Former State Sen. Curt Ludwig, Dead at 83

Former state Sen. Curt Ludwig, D-Richland.

Curt Ludwig, the former Benton County prosecutor who represented the 8th Legislative District for four years, died Thursday at his home in Richland. He was 83.

Ludwig, a longtime public figure in the Tri-Cities, was an easygoing and genial sort who figured heavily in what may have been the community’s most memorable political race – a story Washington State Wire remembers well, having covered it for the Tri-City Herald. Though Ludwig retired in 1987 after 27 years in the prosecutor’s office, he was called back to public life in 1990. That was the year then-state Rep. Jim Jesernig, D-Kennewick, was challenging state Sen. Max Benitz, R-Prosser, for re-election. Former Richland Mayor Lane Bray, a Democrat, filed for Jesernig’s House seat. And in the middle of a Labor Day parade in Richland, Benitz suffered a heart attack and died.

The ensuing fracas centered statewide attention on the Tri-Cities, with a race that held the key to control of the Senate, which the Republicans held by a single vote, 25-24. State Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland, took Benitz’ place on the ballot, and local party chieftans scrambled for a replacement. The Democrats tabbed Ludwig. In the end, after one of the most heated and chaotic legislative campaigns the Tri-Cities had witnessed, Democrats swept all three seats in one of the state’s most Republican districts, and the party held on to them for four years, a feat unmatched since. The Senate stayed in Republican hands, however, until the 1992 election — Democrats lost a seat elsewhere.

But mostly what Washington State Wire remembers is a lawmaker who quickly became a popular member from southeast Washington. A regular attendee of the Legislature’s karaoke nights, Ludwig was one of the few wise enough never to sing. He happily swapped the latest lawyer jokes in the wings of the House, and when he sponsored a mandatory seat-belt bill, he took pains to research federal regulations to reassure this young reporter that his 1963 Pontiac convertible was exempt under a little-known exemption for cars made prior to 1967. “See?” he said. “You have nothing to worry about. Your car is safe.”

Ludwig moved up to the Senate in 1993 when Jesernig resigned to become director of the state Department of Agriculture, but was defeated in 1994 by Republican Pat Hale. In 1996 he was appointed to the state Gambling Commission and served two terms. He returned to private practice briefly in 2001, then retired permanently in 2004. An ardent hot-air balloonist in his later years, Ludwig frequently took brave legislative staffers soaring – though never this reporter, who had thrills enough driving with the top down and no seat belt.