Greive, R. R. "Bob" (1919-2004)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 7/19/2004
  • Essay 5717

R. R. “Bob” Greive was a political force in Washington state for more than 40 years, first as a state senator and then as a member of the King County Council. He was a tireless fundraiser, an astute tactician, and a master of hardball politics. As Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s and 1960s, he solicited donations from lobbyists and used the money to help elect senators who, in turn, helped him retain his position as Majority Leader. He once threatened to vote for a Republican as chairman of the County Council if his fellow Democrats didn’t let him keep an influential committee chairmanship. Although he advocated affordable housing and other programs that benefited the poor, he scoffed at the idea that politicians were motivated by altruistic notions of public service. "Now, I'm not saying that it's impossible for a person to be motivated just by public service,” he said in an oral history recorded in 2001, “but I don't think that's very often the case. I think a person is motivated more by the love of battle and the power and importance and the instant notoriety and all of the other things that go to make up a human being” (Greive, 6).

Greive served in the Senate for 28 years, including 12 as Majority Leader. He lost his leadership position in 1972 in a palace revolt led by his longtime rival, August P. "Augie" Mardesich (1920-2016) of Everett. He was defeated in a bid for re-election to the Senate two years later, but he won a seat on the County Council in 1975. He ran unopposed for two additional terms on the council but lost the Democratic nomination for re-election in 1987 to a young politician named Greg Nickels (later elected mayor of Seattle). In all, Greive stood for election 23 times during his long political career, and lost only twice.

He was a tall, slender man who favored horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties. A devout Catholic, he attended Mass at 8 a.m. nearly every day. He didn’t drink, smoke, or chase interns. He typically functioned on only five hours of sleep, working past midnight most nights, dividing his time between politics and a full-time legal practice. He once distributed a campaign brochure that showed him receiving a "Janitor’s Award" for working longer hours than any other senator. Although he had staged the whole thing himself -- a fact that proved embarrassing when it leaked to the press -- few legislators could match his capacity for work. "You get up in the morning and you go to sleep at night, and in between, you work," he commented (Greive, 133).

West Seattle Roots

Raymond Robert Greive was born in West Seattle on October 6, 1919. The family’s surname had originally been "Grieve." His father, of German heritage, had changed the spelling during World War I because he thought it sounded "less German" -- a practical move, given the anti-German sentiment of the era.

He and his sole sibling (a sister, Alberta) grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father owned a salvage company; his mother, a Canadian immigrant, was active in the local Democratic party and encouraged his interest in politics. He attended Catholic grade schools in West Seattle and then O’Dea High School. A dyslexic, he had difficulty with reading, spelling, and math but did well in art and debate. He transferred to West Seattle High School in his senior year to take advantage of the art program there. He graduated in 1938, and then stayed on for a year of post-graduate high school work.

Greive was an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist, skills he put to use later in designing many of his own campaign posters, brochures, and newspaper advertisements. He briefly studied commercial art at the Cornish School (today known as the Cornish College of the Arts), intending to become a commercial artist. He joined the Coast Guard when the United States entered World War II in 1941. He was stationed in Puget Sound, and assigned to draw cartoons and other illustrations for Coast Guard publications. He worked briefly in the field of graphic arts after the war, but then decided to pursue a law degree and enrolled at Seattle University, transferring later to the University of Washington.

"Vigor and Energy"

Greive had not yet completed his law degree when he won his first campaign for political office, in 1946, at age 27. He was elected to the State Senate with a platform that emphasized the "vigor and energy of youth" (Greive, 13). He claimed the incumbent was out of date and out of touch with his constituents. Ironically, a 31-year-old Greg Nickels would use similar arguments to defeat a 67-year-old Greive in a campaign for County Council in 1987.

Greive approached his first political campaign with the dedication and political savvy that would become his trademarks. He designed and illustrated his own posters and newspaper advertisements, including one that showed him rolling up his sleeves next to a framed picture of Uncle Sam, labeled "Uncle Sam Needs Youth." He took advantage of his status as a veteran. "I ran in a sailor suit," he said. "I had a head picture of myself, and you could tell I was a sailor. In 1946 that was very popular" (Greive, 13). He rang doorbells -- personally appealing for votes -- at a time when few candidates did so.

In the Senate, he made contacts that would serve him well in future years, among them Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011), then Senate majority leader and later governor of Washington. Greive became a student of the art of practical politics, with Rosellini as his mentor. He said later that one important lesson he learned from Rosellini was "Don’t ever let anybody get the floor until you find out what he wants it for. Many a freshman has yielded the floor and never got it back" (The Seattle Times, 1971).

Greive’s first year in the Legislature was marked by controversy over the creation of the Joint Legislative Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities in the State of Washington (often called the Canwell Committee after its chairman, Rep. Albert F. Canwell, a Republican from Spokane). In March 1947, Canwell introduced a resolution to establish a joint committee to investigate Communist influences in state government. The measure passed easily, by a margin of three to one. Greive was one of 12 senators to cast dissenting votes. "I voted against it because I didn’t believe in it," he said later. "I was always proud of that. I thought it was plain unfair that they could ruin somebody’s reputation and that a person couldn’t fight back" (Greive, 35, 45).

Greive quickly established himself as an energetic and industrious legislator. He was dubbed "Rule Book Greive" for his encyclopedic knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order. He memorized parliamentary rules by putting them on index cards and studying them while traveling back and forth to Olympia (a journey he sometimes made by hitchhiking, since at first he was unable to afford a car).

He continued to attend the University of Washington School of Law when the Legislature was not in session, but ended up flunking out. At the time, he blamed his academic problems on a dispute with university administrators, who opposed a bill he pushed through to shorten the law-school course from four to three years. Looking back years later, he conceded that the university was responding to his scholastic performance, not his politics. He briefly attended the University of Idaho and then, in 1951, earned a law degree from the University of Miami in Florida. He worked as a lawyer, specializing in personal injury cases, until he was in his 80s.

He was a strong ally of organized labor throughout his Senate career. He was also interested in environmental protection, long before it became a popular cause. Alarmed by sewage washing ashore at West Seattle’s Alki Beach, he helped create the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) in 1958. He later sponsored legislation to create the state Department of Ecology. A deeply religious man, he also introduced several anti-obscenity bills.

Meanwhile, he married and started a family that eventually included six children. Politics became a way of life for the entire family, although not one that the children particularly enjoyed. "They didn’t like having to work their heads off, not only for me but for all my buddies," Greive said. "I used to tell them, ‘Listen, if you were born to a farmer, you’d do farm work’ " (Greive, 94). His marriage ended in divorce after 37 years, for reasons that remain private, but he maintained a relationship with his ex-wife, Barbara Shea, for the rest of his life. He dedicated his 1996 magnum opus -- a political handbook titled The Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Political Victory…and Defeat -- to her.

Senate Majority Leader

The Democratic caucus selected Greive as Senate Majority Leader in 1956, replacing Rosellini, who was elected governor that year. Greive held on to the leadership post for 12 years, during some of the most contentious years in Washington politics. He reinforced his power by raising campaign funds for his political allies and by influencing the legislative redistricting process in ways that supported his friends and weakened his foes.

His fundraising began in 1952, during Rosellini's first (and unsuccessful) campaign for governor. Greive collected several thousand dollars for Rosellini by calling lobbyists and asking them for donations. He used the same technique to collect money for senatorial candidates two years later, establishing what became known as "the Greive Fund." Throughout the rest of his time in the Senate, Greive solicited donations from lobbyists and others and dispersed them to his supporters. In his 2001 oral history, he said candidly that his goal was to have enough senators be under obligation to him to ensure the votes he needed to hold on to the floor leader’s seat. "If you don’t have a majority, you don’t control," he said. "Your first obligation is to have a majority. Your second obligation is to direct them" (Greive, 97).

Greive not only funneled money to candidates, he provided advice and time, putting up yard signs, distributing brochures, and doorbelling in districts around the state. "We could take a guy that was in a weak position, and we thought had a good chance, and we could take fund money, partly, but we could also take our own expertise," he said. "We could just move in with him and give him a boost" (Greive, 97). Greive later blamed "outsiders" for both of his electoral defeats – an ironic charge, given his frequent efforts to manipulate the outcomes of elections outside his own district.

Greive became floor leader at the same time that the Legislature was forced to take on the politically bruising task of redistricting (redrawing the boundaries of legislative districts to reflect changes in population). The state had not been redistricted since 1930, despite a provision in the state constitution requiring that it be done every 10 years. Office holders were naturally loath to realign legislative districts in ways that might give the other side any political advantage. Pressured first by the League of Women Voters and later by the courts, the legislators reluctantly began reapportioning the districts.

Greive played a key role in three rounds of redistricting (1956-1957, 1962-1964, and 1971-1974). He consistently used his influence to protect the boundaries of districts represented by his political allies, while working to undermine the position of his opponents. An unfriendly legislator might find himself or herself facing re-election in a radically altered, gerrymandered district (deliberately including or excluding certain neighborhoods). "He redistricted me out of my district three times," former Senate Ways and Means Chairman Martin Durkan of Issaquah complained (The Seattle Times, 1975). However, each time Durkan moved and was re-elected. (In 1983, Washington voters took reapportionment out of the hands of the Legislature and put it in the hands of an independent bipartisan commission.)

Conflict over redistricting contributed both to Greive’s 1972 ouster as floor leader and to his 1974 defeat for re-election. He lost the leadership position to August Mardesich, in a contest that had bitter repercussions for both men. After his defeat, Greive helped circulate allegations that Mardesich had taken a $20,000 bribe from a group of garbage haulers in return for favorable legislation. Mardesich was indicted, tried, and acquitted, but he was forced to resign as majority leader and, in 1978, lost his seat in the Senate.

Greive found himself the subject of an investigation shortly before the 1974 general election, when one of his former aides filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, saying he had spent half his time while on the Senate payroll doing private law work for Greive and the other half compiling files on Greive’s political enemies. Greive conceded that he collected information about his colleagues -- "some good and some bad" -- but insisted there was no "enemies list" (The Seattle Times, 1974).

The Ethics Committee concluded that Greive had not violated any rules of conduct, and the Thurston County prosecutor declined to file charges. Still, the case percolated as a political issue in Greive’s home district in West Seattle. Disgruntled Democrats joined with business interests to back Republican Nancy Buffington in the general election. She won by a margin of 542 votes.

King County Councilman

One year after losing his Senate seat, Greive filed for election to the King County Council. His opponent, Democratic incumbent Ed Heavey, claimed that Greive was motivated only by the chance to retire with a larger pension. After 28 years as a part-time legislator, Greive was eligible for an annual pension of only $3,024. Two years as a county councilman would boost his pension tenfold, with the possibility of greater increases for longer service.

At the time Greive insisted that he "never paid any attention" to the pension issue (The Seattle Times). But in his oral history, he said, frankly, that he decided to run for the council position (a full-time job) because "I needed some high income years" to boost his pension (Greive, 224). He eventually qualified for retirement pay of more than $58,000 a year.

On the council, he relied on the same political principles that had served him well in the Legislature. "One of my favorite things was to tell both sides I was against them," he said. "If I knew it was going to come to a vote, at least half of them thought I was a good guy. And the others weren’t surprised" (Greive, 72). He sometimes voted with the Republicans and sometimes with the Democrats. Cynics said he liked the five-four Democratic-Republican split on the council so he could move back and forth, exchanging his vote in return for deals with various factions.

As a councilman, he focused mainly on West Seattle. He used his clout to fix potholes, establish or move bus stops, and help obtain $10 million in county financing for the West Seattle Bridge. He became a mentor for Ron Sims (b. 1948), now county executive. Sims said Greive would ask him what he needed for his district, scribble the answer on the back of an envelope, and use those notes to set the budget of the most populous county in the state.

He was successful enough that he faced no opposition during his next two elections. Republicans were generally satisfied with his performance and Democrats respected his clout. "Deep down, he’s almost as conservative as I am," Jim Summers, King County Republican chairman, once said of Greive (The Seattle Times, 1983).

The challenge, when it came, came from within Greive’s own party. Liberal Democrats complained that Greive paid little attention to their concerns. There were reports that he occasionally dozed in council meetings, sometimes seemed confused, and frequently missed council votes. Greive’s pension benefits also became an issue. Because of a loophole in the state’s pension law, he was one of a handful of public employees who qualified for retirement pay that actually exceeded the salaries they were earning when they quit working.

Several influential Democrats and some union leaders deserted Greive to back Greg Nickels (b. 1955), a legislative assistant to then-Seattle City Councilman Norm Rice, in the Democratic primary in 1987. Greive blamed "the media" for his subsequent defeat, but he bore no grudge against Nickels. He sent Nickels a congratulatory note after the election, and two men eventually became friends. "You have to respect someone who has had as impressive and significant career as Bob did," Nickels said. "I went out of my way after I got into office to let him know that his work was respected and appreciated" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2004).

"Blood, Sweat, and Tears"

Greive’s forced retirement from political life represented the end of an era. His brand of power politics had become an anachronism, replaced by the politics of consensus. "For modern government and challenging times, it's probably good that that era is gone," Ron Sims commented recently. "It takes too much money, the pace is too fast, the demands are too great. But Bob Greive shepherded the close of that era with incredible dignity and class" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2004).

Unlike some of his former Senate colleagues, Greive was always viewed as an honest man. His personal integrity was never questioned. He himself acknowledged that he loved power more than money.

His legendary work ethic did not slacken when he left the public arena. He continued to practice law until illness forced him to retire in 2002. In 1991, at age 71, he received a Ph.D. in political science from Claremont Graduate University in California. He revised his dissertation and self-published it in 1996. A distillation of the lessons he had learned during 41 years in politics, it was titled The Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Political Victory…and Defeat.

"Speechmaking on the floor isn’t the thing," he told an interviewer in 1969, summarizing his political style. "The die is cast long before that. The skill is in the vote-counting and I think I’m the best. You must know when to put the pressure, you have to know who’s firm and who’s a vacillator. You learn the people so that when one says he will go with you, you know he won’t change" (The Seattle Times, 1969).

He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on July 1, 2004, at his home in West Seattle, just a few blocks from the house where he grew up. Survivors included his sister, Alberta Ward of San Diego; daughters Kathleen Deakins of Des Moines, Bernadette Lucas of Los Angeles, and Mary Long of Lakewood; sons Ray Greive and Tom Greive of Seattle and J. J. Greive of Burien; eight grandchildren, and his former wife, Barbara Shea.


R. R. Greive, R. R. “Bob” Greive: An Oral History (Olympia, WA.: Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of State, 2001); Richard Larsen, “Greive ‘Staged’ Janitor Award,” The Seattle Times, October 31, 1974, p. A-14; Dale Nelson, Associated Press, “Sen. Greive’s Lectures Ease Way for Solons,” The Seattle Times, February 1, 1971, p. A-4; Richard W. Larsen, “Some Beaten Politicians Retire Gracefully, But Not Bob Greive,” Ibid., January 9, 1975, p. A-13; Doug Underwood, “Bob Greive: 40 Years of Power Politics,” Ibid., May 4, 1987, p. C-1; Don Hannula, “Greive Had Enemies File, Says Ex-aide,” Ibid., October 19, 1974, p. A-3; “Greive Scoffs at Pension Motivation,” Ibid., July 29, 1975, p. A-7; “Bob Greive Never Wastes a Dull Moment,” Ibid., October 23, 1983, p. A-24; Neil Modie, “Former State Lawmaker’s Career Spanned 41 Years,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 2, 2004, p. B-1; Stephen Kent, Associated Press, "Greive Knows His People to Call Tune in Senate," The Seattle Times, February 23, 1969.

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