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Thursday, March 21, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don Hannula

Governor Al Rosellini's Imprint Is Everywhere

HISTORY hangs heavy on the walls of a humble office in South Seattle. Its occupant has left an indelible imprint on our state.

At 86, Al Rosellini looks and sounds very much like he did when he was governor 31 years ago. The infectious smile. The distinctive voice.

He is the dean of Washington's ex-governors, with seniority over Dan Evans, John Spellman and Booth Gardner.

I've covered politics for four decades and am often asked to name the best governor. My answer: Al Rosellini. He was not a man of empty rhetoric. He got things done. His legacy is everywhere.

It spans Lake Washington: The Governor Albert D. Rosellini Evergreen Point Bridge. He also brought us the Hood Canal, Astoria-Megler and Goldendale bridges.

Drive Interstate 90. Visit the Seattle Center, which sprung from the 1962 World's Fair. Ride the Monorail. His hand was in all.

Unfortunately, he failed in his effort to have the monorail extended to Sea-Tac Airport and eventually to Tacoma and Everett. He was light years ahead on light rail.

As a state senator, he introduced a bill to create the University of Washington medical-dental school and Health Sciences Center.

He is the father of the Department of Commerce and Economic Development, paving the way for a more diversified economy well ahead of his time.

The list goes on.

He is a Democratic icon who served two terms as governor from January 1957 to 1965. But he has been out of office so long, he's unknown to many newcomers and the young.

In this political year, when so many want to be governor, what would Rosellini's top priority be?

"If I were governor, I'd advocate cutting the size of government - not firing anybody, but by attrition," Rosellini said.

"One of the worst things ever done was creation of DSHS (Department of Social and Health Sciences), which is a monstrosity. It was supposed to cost less and provide better service, but has done just the opposite."

In his first year in office, Rosellini established the Budget & Accounting Act.

Nationally, the balanced budget remains elusive. He brought it to this state 39 years ago.

"I was the tightest governor the state ever had," Rosellini said.

When the Legislature raised its salary and his in 1957, he approved their increase but vetoed his own, which would have gone from $15,000 to $22,000 a year.

Rosellini surrounded himself with nationally acclaimed administrators. He did much for what he refers to as "the voiceless."

"When I took office, our prisons were like dungeons. Our (three) mental hospitals had lost accreditation," he said.

He brought back accreditation, made prisons livable, revived funding for schools for retarded children and initiated the Youth Protection Act.

To do all these things, he sought and got from the Democratic House and Senate a two-thirds of a cent increase in the sales tax - to 4 cents on the dollar.

Republicans labeled him Taxellini. "That was pretty clever of them," he said in retrospect.

He lost his bid for a third term to Republican Evans. "It was the third-term issue," Rosellini said. "Presidents could only serve two terms." Ironically, Evans would go on to serve three terms.

Rosellini no longer practices general law but works out of offices in Benaroya Park and Bellevue as a consultant for MGM Development Co. on an industrial park in China.

"I'll never retire," he says. Next year, Tacoma-born Rosellini and his wife, Ethel, parents of five children, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

He remains politically active. Rosellini is honorary chairman for King County Executive Gary Locke's gubernatorial campaign.

Rosellini hasn't lost his sense of humor. He was never endorsed by The Times, which back then thought there was no such thing as a bad Republican. Rosellini reflected:

"If I had been endorsed by The Times, I'd have thought I was doing something wrong."

Don Hannula's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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