After 22 years of serving the communities of Eastern Washington, Senator Bob Morton has announced he is retiring as of Jan 1. As Senator Morton is only halfway through his current term, his vacant seat will be filled by a determination of the Seventh District Republican Precinct Committee Officers (PCOs) and a vote of the 15 county commissioners within the district. The PCOs are meeting on Dec. 15 to choose three names from the burgeoning list of hopefuls to forward to the commissioners.
Morton, 78, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1990 where he served until he was appointed to replace outgoing Senator Scott Barr in 1994.
“There was an opening in the House of Representatives in 1990 and Steve Furhman gave me guidance and strong encouragement to run for the position,” Morton recalled. “We had a meeting at Barney’s Junction and determined it would cost $40,000 to $50,000 to campaign and that I would need a good campaign manager.”
Morton’s son, Shawn, stepped up to the task, but his job as a school teacher meant he was not able to finish out the campaign season. To fill the gap, a young college graduate named Cathy McMorris was chosen.
“She really impressed me and when I was elected, I asked her to work as my legislative aide,” said Morton.
Morton and McMorris worked together until 1994 when Morton was appointed to replace Senator Barr. McMorris opted to pursue Morton’s open Representative seat and won the appointment by one vote, Morton recalled.
During his time in the legislature, Morton has focused on issues that affect the residents of Eastern Washington including forestry, agriculture, water rights, salmon recovery and cougar issues. He has also participated in securing funding to replace six bridges that span the Kettle River.
He has also been the sponsor of controversial legislation to split the state, forming a new state from Eastern Washington and Oregon. The most recent version of the bill was proposed in 2005. Morton said his sponsorship of the idea was responding to the significant rural-urban divide in Washington.
“We have assets that are not being utilized in Eastern Washington and creating a new state would allow us to have a government more favorable to agriculture, forestry, mining and other issues and would allow Seattle, Tacoma and Everett to focus on their industrial needs,” he explained.
A champion of forest health and restoration, Senator Morton was always a welcomed face at meetings between the public and state and federal agencies. His tireless efforts won him the recognition of a number of groups who honored him with awards, including Washington Farm Bureau Legislator of the Year (2000), National Federation of Independent Business “Guardian of Small Business” award; 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award for dedication and service to preserving the heritage of hunting in Washington from the NW Chapter of Safari Club International; 2011 Legislator of the Year, Region V, Washington Association of Agriculture Educators; Seattle- Tacoma International Airport Third Runway Grand Opening Award, Nov. 2008; Independent Business Association’s Gold Medal Award 2004 and the National Federation of Independent Business Guardian of Small Business Award 2002, 2004 and 2009-10. Morton has also been recognized by the Association of Washington Business for 12 years, including the 2006 Jim Matson Award for “uncompromising support for the business community”; Farm Bureau President’s Award 2003; Farm Bureau, 100 percent Voting Record Award for 2002 and 2005; Farm Bureau’s Exemplary Voting Record Award, 2009, 2010; the Washington Forest Protection Association, Forest Health Award for 2003; and the 2007 Distinguished Service Award from the Northwest Mining Association in Spokane.
In addition to being recognized by various groups, Morton was also chosen several years ago to sponsor some legislation that had significant impacts in Western Washington. As the prime sponsor of a bill that expanded the Sea-Tac airport by adding a third runway, Morton has had impacts on both sides of the state.
“When they asked me to prime sponsor the bill, I was a little surprised. I guess it is because I am a pilot and I could see the benefits,” he said.
However, Morton said aside from the official honors, he recalls the times when he was called to even more important work.
“I was honored to be asked to lead the Senate in prayer during times of intense conflict,” he recalled. “Those opportunities were special to me.”
This estimable history is the work of a man whose earnest, solid roots found a kinship in Eastern Washington.
Cows and politics
Raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, Morton learned about politics from his father, Harry Morton, who served in the New York State Senate. Morton said he gained a love for politics by watching his father, but also learned first-hand about the demands of public service.
“I loved seeing what my father was doing and how he helped people with the maze of problems and bureaucracy,” said Morton. “But as a young boy, I also missed my father when he was away attending public meetings so I vowed that I would not get involved in politics until my children left the nest.”
Morton’s trek West began with his sister, Carolyn, accepting a teaching job on the west coast.
“Carolyn was intrigued by city life and got a job out West. With her earnings, she told us she was going to buy mother an oriental rug and get father a yacht,” Morton said with a chuckle. “Instead, she paid for a five week tour out west. I had to stay home and take care of the farm, but mother took a whole wheelbarrow full of pictures and when she showed them to us she would shake her finger and say ‘go west young man’.”
From this encouragement, Morton eventually transferred as a pastor with the Methodist church to South Park Methodist Church in Seattle. His move signaled a kind of “great Morton migration” as his brother and sisters all secured jobs or college placement at west coast schools. His parents eventually relocated to Shelton, along with his grandmother.
But working in urban Seattle wasn’t quite the right fit for Morton, who transferred to Spokane in 1965.
“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” he said.
In Spokane, Morton also worked at the Spokane airport where he flew a small plane and “seeded the fog.”
“From October to March we would load the plane with dry ice and then sprinkle it though the fog layer, turning the fog to ice that would fall to the ground,” he explained. Morton held the airport contract for five years, when improved flying techniques eliminated the need for “seeding.”
Morton later moved to Stevens County where he ran a logging and cattle operation on Hungry Hill and served as the pastor of Orient Community Church. Morton’s wife, Linda, worked as a Registered Nurse at the Northeast Washington Medical Clinic and Mt. Carmel Hospital in Colville. The Mortons have five children: Bettina, Shawn, Roxanne, Laura and Scott.
Morton said his time in the legislature would not have been possible without Linda’s support.
“I have had tremendous support from my wife and have also been lucky to have a long-time legislative assistant, Kim Cusick, who has helped keep things organized,” he said.
His attraction to the area and his desire to serve the people of Eastern Washington comes from his love for the culture.
“I really enjoy the conservative philosophical foundations of our area and how that works through our schools, churches and businesses,” he said. “It is a good lifestyle.”