How Jerry Grinstein Saved Maggie and Also Rescued Delta Airlines

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Few Seattleites can match Jerry Grinstein’s record of achievements over the past 50 years. Yet these achievements have received little public attention. That conforms to Jerry’s desires; he has always preferred to play “behind the scenes.” His two most notable accomplishments were redirecting the career of the late Warren Magnuson in the mid-1960s from that of an undistinguished senator to one of exceptional stature. And from 2004-2007, Grinstein pulled Delta Airlines from the brink of extinction to financial viability.

Warren Magnuson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1936 and to the U.S. Senate in 1944. Though he was popular with his fellow legislators, and delivered an ample supply of public funds for projects in Washington state, he was also known for his active social life. In 1962, he got a scare, winning reelection by a handful of votes over an unknown sanctimonious opponent, Dick Christensen, whose campaign targeted Maggie’s alleged moral shortcomings.

After that reelection warning, several of the senator’s close friends convinced him that he needed new issues and new staff. The key was, after some uncomfortable staff pruning, making young Seattle lawyer Jerry Grinstein his administrative assistant.

Grinstein had been hired several years previously after law school as a counsel on the Surface Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. Magnuson hired him, not because of his sterling credentials — Yale University undergraduate degree and Harvard Law School — but because his father, Dr. Alexander Grinstein, was Maggie’s personal physician and close friend. That hire was probably the best decision the senator ever made.

Magnuson and Grinstein had an arrangement, probably unwritten or never specifically stated. But the basis was that they trusted each other. Magnuson would remain front and center, and consumer protection would be his primary new focus (Ralph Nader was then riding high). Grinstein carefully spelled out his rules for the staff: the senator was always to be treated with the greatest respect. He was not to be called “Maggie,” and staff members were to remain anonymous. That meant never claiming credit for any initiative or having one’s name mentioned in the media.

The first step in the redirection was creation of a Consumer Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. A young and, energetic staff ran it, headed by Mike Pertchuk, who previously worked for Oregon Sen. Maurine Neuberger. An internship was created whereby outstanding UW Law school graduates, selected by the school, would spend two years on the Commerce Committee staff. Among the many outstanding interns were Stan Barer, Tom Allison, Norm Maleng, and Lynn Sutcliffe. Others, such as Norm Dicks (later to be a Congressman) and lawyer/author Eric Redman were later hired.

The garrulous, irrepressible Dicks and socially-shy Magnuson formed a strong bond. Many new consumer-protection laws were enacted, such as the “lemon law,” regulating warranties on consumer products, fair packaging and labeling, regulations on auto safety, and warning labels on cigarettes. The public had a new Maggie.

I was introduced to Grinstein in 1966 by my Garfield High School classmate Stan Sender, who served on the staff of the Commerce Committee. I had written a paper about an epidemic of injuries to Seattle area children caused by power lawnmowers. Stan asked for a copy of the paper, which he then showed to Grinstein and Pertchuk. Several weeks later, stories appeared in newspapers across the country, headed “Magnuson Warns Power Mower Industry.” The result was eventual creation of the consumer product safety commission (an agency for which, unfortunately, I have little regard).

Aspirin poisoning had long been a major cause of morbidity and mortality in children. The late Robert Sherz, than head of pediatrics at Madigan Army Hospital, carried out a study showing that the incidence of poisoning was reduced in children who were prescribed aspirin in “childproof” containers. I showed Sherz’s paper to Grinstein and Pertchuk. The Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970 was quickly enacted. A marked decrease in the incidence of poisoning in children from medications and products followed.

Another major problem for children was severe burns when their cotton clothes ignited. I told Grinstein and Pertchuk about a study by a New York surgeon on clothing treated with a flame resistant chemical, TRIS. They assigned the issue to a new UW law school intern, Norm Maleng (later King County Prosecutor). The result was the Flammable Fabrics Act Amendments of 1967. Norm, a marvelous human being but a way-too-modest politician, never talked about his role in passage of the law.

I drove to the White House with Sen. Magnuson for the signing ceremony. After LBJ signed the bill, he presented Maggie with the pen. I was sure he would give it to me. He did not. Back at the office I complained to Grinstein, who said, “you want a pen, come with me.” He went into Maggie’s private office, opened a desk drawer, which held a bunch of presidential signature pens, and handed me one.

Magnuson’s foray into consumer protection was heavily touted in his 1968 reelection campaign. One bumper sticker proclaimed: “I’ve got kids; I’m for Maggie.” He won decisively.

Gossip often tinged with jealousy is a fixture on Capitol Hill. One oft-repeated bit alleged that Magnuson’s soul had been captured by his young, ambitious staff. That is far from the truth. At the end of every work day, key staff gathered in the Senator’s office. Staff members would seek approval for new initiatives and give progress reports on pending bills.

Though the redirection of his legislative focus improved Magnuson’s political standing in Washington state, it had little to do with his ascending power in the Senate. That was the result of Maggie’s unique political skills and the affection with which he was held by his colleagues.

Most of his friends would agree that Grinstein’s most defining feature is his laugh. It occurs often and is loud. Working with Jerry was fun. Once he took me to lunch in the Senate Dining Room, where I saw many famous senators. As we entered, a server stopped what she was doing, and said, “Oh Jerry, where have you been?” His friendship with persons at all levels was maintained throughout his career.

In 1969, with Magnuson assured of another six years, Jerry stepped down as administrative assistant and returned to Seattle, joining the law firm of Preston, Thorgrimson, Ellis, Holman & Fletcher. His specialty was representing corporations dealing with transportation laws and regulations. Retaining his Magnuson connection, and his friendship with Scoop Jackson, in the 1970s, through his derived power, Jerry was arguably the most powerful political figure in Washington state.

In 1985 Grinstein entered the corporate world, becoming CEO of Western Airlines until it merged with Delta in 1987. He then became CEO of Burlington Northern Railway until 1995. He maintained his sense of humor and was devoted to his employees. Once, on a Western Airlines flight, I asked a flight attendant if she ever saw Mr. Grinstein. “Oh sure,” she said, “when he’s on a flight he always stops and talks with us.”

In 2004, having been on the Board of Delta since the merger, Jerry was drafted by fellow board members to become CEO. The airline was in terrible shape as a result of crippling labor disputes and was heading into bankruptcy. His 2004-2007 tenure as Delta’s CEO should be seen as a model for enlightened corporate management. In marked contrast to his predecessor, Jerry did not sign a contract, declined bonuses or stock options, and assumed an annual salary at a low scale for corporate executives. He then invited union representatives to join the board. “Why should we be fighting with our employees,” he said.

Jerry’s biggest accomplishment was a $3-billion “restructuring” that guided Delta out of bankruptcy. When this occurred, Jerry retired and returned to Seattle in the summer of 2007. His final action was establishing a scholarship fund for Delta employees and their children, and a hardship fund for their families. Having found success in politics and corporate leadership, Grinstein entered a new realm in 1985 as a founding partner (along with Bill Ruckelshaus and Tom Alberg) of Madrona Venture Group, a leading venture-capital firm. He served as a UW regent from 1998-2004.

Jerry was my mentor in the practice of “political medicine,” employing the political process to improve health and safety. His most important maxim: “Focus on a circumscribed objective that is attainable.” In the 1970s I headed a national campaign to “humanize” the treatment of families losing infants suddenly and unexpectedly. I asked Jerry how we could direct public attention to the problem. “Find a fire-hydrant to piss on,” he said. Accordingly newspapers and TV news would provide coverage to a parent asking a local coroner or medical examiner, “Why did you force me to undergo a criminal inquest when my baby died of SIDS?” The tactic worked; infant death investigation practices have improved in most communities.

Though Grinstein, now 88, is no longer actively involved with Madrona Venture Group, “they let me have an office,” Jerry says. That means his laughter still reverberates through the hallways. Many hallways.

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Abe Bergman is professor emeritus in pediatrics at the University of Washington

3 COMMENTS

  1. So nice to see Abe writing and, as a bonus, he fills us in on the Magnuson-Grinstein backstory that, even as reporters and editorial writers, we could only guess at. Thanks for the description of a laugh; a colorful aside that we too often overlook.

  2. Thank you, as a younger guy in those days. I was not aware of all this.
    I still remember some Republican sitting in our humble urging my parents to vote for Christiansen because Maggie was a sinner.
    They were Democrats and happy Danes and stuck with Magnuson.

  3. Grinstein was a stellar example of the days when leading lawyers in Seattle helped get important things done. I envision him holding court at the old Rosellini’s 410 restaurant, scarfing up political gossip and making good connections. Now that our major lawfirms are owned elsewhere, the sway of superlawyers has ebbed. The other thing I am grateful for are Grinstein’s and Magnuson’s staffers, many of whom kept the network alive and got themselves in key positions to work out policy differences. Those staffers, still good friends, were called the Bumblebees.

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