saying, "We Don't Need a Godfather."

Yet, no corruption was proven during his eight years as governor, despite constant inquiries by newspaper reporters and whispers in law-enforcement circles.

"Every aspect of his life has been scrutinized," Rosellini's biographer, Payton Smith, wrote in his 1997 book, "Rosellini: Immigrants' Son and Progressive Governor." "If there were any truth to the rumors, it would have surfaced."

Given that, why would Rosellini keep an association that has marred his career and kept the questions alive?

Lynn Rosellini, his youngest daughter, says that to understand her father, you have to go back to the old days — to his heritage and neighborhood, to his loyalty to family and friends.

"As he went up the ladder, he very stubbornly maintained those loyalties, even at a time when it could be harmful to his public image," she says.

If he acted differently now, she adds, "it would be turning your back on part of yourself in a way."

Albert Dean Rosellini was born in Tacoma on Jan. 21, 1910, one of four children of immigrant parents. According to Smith's biography, Rosellini's father, Giovanni, emigrated from Italy in 1901 and settled in Tacoma in 1905.

Giovanni Rosellini rolled into town on a wave of Italian-American immigrants, often poor and illiterate, who flooded into the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Giovanni opened a saloon in Tacoma before a state prohibition law forced him out of business. In 1916, he moved the family to Seattle's sprawling, semi-rural Rainier Valley and opened a private club.

Because so many Italian-Americans settled in the neighborhood, it was also known as "Garlic Gulch." There, young Albert forged tight bonds with others of his background — bonds that were a bulwark against rampant anti-Italian-American prejudices at the time. Their close-knit community felt the sting, Lynn Rosellini says. "Italians weren't welcome into society at large."

There were other troubles. In the late 1920s during the Great Depression, the family was evicted for failing to pay rent, according to Smith's book. To help, Rosellini worked at a door factory, meat market and pharmacy. But he also played sports and kept up with school work. Later, he labored as a longshoreman.

"These work habits carried over into everything he did," Smith writes, turning Rosellini into a tireless campaigner who worked long hours when he became governor.

Rosellini was in high school when his father was arrested in 1926 on drug-smuggling charges. His father's imprisonment, newspaper headlines and gossip at school made an "indelible impression" on Rosellini, Smith writes, and likely motivated him to later enter law school at the University of Washington.

He became a lawyer in 1933, after earning a combined undergraduate-law school degree at the UW. Soon after, he spearheaded a fight against post-Prohibition "blue laws," resulting in relaxed restrictions on Sunday liquor sales.

But he showed little interest in running for political office until he joined the Young Men's Democratic Club of King County, where he met New Deal Democrats who shared his interest in using government to help the kind of people he grew up around. He ran for the state Senate in 1934 and barely lost. He ran again in 1938, winning a seat in a district that included "Garlic Gulch." By then, he had married Ethel McNeil, the woman who would be his wife for 64 years, and the first of their five children was on the way.

It was in the early 1940s that Rosellini had his first official, direct dealings with Colacurcio Sr., 7 ½ years his junior. Rosellini defended Colacurcio in a statutory-rape case. Colacurcio was found guilty in 1943 and sent to prison.

Many times over the years, Rosellini explained he took the case as a favor to Colacurcio's family, whom he'd known for some time. "I knew of the family, but I've never had any dealings with him of any kind — never," Rosellini told The Oregonian newspaper in 1986.

But Colacurcio was a "substantial contributor" to Rosellini when he ran for office and a "primary driving force" behind Rosellini's election to the governor's seat, according to a King County police intelligence report written in 1984.

"During Rosellini's tenure, Colacurcio profited handsomely and his organization grew," the report said.

Then again, nearly everyone prospered under Rosellini's leadership in the governor's mansion.

Rosellini represented "sort of the beginning of the modern governorship," says former Gov. Evans. New programs fed by federal dollars provided greater opportunities. With his outgoing personality and boundless energy, Rosellini was the right guy at the right time to guide the state through the post-World War II boom.

Rosellini's leadership skills were already well-established. As a state senator, he pushed legislation that created the University of Washington medical and dental schools.

Those skills helped vault him to the governor's office. But his natural affability likely tipped the balance. His charisma allowed him to break through cultural barriers, just as John F. Kennedy did not long after when he overcame anti-Catholic sentiments to win the presidency in 1960.

"He was terribly ambitious, which was good," says Warren Bishop, 86, who served as Rosellini's chief of staff. "He was terribly concerned about people, especially the persons who were disadvantaged."

Rosellini's ability to sway people made his first term, by most accounts, one of the most progressive and productive in state history. The accomplishments: a separate juvenile-justice system and modernizations in the mental-health system; increased aid to universities and colleges; accelerated road construction. He also established a merit system for state employees and led the way in creating the Department of Commerce and Economic Development.

His second term was less successful, contributing to his defeat in 1964. But his constant drive continued to benefit him after he left office. He became a successful businessman, acting as an attorney and consultant to the liquor and entertainment industries. He served on the state Transportation Commission, was a director of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and chaired the state's U.S. Olympic Committee.

As society's attitudes about race and ethnicity shifted, he became less known as Washington's first Italian-American governor and more recognized as an accomplished ex-governor and elder statesman of his party.

His popularity made him a welcome guest at many political events. Politicians courted him for support. He was an early mentor to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. City Attorney Thomas Carr, after being elected in 2001, chose Rosellini to swear him in to office.

"He's always got that constant smile," says former Gov. Locke, who helped arrange the birthday celebration in January.

This is how Rosellini would have been remembered years from now except for one thing: his entanglement, at the unlikely age of 93, in the "Strippergate" scandal.

For years, Frank Colacurcio and his son, Frank, Jr., had been pushing Seattle officials for a rezone that would allow them to expand parking at Rick's. But the city repeatedly said no, siding with neighbors' concerns about noise, litter and other problems.

In 2003, Colacurcio Jr. raised the issue again. Several City Council members were up for re-election, prompting longtime associates and friends of the Colacurcios to contribute at least $39,000 to three of them — Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton. Rosellini had approached all three, lobbying for the Colacurcios' position and delivering some contributions directly to Nicastro.

The donations were remarkable by city-election standards — which cap individual contributions at $650 — and dwarfed those by political heavy-hitters such as Boeing and Vulcan, billionaire Paul Allen's development company.

Nicastro, Wills and Compton voted for the rezone, which passed 5-4 in June 2003.

Their judgment was immediately questioned when it was revealed that many of the Colacurcio-related contributions came from people outside Seattle, some from as far away as Texas. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission began an investigation to determine if donors had been reimbursed to skirt contribution limits.

The three council members returned contributions in question, even as Rosellini continued to defend their actions. "I think they were completely innocent of any wrongdoing and just accepted money from a clean source, a legal business for a legal cause that I certainly support, overthrowing that zoning ordinance," he said at the time.

The Ethics Commission found otherwise, fining Nicastro, Wills and Compton for ethical lapses, including accepting free lunches from Rosellini and failing to disclose official contacts with him.

Nicastro and Wills lost their re-election bids in November 2003. Compton was re-elected over a weak opponent but later left the council to pursue other interests. But the scandal didn't go away. The Ethics Commission uncovered evidence that two donors had been reimbursed. The commission handed its information to King County prosecutors, who filed charges against the Colacurcios in 2005, accusing them of reimbursing several donors. The case is awaiting trial.

When prosecutors said they could find no evidence of criminal conduct on his part, Rosellini dodged a very big bullet.

The glare on Rosellini might still have gone away if not for the birthday lunch in January. When the state's political elite gathered to praise him, it was as though Strippergate had never happened.

Gregoire says she attended to honor someone who has been a mentor, coach and adviser on economic development. She professed little knowledge about "Strippergate" or Rosellini's ties to Colacurcio Sr.

"I just think he is a gem of the state," she said, calling Rosellini a "model of a public servant" and a "model of what I would like to be at 97."

Some of the former governors also pointed to Rosellini's longevity and loyalty to the state as reasons to honor him.

"None of us are perfect," Locke said.

Timothy Burgess, a former Ethics Commission chairman who has closely followed the Strippergate matter and is running for the City Council, holds a different view. He acknowledges the accomplishments but criticizes Rosellini for a "blind spot that apparently keeps him from seeing the darker side of public corruption."

These days, Rosellini continues to show up at public events. He still drives to his South Seattle office, where he dispenses advice to old friends and politicos. The office is filled with old photographs and mementos. He lunches with people like Locke. And, he continues to socialize with Colacurcio Sr.

"We talk about politics, real estate and them sort of things," Colacurcio Sr. says, declining to say much more.

"It's amazing; here we are 30 or 40 years later" and Colacurcio and Rosellini are still making news together, says Christopher T. Bayley, who while serving as King County prosecutor in the 1970s broke apart police corruption that had helped Colacurcio to flourish.

"It's an astonishing fact."

Rosellini won't talk about this or anything else in his life. He says he's too busy.

Says daughter Lynn, "At this point in his life, he pretty much doesn't care what people think. Maybe it's something you earn by 97. Maybe it is something to be admired."

Maybe.

Steve Miletich is a Seattle Times reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this story.

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