Marchioro, Karen Byus (1933-2007)

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 7/06/2009
  • Essay 9072

Karen Marchioro was a mover and shaker in the Washington State Democratic Party for more than four decades from the early 1970s to her death from an extended bout with cancer in 2007. She was, according to her friend David McDonald, a Seattle attorney, a "force of nature" when it came to shaping the political geography of the state. A former nurse, she became involved in the Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s and the George McGovern presidential campaign of 1972. She served as state Democratic Party Chairwoman from 1981 to 1993, the first woman to hold that position. She served as one of four state party delegates to the Democratic National Committee until her death at age 73.

From Nursing to Politics

In 1933, Karen Marchioro was born Karen Louise Byus in Jacksonville, Illinois, in the west central part of the state, about 90 miles north of St. Louis. Her father, Morris, was a plumber and her mother, Frances, was a psychiatric nurse. As a teenager wanting her freedom, Karen Marchioro took a job as a waitress in a hotel restaurant, sometimes working triple shifts, according to her second husband, Jeff Smith. She  obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing in the Midwest and met her future first husband, Thomas L. Marchioro, a pioneering surgeon whose research laid the groundwork for the first successful kidney transplants.

They moved to Seattle in 1967 after he was offered a position at the University of Washington. They would have seven children together, including three girls and four boys. Karen Marchioro became involved in Vietnam war protests and went on to work on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, despite the fact that Senator Henry Jackson (1912-1983) was the “favorite son” candidate for the nomination from Washington state. Although McGovern lost in the general election, Karen developed political contacts during this time that would last a lifetime.

Making Her Mark

She went on to become active in 48th Legislative District Democratic politics. With its heavily Republican population, the Eastside district was a true challenge, but Marchioro was able to make her mark as district chairwoman and soon moved on to become King County Democratic chairwoman. Under her leadership, the liberal county party sought to balance the more conservative rural counties that supported Jackson, a Democratic hawk.

However, because state law mandated that the party’s central committee consist of two members from each county, the rural counties continued to dominate. Marchioro was appalled that this system gave King County, with more than 1.2 million people at the time, the same voice as tiny Garfield County, which had about 2,400 people.

Marchioro and her allies brought suit against the state party in attempt to overturn the state law. This resulted in a United States Supreme Court ruling that empowered the state party convention to ignore the law in choosing central committee members. Ultimately, the party added two members from every legislative district, swinging the balance to the more liberal urban population, as well as bringing in more minorities and labor union members.  

A Washington First

In 1981, just following the Reagan landslide, Marchioro went on to become the first woman chair of the Washington State Democratic Party. She led the party in recapturing the state House of Representatives in 1982, the governorship in 1984, and Warren Magnuson’s former U.S. Senate seat in 1986.

In 1990-1991, Marchioro became convinced that an obscure Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton (b. 1947) had a political future and began talking him up for president. According to The Seattle Times, former Washington Governor Mike Lowry (b. 1939), whom Marchioro also supported, said, “I don’t think any of us had [Clinton] on the radar screen as ‘this guy is going to be president.’ But she absolutely had that sense. Her political judgment on those types of things was exceptionally good” (Garber). 

Former Washington Democratic chair Paul Berendt told The Seattle Times, “She would not just go with a winner. She wasn’t afraid to end up on the losing side. She was willing to take the heat of being on the losing side if there was a principle at stake” (Garber). 

A Woman of Great Accomplishment

Although a life-long Democrat, Marchioro frequently showed an independent streak. She was a consultant to the campaign of Dave Reichert for King County Sheriff, a non-partisan office. Reichert was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican. She once said of President Ronald Reagan that it “was hard not to like the guy ... . I think he enabled Republicans to show more gentle, compassionate face.”

Kim McRoberts, who staffed the Reichert campaign and worked with Marchioro on other campaigns, said in an interview:  “The thing that impressed me about Karen is that, while she was a woman of great accomplishment, she never put her ego first. She was willing to do anything needed for the campaign and she shared credit wherever it was due.” 

She remained outspoken to her death. In 2003, in the midst of the Bush ascendancy, she told a magazine reporter when asked about the state of the Democratic Party, “God knows we need help.” In 2004, when the state Democrats supported John Kerry for the nomination, she opted to support Howard Dean instead.

Marchioro also suffered her share of personal pain and loss. In addition to her own cancer, she went through the death of her husband, surgeon Thomas Marchioro, which she and her children blamed on treatment by surgeons at the University of Washington Medical Center. After he died from complications of heart surgery and settlement negotiations broke down, the family sued the hospital and three of its top surgeons. In 1998, they lost their suit. The case created a bitter rift between the Marchioros and much of the rest of the medical community

Becoming a Master Strategist

Later, she married Jeff Smith, her associate and colleague in campaign consulting. In an interview, Smith described how she sought out her first Democratic precinct caucus in the highly Republican 48th District. She was told that there wasn’t one, to which she responded, “I’m from Illinois. They may not count your vote there but at least you get to vote” (interview). In the end, she was recruited to be Democratic precinct chair and had to do her own organizing.  

Smith said Marchioro started out in politics with a great sense of self-doubt. “She said she would nearly be sick before an important meeting,” Smith said. But her self-confidence grew and she became a master strategist. Marchioro mastered targeting and became an able sound-bite quipster. “She would not need to be scripted. She knew what she wanted to say and how to say it” (interview). 


In time, Smith and Marchioro became such a skilled pair of campaigners that they became almost one word, as in Karen-n-Jeff. Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly describes an incident in 1994, when the Republicans were on the rise in Congress. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), who stands considerably to right of Marchioro on the Democratic spectrum, was unhappy with the leadership of Marchioro’s successor as state party chair. He is reported to have said, “Can we bring back Karen and Jeff. We need Karen and Jeff” (Connelly). 

In January 2008, the Washington State Senate passed a resolution lauding Marchioro’s service to the state. After the “wherases” describing her illustrious career, the resolution stated: “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, THAT the Washington State Senate recognize the many achievements and brave spirit of Karen Marchioro, whose ceaseless efforts have made a lasting mark on Washington state politics ..."

Sources: Andrew Garber Karen Marchioro, Long-time Democratic Activist, Dies at 73,” The Seattle Times, August 31, 2007; “The Politics of True Blue,” The Seattle Times, August 31, 2007; "Mass Set for Karen Marchioro,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 31, 2007; Neil Modie, “Karen Marchioro, 1933-2007: Passionate Activist Rebuilt State Democratic Party,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 30, 2007; Joel Connelly, “Marchioro Kicked the Democrats into Shape,“ Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 19, 2007;  William Dicke, “Thomas L. Marchioro, 66, Crucial Researcher in Liver Transplants,” The New York Times, February 10, 1995; Jack Broom and Warren King, “Marchioro Family Sues UW Medical Center Over Surgeon’s Death,” The Seattle Times, October 17, 1996; Patrick McRoberts interview with Jeff Smith, October 22, 2008; Patrick McRoberts interview with Kim McRoberts, May 29, 2009; Washington State Senate Resolution 8701, January 23, 2008.  

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