Los Angeles Times

Ex-'Mindless Democrat' may be GOP secret weapon

Staff Writer

The telephone call is coming. Must be, right? After all, the Republican National Committee — critics and fans agree — is as smoothly oiled a political machine as the world knows.

Every red, white and blue balloon is in place. Every tie is straightened. No detail is ever, ever, ever overlooked. So, again, cue the phone call.

Mr. Republican Organizer, you can reach Doug Gardner at the Millennium Broadway Hotel. He is everything you'd want in a convention speaker — intelligent and well informed; handsome (in the All-American, Richie Cunningham sort of way) and family oriented; conservative and extremely pro-Bush.

Oh yeah — he's also the son of a former Democratic governor.

Evolving into a Republican. Yikes! How'd you miss this one? Why isn't Gardner, a 42-year-old first-time delegate from Washington, doing for the Republicans what Ron Reagan did for the Democrats in Boston? Why isn't he standing center stage, looking into the eyes of millions of viewers and saying something along the lines of, "My father raised me as a Democrat, and now I've evolved."

In short, where in the world is Doug Gardner?

To be exact, he is sitting at a table in midtown Manhattan's Virgil's yesterday, his first (hallelujah!) exposure to non-Tacoma barbecue. As his wife, Jill, picks at a small dish of coleslaw, Gardner digs into the $23.95 Virgil's Pig Out, a mouth-watering combo of ribs, chicken, brisket, pork and Texas link.

"I could consider running for office one day, but it's not that likely," says Gardner, a private tennis instructor in the Tacoma suburb of University Place. "I've seen how politics can effect people and families. It's a rough business."

From 1985 to 1992, Gardner's father, Booth Gardner, served as the governor of Washington. He was not simply your here-today, gone-tomorrow leader, but an immensely popular public servant with much bi-partisan support. As a boy, Gardner distributed leaflets on Pop's behalf, going door-to-door and smiling for the masses. He recalls himself as a "mindless" Democrat, one who went through the motions and spoke all the rhetoric, but without an ounce of heart or passion.

"I'm embarrassed to say this, but every election, I'd call my dad and say, 'Who should I vote for?'" Gardner says. "And of course, he'd go from candidate to candidate and always have me vote Democrat. I never argued. Never really thought to."

That changed in the late 1980s, when Gardner, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, started attending Bible study meetings. Prior to one election, Doug was asked who he was supporting. In the midst of running down his blah reasons for voting Democrat, a friend started refuting each point.

"I had no defense," he says. "I knew all the lines, but that's all they were to me — lines."

Disappointing Dad. Gardner is now a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican, a fact that excites his father like an outbreak of cholera. That, coupled with Gardner's devotion to Christianity, drove a wedge in their relationship that lasted for more than a decade. A couple of years ago, on Gardner's birthday, Booth Gardner called his son and insisted it was time to make amends. From that point on, father and son have lunched together once per week. The topics usually hover around family - Doug and Jill have four children, all home schooled — and the Mariners.

"All of a sudden I've started to understand my father," says Gardner.

He puts down a piece of rib and rubs his eyes, now red and moist.

"He's a very important person in my life; in the life of my family. I don't need to please him politically. But I want him to love me."

When the tears dry, Gardner excitedly recounts his first three days of city experiences, which include Greek food at Avra and a showing of "Phantom of The Opera."

"But I'm really excited for the convention," Gardner says. "There should be some great speakers."

Surely, there's still time to squeeze in one more.

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