Phyllis Lamphere Oral History, Part 2: Running for Mayor, a New Challenge, Cultural Exchange

  • Posted 10/18/2013
  • Essay 10631

Phyllis Lamphere (1922-2018), a native Seattleite, was deeply involved in the city's civic life for more than 50 years. She served on the city council from 1967 to 1978, where she was instrumental in pushing through multiple reforms and worked on many of the most contentious issues of a contentious era. After an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1977, Lamphere went on to work for the federal government, and she later formed her own public-affairs consulting firm. Among many other achievements, she was a driving force behind the creation of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and served on its board for more than 20 years. In July and August 2013, Lamphere was interviewed at her apartment in Seattle's Horizon House by intern Callan Carow. In these People's Histories, organized by topic, Lamphere recounts some of the important events of her career in politics and public service and provides an inside look at the workings of government and the life of an extraordinary woman. In this part of her oral history she tells of her leadership of the National League of Cities, an unsuccessful race for  mayor, working for the federal Economic Development Administration, and her efforts to strengthen relationships with the Scandinavian countries.

A National Post, a Rare Defeat

I became so involved in intergovernmental relations that I took an interest and a role in the National League of Cities. And in '75 or '74, I became vice president of the National League of Cities. The National League of Cities was also going through transformations, again because the role of cities had changed in relation to the other levels of government. And I had been a part of the effort there to change that leadership and its way of budgeting, and its relationship with its members.

So in 1977, I became president of the National League of Cities. And in that capacity I was also bestowed with a number of other responsibilities and opportunities. But it so happened, that same year I was trying to run for mayor, and that was a mix that was not good, because I had to be out of town, I had to go back to Washington. I did a lot of lobbying for the league, for the cities, and with departments. I was on the German Marshall Fund board, I was on the National Productivity board, and I was vice president of Neighborhood Housing Services of America, and it went on and on.

I was also called upon to lead several international city tours to Europe and other places to see how they planned their parks or how they supported their arts programs, etc. So that took a deadly toll on my campaign. I had started out as a favorite, but it wasn't just my being out of town -- I have to be fair about this -- it was also that we had gone through so many changes in the city and how we did things that the council was not held in very high esteem. I think we did wonderful things, but there were a lot of people who thought they knew better. So the voters of the city nominated two outsiders, but none of us who were running from the council. There were too many of us running anyway, and we split the vote. But it was an outsider's time, and Charlie Royer and Paul Schell were nominated. So that was the end of that kind of pipe dream.

The Economic Development Administration

I thought about what I should think about next, and there was an opportunity at the Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Administration, as a regional director for the Western region, and I had been working with the EDA in Washington and was very familiar with it. And I loved that agency, because they gave the regional director total control. You get the money, you administer the program.

I had a huge region because they combined Regions 9 and 10, the Southwest and the Northwest, together. So I had eight Western states, everything from Alaska down to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii, and all of the Pacific territories, which were the Marianas, Guam, and Samoa. So there again, I was in a huge territory.

I went to EDA in early '78, and it was just so exciting, it was just a wonderful opportunity. I tried to develop a platform or program that really suited my area. All my area was on water, and I had 12 regional representatives throughout my area -- wonderful people -- and we tried to develop a policy and a program surrounding that opportunity. So we worked on fisheries, and we worked on trade. And I think we were well on our way to making a substantial difference there when Reagan was elected president and installed his own regional directors, because I was a presidential appointment, all of us were, and those go by the boards when you get a new administration. So Reagan and I separated company in '82, and I left government at that point.

"Scandinavia Today" 

After leaving the Economic Development Administration, there was a question about where I wanted to go next and what I next wanted to do. As I pondered that, I was asked to chair a very interesting cultural project called "Scandinavia Today." It was a cultural exchange between the five Scandinavian countries and five American cities, Seattle being one. The Scandinavian countries were Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. It was funded by the governments and it consisted of exchanging experts in various fields, or nobility from the countries, with the other cities or countries. A two-way exchange. So we organized a committee to try to plan this. It was to be a whole-year project and we had no budget for it, which posed a problem right from the outset. But nonetheless, all the consuls from here representing those countries were on the committee and we had some local folks and we planned the opening for sometime in the spring.

In any event, it was in 1983, and the opening event was at the Opera House, with the governor and the mayor and all the consuls present. And the dignitary, who was our honored guest, was the president of Iceland, whose name was Vigdis Finnbogadottir, and she was absolutely delightful. And we had a number of artistic performances that evening, we had greetings from elected officials and a delightful speech by Vigdis.

Swedish Royals Come Calling

Subsequently, throughout the year, we had visits from the other countries. We had the king and queen of Sweden visit, King Gustaf and Queen Silvia. And they were as gracious as they could be. We took them to schools, we took them to community events, and since they were from Sweden the Swedish consul and the Swedish community hosted them.

We had a major banquet for them at the Westin Hotel. The ambassador was there, the governor was there, and the mayor was there. I, as chair, had made out the seating chart for the banquet. And the Westin had made a special banquet table shaped in the form of a boomerang, so that the king and queen would be at the bulge, and the guests were out on the wings.

We charged a pretty sum for the couples to attend that, and I made out the seating chart and it was sent to the governor. It came back rearranged so that in the center of the bulge, the head of the table, there were seated the king and queen in the center, and the governor and his wife on either side, the mayor and his wife beyond that, my husband and me, and the ambassador and his wife. So that the royal couple was not in easy reach for the guests, who were out on the wings.

We went through I think the toast, and we went through the welcoming speech, and we were probably through the first course, at which point I thought that the citizen guests should have a closer conversation with the king and queen. So without anyone's knowing, I went to the king and said, "Would you mind if I moved you and the queen during the course of the banquet, so that these people could have a chance to talk to you?" So I moved the king five places to the right and I moved the queen five places to the left, and I did it twice during the course of the banquet so that everyone who came had an individual opportunity to talk face-to-face with either the king or the queen. It was a huge success, but the ambassador was flabbergasted and disquieted by this. But it was a wonderful thing to do, and I think the king and queen enjoyed it immensely. So there was that.

Then we had visitors from Denmark, Finland, and Norway. And they were sometimes royalty or related to the royalty, sometimes high personages in the governments, and we followed the pattern. We had for each one of them both a social engagement with their community here, their local community, in their ethnic branch, and we had some performances. And throughout the year it was a constant pressure to raise money to fund all these things.

I think it was an excellent idea. Whether it had any lasting benefit from any of these countries I don't know, but it was certainly a boost for the local communities that they represented. And at the end of this year, I was presented a medal called the Icelandic Order of the Falcon, limited in number so that the medal must be returned to Iceland upon my demise. So I have a certificate from Iceland, and I have this beautiful medal. That was a pleasant surprise. I also, my husband and I, had the opportunity at the end of the celebration to travel to each one of these Scandinavian countries and meet the people there. So that's a cultural exchange that's pretty rare, and it was pretty spectacular.

To go to Part 3, click "Next Feature."


Callan Carow interviews with Phyllis Lamphere, July and August 2013.

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