Big Al Rosellini, the two-term governor remembered for his support of medical and educational causes in the state and who later became a money middleman caught up in Seattle's 2003 Strippergate scandal, died this morning at age 101 in his retirement condo on Capitol Hill, his family reports. He was the first Italian-American Roman Catholic governor elected west of the Mississippi and America's oldest living former governor.
Born in Tacoma on January 21, 1910, Albert Rosellini was a University of Washington law grad who won a state senate seat in 1938 and made politics into a 70-year career. He became governor in 1956 and was re-elected in 1960, but lost a smear-marked comeback bid against against Dan Evans in 1972. Eight days before the election, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a Page 1 piece claiming Rosellini had helped one of racketeer Frank Colacurcio's brothers obtain a liquor license in Hawaii.
At his 100th birthday in 2010, Rosellini told me that story cost him the election. He had referred to the incident as "wop-baiting." But you get past things like that, he said. "We're all friends," he said of his guests, all of them pols. He sat across from Evans at his party, laughing and chatting, and then Evans and several other ex-governors joined in to help him blow out 100 candles.
Rosellini was the son of Italian immigrants. His father, Giovanni, ran a Tacoma liquor business and eventually moved the family to Seattle's Rainier Valley. Two of Albert's cousins would become famous Seattleites--Victor Rosellini as a restaurateur and Leo Rosellini as a surgeon.
A onetime amateur boxer, Al Rosellini got an immediate publicity boost just after hanging out his shingle in the 1930s as a Seattle lawyer when he was hired to defend one of his former ring foes. The Seattle Times found the case a novelty. As the paper headlined it, "Lawyer's First Client is Negro He Whipped in Prize Fight."
The 1960s were effectively the peak of Rosellini's storied political-office career. He was praised for improving and reforming the state's higher-education system, its adult
Governor, circa 1960.
and juvenile prisons and mental hospitals, the University of Washington Medical School, and the state's roadways--the Highway 520 Lake Washington floating bridge from Seattle to the Eastside was officially named the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge in 1988.
He continued to toil daily into his 90s, driving to work behind the wheel of a white Cadillac with the vanity plates GOV ADR. On the walls of his offices south of Safeco Field were photos of him with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who, it was rumored, had considered Rosellini as a vice-presidential running mate in 1964. Rosellini worked at what he called his "consulting" business until he was forced to retire in 2008 due to his health.
In 2003, Seattle Weekly revealed that the former governor, a longtime family friend and attorney for strip-club king and convicted gangster Frank Colacurcio, had lobbied City Council members about a parking lot rezone at Colacurcio's Lake City strip club, Rick's. Rosellini also hosted fund-raisers and solicited campaign donations for council members.
Big Al said there wasn't a problem with his rainmaking role; "It's just the political thing" you do come campaign time. Yet in an earlier interview, Rosellini denied asking people to contribute to campaigns. "I urge people to support a candidate. I give them some political advice but tell them it's up to them. I never solicit any contributions for anyone."
As I reported in my book Seattle Vice last year:
Despite his major rainmaking role in helping distribute Frank's money, Rosellini was not charged in the Strippergate case. "There is no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing" by Al, said King County prosecutor Norm Maleng. Others who may have donated political cash provided by Frank included John Rosellini, Al's son. Maleng wouldn't say what he thought Al Rosellini's real role was in Strippergate. But it turned out that the ex-governor had passed out thousands in disguised Colacurcio funds and had witnessed - if not orchestrated - one of the cash handoffs, with Frank at his side.
That exchange unfolded at the Emerald Queen, a onetime paddlewheel boat turned into a floating casino by the Puyallup Tribe, anchored at the Port of Tacoma. Al and Frank were joined by a third man, longtime Tacoma civic and sports figure Stan Naccarato. They passed around money that Naccarato would later contribute to City Council races in a city where he didn't live...Naccarato, it seems, wasn't sure who gave what to whom. Maybe he was reimbursed for up to seven hundred dollars, he thought.
But, as he told [city investigator and ex-FBI agent Harley] Anders, at age seventy-seven, he had health problems that "impair his memory." However, he had earlier told the News Tribune of Tacoma that he made the contribution at the urging of his "good friend" Al Rosellini.
At his 100th birthday, The Governor, as he liked to be called, told me that Strippergate was "Just politics."
Big Al at 100.
"Everybody, not everybody but many, on the opposition looks for these things to criticize," he said. "I've never been concerned about it, because things happen in the world...sometimes all hell breaks loose.
"That's politics, and if you can't take it, you should get out of it."