Toner, Wally (1942-2000): A Reminiscence

  • By Patrick McRoberts and Maggie Brown
  • Posted 10/12/2000
  • Essay 2728

Walter Bernard "Wally" Toner Jr., one of Seattle's most respected political consultants, died on October 10, 2000 of heart failure. A Seattle University graduate, he had served as an aide to fomer U.S. Congressman Brock Adams and directed the national Young Democrats. Beginning in the early 1970s, Toner played key roles in numerous elections, including successful campaigns for former Governor Mike Lowry, Metro Transit, Sound Transit, Seattle school levies, Seattle Mayors Wes Uhlman and Norm Rice, King County Executive Tim Hill, and Congressman John Miller, and approval of the new Seahawks Stadium and 1998 Libraries for All levy. He was a close associate of public affairs advisers Bob Gogerty and Don Stark, and was a senior vice president of APCO Worldwide at the time of his death. Toner was also an active supporter of Seattle University and the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, and Childhaven. He had battled diabetes and other health problems for serveral years. Wally was survived by his former wife Nea Toner, father Walter Sr., son Brendan, and brothers Kip and Jerry.

Beyond being an influential strategist for progressive causes and candidates, Wally was a lover of knowledge and constructive debate, and a man who cared deeply about his family and friends. He was always there to help both friends and strangers, whether it consisted of making a contact for a job or offering sage advice. Wally realized that good deeds did not disappear in this world but came back in unforeseen ways to benefit the community as a whole.

This principle carried over to his professional life. He firmly believed that, by bringing people together, whether in the context of grassroots organizing, community meetings or other forums, sound public policy decisions could be made.

Over the past three decades, Wally's public policy vision has contributed to many positive developments for the residents of Seattle, the Puget Sound area and Washington state. He possessed a unique combination of skills, including the ability to see the big picture while persistently attending to details and analytically ferreting out the truth.

While not well known to the public at large, Wally moved behind the scenes, in campaign war rooms and corporate strategy sessions, to have an enormous, positive impact on our day-to-day lives -- through the causes and candidates he supported and through his influence on the issues and opinions under debate. Among the issues on which Wally made his mark are education, transportation, land use, energy, professional sports, and family services.

Dedicated to Civic Progress

Mr. Toner was born September 19, 1942 in Seattle, son of Walter Bernard "Barney" Toner, Sr., and Cele Toner. Raised on Queen Anne hill, he graduated from St. Edwards Seminary and earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Seattle University, later becoming one of the few political science majors to actually practice political science.

After studying law at New York University, he traveled to Chile where he learned about the dynamics and human impact of political unrest. He served with the Volunteers in Service of America, helping organize coal miners to win health protection measures and compensation for black lung disease.

He worked as a legislative assistant to Brock Adams in Congress and served as director of the National Young Democrats, before returning to Seattle in 1970 to found Toner and Associates.

Wally became a public affairs consultant in the early 1970s in partnership with his former wife Nea. Together they developed a groundbreaking approach to meaningful community involvement in which citizens were invited to provide their input on land use planning and were able to see the impact of their views on the final policy.

Wally's genius for demographic analysis and voter targeting became legendary among the region's political consultants. He made a specialty of eking out wins in tight races for embattled candidates and causes including former Seattle Mayors Wes Uhlman and Norm Rice, King County Executive Tim Hill, and Governor Mike Lowry, and numerous ballot issues such as the Pine Street referendum and new Seahawks Stadium.

One of Wally's proudest achievements was design and implementation of the public planning process and political campaign that led to creation of Metro Transit in 1972. A lifelong champion of public transportation, Wally was a key strategist in the successful 1996 campaign for Sound Transit, which represented the first victory for a regional rail transit plan in five elections dating back to 1958.

His long career also included service as an adviser and lobbyist for diverse public and private clients ranging from the Washington State Trade & Convention Center to King County housing developers. He was a close associate of public affairs consultants Bob Gogerty and Don Stark, co-founders of Gogerty Stark Marriott, and was a senior consultant to the firm of APCO Worldwide at the time of his death.

Strategist for Major Campaigns

It would be impractical to even touch on all of the campaigns and projects that looked to Wally for guidance during his long and distinguished career. To name just a few from the past decade, Wally was instrumental in providing strategy for:

  • A number of successful school levies in Seattle since 1990
  • No on 601/602 campaigns in 1993 (601 was defeated)
  • The effort to reopen Pine Street in 1995
  • Home Town Fans, the campaign to build a Mariners Stadium in 1995
  • The successful Regional Transit Authority measure in 1996
  • The successful Families and Education Levies in Seattle in 1990 and 1997
  • Our Team Works, the successful statewide Seahawks stadium measure in 1997
  • No on I-200, the unsuccessful attempt to defeat the 1998 statewide anti-affirmative action measure
  • Libraries for All, the 1998 Seattle measure to replace the central library and build, replace or restore 25 neighborhood libraries

Wally worked on campaigns for both Democratic and Republican candidates including campaigns for Congressman John Miller (R), King County Executive Tim Hill (R), Governor Mike Lowry (D), Seattle Mayors Wes Uhlman and Norm Rice, and Seattle City Council Member Tina Podlodowski.

Wally was a founding board member for Schools First!, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting education in Seattle, and a former board member of Childhaven, a non-profit organization serving abused children and their families.

His mother, Cele, preceded him in death. He is survived by his son, Brendan Toner, 23; former wife, Nea; his father, Walter Sr.; and his two younger brothers, Kip and Jerry, and their families. Kip Toner's family includes his wife, Claudia, and their daughters, Erin, Cashel, Anna, and Meghan, and son, Joe. Jerry Toner's family includes his wife, Mary Anne Kelly. Mr. Toner will be missed by his very special friend Karen Farnham, of Seattle.


Family and professional records.

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