Mardesich, August P. (Augie) (1920-2016)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/25/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9829

August P. "Augie" Mardesich was a Washington state representative from 1950 to 1962 and a Washington state senator from 1963 to 1978. He holds the rare distinction having served as both the state House majority leader and the state Senate majority leader. He was brought up in Everett by Yugoslavian immigrant parents and worked on the family fishing boat from a young age. His father and older brother Tony Mardesich were killed in a storm off Alaska in 1949 and August Mardesich was rescued from the wreckage. Tony Mardesich had just been elected a state representative, and August was appointed to his unexpired term. He served in the House for six terms before switching to the Senate in 1962. For almost three decades, he was considered one of the most powerful men in the legislature. In 1975, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on extortion and tax fraud charges, but was acquitted. He was the subject of several other ethics probes -- and survived another Alaska boat sinking -- before he was finally defeated in 1978 in a state Senate primary race.

Growing Up Fishing

August P. "Augie" Mardesich was born on February 11, 1920, in San Pedro, California, to Yugoslavian immigrant parents. His father, Nicola "Nick" Mardesich was a fisherman, catching sardines and tuna off the California coast and salmon on yearly forays to Alaskan waters.

When Augie Mardesich was 6, the family moved to Everett, which had a thriving Slavic fishing community and was closer to the lucrative Alaskan waters.

Augie and his three brothers learned the fishing business early. "We used to go out with my dad when we were kids," said Mardesich in a 2000 oral history interview. "It was a vacation to us in Puget Sound. That started when we were babies. We went out actually for a share [of the boat's profits] when I was 16" (Oral History).

Before long Augie and his older brother Tony were regular crew members on their father's boat. Augie later said he had no ambitions to become anything but a fisherman, but his parents had other ideas. His older brother was already enrolled at Seattle University. Every night at dinner, Augie would endure a lecture from his father about how, without an education, he would never get anywhere. Augie would reply saucily, "I don't know, this is a pretty nice house you've got, Dad" (Oral History).

But Augie said he finally had enough of his parents' "jabbering" and enrolled at Seattle University and then, following Tony's lead, entered the University of Washington School of Law. But then World War II intervened. Tony enlisted in the Navy and Augie tried to follow. "We knew how to navigate when we were 10 years old, shooting sextants and everything else," Augie said. "We were brought up on it" (Oral History).

War Years

But the navy wouldn't take him because of his bad eyesight. So Augie went to the army instead. He had been in the ROTC at the University of Washington, and in 1942 was sent to a base in Wyoming to complete his officer's training.

Mardesich was in the Quartermaster Corps and become one of several white officers in charge of a company of 212 black soldiers. The company was shipped off to England and eventually marched across the Rhine into Germany. It was part of a supply group -- moving and delivering supplies to troops on the move. Mardesich, a second lieutenant, eventually assumed command of the company. He said he never had any problem getting along with black soldiers. "Being Slav, what the heck, we're probably as close as you could get!" he later said. "No, it didn't bother me at all, and I had no trouble with them" (Oral History).

He said they were all "gung-ho" at first, but when they crossed the Rhine and first encountered enemy fire, everyone "got real quiet." His company was "lucky as heck" and had only three or four casualties as it advanced into Germany (Oral History).

In one instance, Mardesich demonstrated some of the leadership skills, which later made him legendary in the Washington State Legislature  -- and which sometimes landed him in trouble. His men had been eating nothing but K-rations for months, so he attempted find them some better food. He couldn't find enough to fit in a wheelbarrow -- for nearly 200 men. He got tired of "getting a line of baloney" from the supply base so he deliberately altered the figures from "one case" to "101 cases."

"Everybody was happy in the company about that," he said. "I thought that, well, one of these days they may catch up with me, but who knows? I may be dead and gone, so what's the difference? I never heard a word about it" (Oral History).

He said his leadership style as an officer was simple: Tell everyone what needs to be done and then get it done, period. And, as on a fishing boat, even the captain should work hard."We got to moving gas cans, and I'd be out there throwing the gas cans like everybody else, and I had no trouble whatsoever," he said (Oral History).

Law & Politics

Both he and Tony were discharged after the war and went back to finish up at the University of Washington School of Law. For Tony it was a calling. He wanted to become a lawyer and go into politics.

For Augie, law school was something to appease his parents. What he really wanted to do was get his own boat and run up to Alaska. "I had no particular interest in the law," he said. "Never have had ... . I never did bust my fanny studying law, I have to admit" (Oral History).

They both finished law school at the same time, in 1948. Tony was friends with a couple of young, up-and-coming Everett Democrats, John Salter and Henry (Scoop) Jackson (1912-1983). Salter was a political strategist who successfully managed Jackson's first campaign, for Snohomish County prosecutor, in 1938.

When Tony got out of law school in 1948, he briefly worked in the Snohomish County prosecutor's office. Salter and Jackson encouraged Tony to run for the Washington State House of Representatives in the fall of 1948. Augie helped him with the campaign, and Tony won.

Tragedy at Sea

Tony served in the 1949 legislative session. That spring, the Mardesich men -- father, Tony and Augie, plus other crew members -- sailed to Alaska for the fishing season on their 65-foot boat, Sunset. There, a storm hit which changed the family's life and determined Augie's destiny.

They were fishing near the Aleutian chain when a howling storm came up with little warning. They were trying to make for the protection of a cove when the wind and waves rolled Sunset over. Their father died instantly, from trauma from the impact.

"I was down in the lower part of the boat, and my thought was very simple: get the heck out of there," said Augie. "The water was pouring in." They grabbed anything that would float. Augie was holding on to a piece of timber. Tony was on a hatch cover, holding onto his father's body.

"My brother was still ok except that just as the other boats came to save us, he slipped off one of the hatch covers; he lost it and away he went," said Augie. "He was drowned. I and a couple of other young guys were saved, three of us. The rest, my dad and my brother, and five others, were lost" (Oral History).

Augie was picked up by another boat, warmed up and revived. He returned to a sad scene in Everett. "My mother took it very hard, of course, because she lost a son and husband at the same time," said Augie. "And she had a diagnosis of cancer, and she died the next year."

A New Life in Politics

Mardesich was back fishing a month after the accident -- but Salter and Jackson had other plans for him. They had to find someone to replace Tony as a state representative -- and they didn't look very far. "He [Jackson]  just passed word and, bang-o, Augie got the appointment, said Augie. "That's how I got into politics. Not that I desired to, or anything else" (Oral History).

In fact, Mardesich claimed all of his life that politics held little interest to him and that all he ever wanted to do was fish -- which makes his subsequent career even more remarkable.

It began with a special session in 1950, in which Mardesich had little time to do more than meet a few people and learn the ropes. He discovered, to his surprise, that he "didn't mind it at all." So when Everett's Democratic bosses asked him to run for the seat in the next election, he said yes. He won easily (the first of six terms in the House) and before long he was being appointed to what he called "good positions, good committees," including Ways and Means, Appropriations and Judiciary (Oral History).

Reading the Bills

Mardesich soon realized that there was one simple thing he could do to set himself apart from the pack: He could read every word of every bill. That was far less common than people imagine, partly because of the copious number of  bills proposed every session. Mardesich realized that even the sponsors of bills had not always read them. Mardesich would read every bill and then stand up on the floor and ask the sponsors to explain them.

"That was a real awakening to me, when they couldn't," said Mardesich. "Somebody would stand up and move the bill back down to the foot of tomorrow's calendar. And they got it straightened out by the time it came up the next day. But that got me a sort of reputation" (Oral History).

He caught the eye of fellow Everett lawmaker Wally Carmichael, who prodded Mardesich to take a leadership position in the House. In only his third two-year term, Mardesich was elected the House majority leader, a position sometimes called "floor leader," second only to the Speaker in the house hierarchy.

"The majority leader runs all the floor action," said Mardesich. "Depending on what you want to do, it can be very important, very critical, when something hits the floor. You can shove it around, put it in the background, move stuff ahead of it, and get away with it very easily" (Oral History).

Becoming a Legislative Force

He found he enjoyed being at the center of legislative maneuvering and political persuading. And his fellow legislators also discovered he was very good at it.

James Dolliver (1924-2004), an aide to Gov. Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925) and later a State Supreme Court Justice, once called Mardesich "probably the most skilled parliamentarian and legislator we have down there in Olympia" (Morgan).

Evans, a Republican, said he counted on Mardesich's skills as a legislative force. "I could always get a very, very good sense of what could be done from Augie," Evans said in 1978. "I frequently called him and asked him what the chances were on this or that proposal. His counsel was always accurate, because he knows how to count [potential votes] and that's the consummate skill every good legislator and governor must have -- knowing how to count. So Mardesich really has a good sense of where the people are and what's possible. After all, politics has been called the art of the possible" (Morgan).

Mardesich was a pragmatic politician who said he had no "great agenda," beyond seeing that the budgets were balanced (Oral History).

Between sessions, Mardesich returned to his first love: fishing. As the eldest surviving brother, he ran  the family fishing business and expanded it. His two younger brothers helped out, even during summers between medical school. Both later became physicians.

Meanwhile, Mardesich was making only token use of his law degree. He opened a practice with offices in Everett and Seattle, but he later said he had taken only "three cases in my 45-year legal career," the first being an auto accident case when he first passed the bar (Oral History).

"I could see I wasn't particularly going to be happy with the law," he said. "We won it, by golly, but it just struck me that, man, I've got to go through this kind of crap for the rest of my life?" (Oral History).

Becoming a State Senator

Despite his power in the House, in 1962 he decided to run for a state Senate seat for one overriding reason: A senator had a four-year term instead of a two-year term. Mardesich disliked the constant campaigning necessary as a state representative. He won the seat and embarked in early 1963 on a four-term career in the state Senate.

Seattle Times political writer Richard W. Larsen wrote in 1973 that it was hard to categorize Mardesich as liberal Democrat or conservative Democrat. He had the support of organized labor (support that would later slip), but he also sided with business on such topics as the business and occupation tax.

Jack Morgan, a political writer for the Everett Herald, said people in Olympia came to know well the distinctive Mardesich personal style: Calling everyone "boss"; bumming cigarettes "like mad";  devotion to his family and Catholic faith; his "smart" dressing; and his both feared and admired ability to single-handedly generate opposition or support for lobbyists' proposals (Morgan).

Mardesich vs. Grieive

In 1972, Mardesich embarked on a bruising fight to wrest the title of Senate majority leader away from Senator R.R. "Bob"  Greive (1919-2004) of Seattle, who had held the job for 16 years. Mardesich later claimed that he "didn't want" the job, but he believed that Greive ran the Senate loosely, in a "haphazard" fashion, with favoritism to his own friends ("Mardesich Wins").

Mardesich ran on a reform platform and told reporters that the principle issue was "the need for a change of the image of the legislature as a whole" ("Mardesich Wins").

Larsen described far more personal issues between the two. On the Senate floor in 1972, Grieve confronted Mardesich and accused him of locking up a no-fault insurance bill in committee.

"For a simmering moment, Mardesich angrily held Greive, clutching him by the shirtfront," wrote Larsen. "Colleagues feared an undignified spectacle of flying punches. There was no physical violence. Instead, Mardesich began some political mayhem. In the following weeks he audaciously lined up votes to take away Greive's leadership job" (Larsen, "Inscrutable").

Mardesich won by an 18-12 vote and immediately implemented reforms, including cutting down the number of Senate committees in both size and number. He also, according to Larsen, "stripped Greive of all power."

As Senate majority leader, Mardesich immediately demonstrated his ability, honed in both the pilothouse and the state House, to run a tight, disciplined ship. However, according to Larsen, some worried that the Mardesich style would result in "heavy backroom dealings."

Trouble

Trouble wasn't long in coming. In early 1975, Mardesich was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of extortion and filing fraudulent federal income tax returns. The charges stemmed from alleged payoffs from garbage-hauling interests to ensure passage of  a 1971 bill favorable to the industry. The tip in this case originally came from an aide to Greive. "I think it was part of Mr. Greive's attempt to get even," Mardesich said later (Oral History).

The indictment put Mardesich's leadership position in jeopardy, but his fellow Democrats decided to wait and see whether he would be convicted. Mardesich admitted that the garbage haulers had given him a sizable campaign contribution, but that it was used in his campaign to unseat Greive and hadn't influenced his vote on garbage-hauling issues.

On July 3, 1975, a federal jury found Mardesich innocent on all charges. Mardesich grinned widely when the verdict was announced, but the judge had some sobering words for him.

"I believe there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction by another jury," said U.S. District Court Judge Charles B. Renfrew. "You are a very lucky man. Mr. Mardesich. You should be thankful for our system of criminal justice that so protects the rights of the defendant."

Governor Dan Evans said that the only thing that saved Mardesich was that a crucial report had not been allowed as evidence. Evans said "there's no question he would have been convicted had the information been available" ("Evans Says"). "Augie's the luckiest guy on the face of the earth," said Evans ("Evans Says").

Mardesich later said he was never too worried about the charges. "People said I acted nonchalant about it -- well, I was," he said. "Greive and his buddies spread that story and the prosecutors accepted it, except they couldn't show it when it came time. They said I was out hustling people, which I wasn't" (Oral History).

More Trouble

However , the acquittal was not the end of Mardesich's troubles. The trial uncovered another eyebrow-raising payment to Mardesich: $78,000 for undisclosed legal services from Seattle-First National Bank and Household Finance Corp. Mardesich said the payments were to a former law associate and had nothing to do with him. State Attorney General Slade Gorton (b. 1928) began a probe. Some of his fellow Democrats renewed their calls for him to resign as majority leader. By August 1975, Mardesich admitted that he had become a political liability. He publicly contemplated resigning as majority leader.

Then in November 1975, Gorton filed a suit against Mardesich and the two banks, accusing them of influence peddling and violating public disclosure laws. On December 4, 1975, Mardesich resigned as majority leader and was replaced by Senator Gordon W. Walgren.

"I thought, well, I can stay on, the votes are there," said Mardesich later. "They’ll keep me. But I could see there would be no end to the yapping" (Oral History).

The lawsuit was eventually settled for $165,625, but Mardesich said the other defendants paid it all. He didn't pay one penny of it. He said he had violated no laws.

Lost at Sea (Almost)

Mardesich soon found himself in a different kind of peril -- colder, wetter, and nearly fatal. In July 1976, Mardesich and two daughters, Megan, 21, and Monica, 19, and another crewman were gillnetting in Alaska. While cruising down Lake Iliamna on the way to the fishing grounds, the boat filled with water and sank underneath them. The life raft was defective and inflated only partially. The two daughters had to kneel on hatch covers while the two men sat astride the life raft. They lashed everything together and rowed to a deserted island using two-by-fours.

The men were so chilled from being partially submerged that the daughters had to drag the men onto the beach (the crewman ended up having surgery for frostbitten toes).  They walked that island for three days, eating crabs, mussels, mushrooms, snails, and wild onions. They had one close encounter with a mama bear and two cubs. They kept walking across rough, wet, rocky terrain. They were hungry and tired but their spirits didn't flag.

"Every once in a while, we'd just sit down and laugh like hell," said Mardesich (Larsen, "Unsinkable").

Finally, a woman named Dolly Jocko, fishing in a skiff, saw their fire and rescued them. "I figured we were going to hit somebody sooner or later," said Mardesich. "It was that simple" (Oral History).

He said he was a cat with nine lives and had only used up "three or four of them" (Oral History). Megan Mardesich used a different metaphor to describe him. "I've always thought of him as kind of a Greek god," she said (Larsen, "Unsinkable").

Hitting a Political Reef

Back in the state Senate, Mardesich still wielded a surprising amount of clout even without his majority leader post. A 1978 Associated Press survey named him one of the state's 10 most powerful persons. In Olympia, there were "murmurings that Mardesich still guides the Senate behind the scenes" (Morgan).

Yet Mardesich was about to hit a political reef. In 1978, powerful forces were lining up against him. Mardesich had angered a significant portion of the state's labor movement when he tried to rein in public employee pension funds and hold teachers more accountable. Some Democrats believed he had become too conservative and pro-business. Joe Davis, head of the Washington State Labor Council, said labor would go all out to dump Augie in the next election.

Labor considered him a formidible opponent. Washington Education Association (WEA) lobbyist Bob Fisher said of him, “I was amazed at his depth of knowledge gained through reading nearly every legislative bill that crossed his desk” (Kink and Cahill). The campaign against Mardesich was led by the state employees union, AFSCME; by the WEA; by the state firefighters' union; and by the law enforcement officers' union.

The labor coalition to oppose Mardesich searched for a candidate who dared oppose him and finally backed a retired Everett firefighter named Larry Vognild. Vognild was a political neophyte but presented a stately appearance and turned out to be a good debater. Vognild ran against Mardesich in the Democratic primary and defeated him handily in September 1978.

Mardesich blamed the defeat on the fact that he was in Alaska fishing until right before the election. Fishing remained, in many ways, his first priority.

The Association of Washington Business,  an Olympia lobbying group, held a "moment of mourning" for Mardesich at its next meeting. His daughters organized a $50-a-ticket "roast" for their father, attended by 435 people, many of them state leaders.

"We love you," said Gov. Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) at the roast.

Looking back on his career, Mardesich said his biggest accomplishment was revamping the state's pension system. That's also one of the issues that caused his defeat. "You get so many different views, so you have to figure it out for yourself," he said. "Is this right or wrong from your  point of view? And vote it. If the people don't like, they'll dump you" (Oral History),

Back to Fishing, Back to Politicking

Mardesich worked as a lobbyist for a nursing home group for a while.  Ray appointed Mardesich to a three-year term on the Industrial Insurance Appeals Board. Then, in 1982, he surprised Vognild by filing a primary challenge for his old Senate seat. He even surprised himself.

"I never really intended to run," he told the Associated Press. "But I would come home (from Olympia) and pound my fists on the kitchen table" ("Snap Decision").

However, his name had been coming up regularly in various other ethics investigations. He lost to Vognild again. After that he never dipped a net back into politics again. In retirement, he and his wife, Rosemary, lived in Mill Creek, near Everett.

August Mardesich died on February 10, 2016, one day shy of his 96th birthday.


Sources: "August P. Mardesich: An Oral History," interviewer Sharon Boswell, 2000, Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of State, Washington State Legislature Oral History website accessed May 24, 2011 (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/mardesich/); Jack Morgan, "Mardesich Most Skillful Legislator," Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 20, 1978 (reprinted from the Everett Herald), p. 12; "Mardesich Wins Floor Leader Job," Spokesman-Review, November 20, 1972, p. 1; Richard W. Larsen, "Inscrutable Fisherman Commands State Senate Democrats," The Seattle Times, January 7, 1973, p. 16; "Jury Indicts State Senate Leader," Spokesman-Review, January 9, 1975, p. 1; "Fraud, Extortion Verdict Innocent," Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 4, 1975, p. 2; "Evans Says Luck Saved Mardesich," Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 22, 1975, p. 2; Richard W. Larsen, "The Unsinkable Augie Mardesich," The Seattle Times, January 26, 1977, p. 30; "Snap Decision Spawned Reprise Role," Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 1, 1982, p. 3; Historylink.org: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "The 1978 August Mardesich/Larry Vognild Campaign" (by Steve Kink and John Cahill), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 28, 2011). See Also Historylink.org: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bellingham's Croatian Community and Commercial Fishing" (by Steve Kink), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 28, 2011), and Steve Kink and John Cahill, Class Wars: The History of the Washington Education Association, 1965 to 2001 (Seattle: WEA, 2004); Jerry Cornfield, "Augie Mardesich, Former Everett Master Politician, Dies at 95," The Herald, February 11, 2016 (www.heraldnet.com).
Note: This essay was updated on February 11, 2016.

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