Spellman, John D. (1926-2018)

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 3/11/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7674

John D. Spellman was the first King County Executive and later served as governor of Washington. Elected Executive in 1969, shortly after the County's Home Rule Charter created the position, Spellman played the lead role in establishing the County's new governmental structure under the Charter. He consolidated previously independent departments and replaced the old patronage system with a merit system. Spellman supervised the controversial process of siting and building the Kingdome, the domed stadium that provided the first home for the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners, and initiated early efforts to deal with uncontrolled growth. Spellman was twice re-elected as King County Executive before being elected governor in 1980. His gubernatorial term coincided with a budget crisis that required deep cuts and tax increases, and although he achieved success in other areas, he lost his bid for re-election. After leaving office Spellman joined a Seattle law firm, where he continued to practice law for another three decades.

Early Years

Born in Seattle on December 29, 1926, John Dennis Spellman was a fourth-generation Seattleite, his great-grandfather having arrived in the city in 1869. Spellman grew up on the Eastside but went to high school at Seattle Prep, commuting across Lake Washington by ferry. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he completed his undergraduate degree at Seattle University, where he was valedictorian of the class of 1949.

Spellman earned a law degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1953, and spent the next 13 years practicing law. He and his wife Lois, who had met at Seattle University, settled in Seattle, where they raised six children.

Entering Politics

Spellman's first political involvement coincided with a significant transformation in Seattle and King County politics in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He became part of a group of progressive Republican reformers, including future governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) and future county prosecutor Christopher T. Bayley, who opposed the Republican "old guard." They championed civil rights over strong union opposition, and were among the first to raise environmental issues. In 1964, the year that Evans won the first of his three terms as governor, Spellman made a last-minute bid for Mayor of Seattle, but lost in the primary.

Two years later, both wings of the divided King County Republican party -- the courthouse old guard and the reformers -- united behind Spellman's bid for one of the three seats on the County Commission, the County's executive and legislative body since its formation in 1853. Spellman promised to replace patronage hiring with a merit system and criticized incumbent Democratic commissioner Scott Wallace for a Courthouse remodeling project whose costs had ballooned from $3.5 million to more than $12 million. (Despite the campaign rhetoric, Spellman and Wallace went on to become friends, with Wallace aiding Spellman's farmland-preservation initiative.)

In 1968, two years after Spellman joined the County Commission, voters, motivated by the courthouse-funding scandal and patronage abuses that Spellman (and many others) had denounced, approved a Home Rule Charter advocated by the reformers, which replaced the three commissioners and numerous elected department heads with a more modern governmental structure consisting of a single County Executive and a nine-member legislative County Council.

Organizing a New Government

As a Commissioner, Spellman was guaranteed a seat on the new County Council, but Governor Evans and other reformers encouraged him to seek the Executive position. In March 1969, Spellman defeated former Democratic Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) to become King County's first County Executive. The position provided a unique opportunity, one that Spellman enjoyed and was successful at, for building a new governmental structure.

In his first years in office, Spellman reorganized the more than 20 separate departments that provided county services, many headed by independently elected officials. Spellman reorganized this structure into seven departments whose heads were responsible to him. He adopted a collegial, judicial approach to governing, listening to all sides -- usually smoking the pipe that became his trademark -- before making a decision. The Executive and his department heads revamped the County's personnel practices, essentially eliminating the patronage system. In 1969, Personnel Director George Church introduced the first job-classification system in the county's 116-year history. Under Spellman, King County introduced work standards and performance appraisals, becoming one of the nation's first county personnel systems to adopt merit pay.

Spellman enjoyed a relatively free hand in designing the new County government because the new nine-member County Council was slower to assert its authority. As Spellman said years later, he was able to "put the new government in place before the legislative branch got organized" (Scott, 96). What opposition Spellman did face came from the two remaining elected County officers under the new Charter, both fellow Republicans. Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll (1906-2003), long the most powerful politician in King County, contended for control of the courthouse until he lost the 1970 primary to Bayley following a scandal. Assessor Harley Hoppe was a frequent critic who would challenge Spellman in several elections.

The efficient, centralized administration that Spellman introduced strengthened the position of County government in relation to other governments in the region, notably the City of Seattle. Spellman and Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), whose two terms as Mayor of Seattle coincided with Spellman's first two terms as County Executive, did not feud publicly, but the two men had very different styles and contrasting visions for coordinating regional government, a concept that both supported. One successful example of inter-governmental co-operation was the 1974 consolidation of the previously separate County and City jail facilities.

Although Spellman took office just before the "Boeing bust," when massive layoffs at the aerospace giant crippled the regional economy for several years, he succeeded in paying off the nearly seven million dollars in debt inherited from the previous county administration with only minimal increase in the county sales tax. Spellman's sound fiscal management was aided by an increase in federal funding and authorization to move county road taxes to the general fund.

Building the Dome

The centerpiece of Spellman's administration, and the project with which he was most identified, was construction of the Kingdome, the innovative, multi-purpose domed stadium that was instrumental in bringing professional football and baseball teams to Seattle. Voters approved $40 million in bonds for the county stadium in the 1968 Forward Thrust election before Spellman became Executive, but he guided the controversial process of siting and building the dome.

The State Stadium Committee initially recommended building the stadium at Seattle Center, but this proposal generated vehement opposition and was rejected by voters in a 1970 ballot initiative. With Spellman's support, the King Street site south of Pioneer Square was eventually chosen, but not before civic gadfly Frank Ruano (1920-2005) spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to recall Spellman from office over alleged mismanagement of the issue. Not everyone was pleased with the site selection. International District activists, who feared the stadium and its traffic would destroy their neighborhood, briefly occupied Spellman's office and protested the November 1972 groundbreaking ceremony.

Controversy and setbacks continued through the construction process. The first contractor, the Donald Drake Construction Co., fell far behind schedule and eventually walked off the site as a result of disputes with the County over contract extensions and responsibility for delays. Spellman responded by firing the company and getting a new contractor -- Peter Kiewit and Sons Co. -- on the job within two weeks. He also arranged for a $13.5 million loan from a consortium of local banks to cover cost overruns and allow completion of construction.

The Kingdome opened in May 1976 and soon became home to two new professional sports franchises, the baseball Mariners and football Seahawks. Following the opening, Spellman pursued a lawsuit, which many felt was unwinnable, against the Drake Company. Before he left the Executive's office, the County won a $12.8 million settlement that helped pay off the Kingdome bonds.

Election Campaigns

Although he ultimately served nearly 12 years as Executive, Spellman began eyeing the governor's mansion soon after winning the County post. He considered a gubernatorial run in 1972 until Governor Evans announced that he would seek an unprecedented third consecutive term. Instead, in 1973 Spellman won a second term as Executive, defeating Democrat Mike Lowry (1939-2017), who was making his first try for elective office.

With Evans stepping aside in 1976, Spellman won the Republican nomination for governor over his County rival Harley Hoppe, but lost the office to conservative Democrat Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), who had narrowly beaten Seattle Mayor Uhlman in the primary. Shortly after his gubernatorial defeat, Spellman said he would not run for a third term as Executive, but he soon changed his mind. He faced two opponents in the 1977 Executive race -- Democrat Aubrey Davis and Hoppe, who entered the race as an independent. Speculation at the time suggested that Governor Ray, who saw Spellman as a likely rival in 1980, encouraged Hoppe to enter the race. If so, the move may have backfired: Hoppe split the opposition vote with Davis and Spellman won easily.

Despite the number of campaigns he waged, for Spellman elections were just a means, not an end. Describing his priorities, he explained in a recent interview, "It was my job, not just getting elected" (Chesley interview).

Managing Growth

Land use and controlling explosive growth in rural and suburban areas were the dominant issues of Spellman's final years as Executive. The development boom that began with the end of the Boeing bust around 1974 brought the issue to the fore by straining government services and transforming landscapes across the county.

Rural and suburban residents who had previously welcomed or given little thought to new home and road construction now began to oppose them. Liberal Democrat Mike Lowry won election to the County Council seat representing Mercer Island, Bellevue, and Issaquah, demonstrating, as Lowry noted, that middle-class, suburban Republican voters would support a Democrat who promised tougher land-use controls.

Following his 1976 defeat in the governor's race, Spellman took on land use as his major issue, declaring a need to accommodate and manage growth and hiring new, young administrators to implement stronger development regulations. Commentators and rival politicians noted that this marked a considerable departure from the Executive's prior positions, although most recognized his sincerity. On more than one occasion Spellman surprised the County Council by using his veto power to halt development proposals.

One of Spellman's major land-use initiatives was a Farmland Preservation bond that provided money for the County to buy development rights to agricultural land in order to preserve farms and open space. After two unsuccessful attempts, voters approved a $50 million bond issue in November 1979.

Governor Spellman

When Spellman sought the governorship again in 1980, he took aim at Governor Ray's controversial and erratic performance. He edged Burlington legislator Duane Berentson (1928-2013), co-speaker of the House of Representatives, for the Republican nomination only to find he was not facing Ray in the general election. State Senator Jim McDermott (b. 1936) ousted the incumbent, forcing Spellman to change targets. Spellman did so with an aggressive attack, labeling McDermott a "liberal Seattle psychiatrist" and pulling a waffle from his pocket during a televised debate to illustrate his opponent's change of positions. Spellman also pledged that, unlike McDermott, he would not raise taxes. Buoyed by the Reagan landslide, Spellman won easily, but soon found the waffle image turned against him, as the difficult economic conditions forced him to break his no-tax pledge.

As at the county, Spellman appointed able administrators, restoring order and efficiency to state government after the disorganization of the Ray years. However, in the State Legislature he faced a far more assertive and fractious legislative body than the fairly compliant County Council, and he never fully gained legislative leadership. For the first time in 48 years the Republicans had a majority in both chambers, with a sizeable advantage in the House and a one-vote margin in the Senate (thanks to a party switch by Sen. Peter von Reichbauer). However, disagreements among Republicans gave Senate Democrats a veto over significant legislation, forcing Spellman to attempt to mediate a three-way struggle.

Budget Shortfall

The legislative wrangling was greatly exacerbated by a deepening economic crisis that required increasingly painful budget cuts and tax increases -- and increasingly bitter disputes over which should take precedence -- in order to balance the budget. Spellman resisted pressure from the conservative wing of his party to rely primarily on budget cuts. Ultimately, a combination of cuts, tax increases, a new state lottery, and an improving economy turned the budget deficit into a surplus, but the difficult and protracted process took its toll on Republican legislators -- who lost control of the Legislature in the 1982 midterm election -- and on Spellman.

Despite the budget problems, Spellman managed a number of achievements as governor. He helped ease prison crowding, boosted trade -- especially with China and Japan, where he undertook a number of trade missions -- and tourism, and like Republican predecessor Dan Evans (and unlike Democrat Ray, a dogged proponent of nuclear power and oil supertankers), supported environmental protections.

As County Executive, Spellman had increased public housing and as governor he gained the support of private lenders, who had long opposed the effort, for a State Housing Finance Commission that has helped finance 105,000 affordable housing units. In both positions, Spellman was a consistent advocate for civil rights, supporting open housing and enterprise programs for minority and women businesses.

Spellman had a relatively rare opportunity to appoint a United States Senator when Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson (1912-1983) died suddenly in September 1983, less than a year after winning his sixth Senate term. Over the strenuous objection of Democrats who argued that since Jackson was a Democrat his successor should also be, Spellman tapped former governor Dan Evans for the post. Voters confirmed the choice in that November's election, when Evans defeated Mike Lowry, then a U.S. Representative, for the remainder of Jackson's term.

Private Practice

Spellman had less success in his own re-election bid the following year. Unable to overcome the negative impact of the budget crises, he lost the 1984 election to Democratic Pierce County Executive Booth Gardner (b. 1936) despite another Reagan landslide.

Soon after leaving office, Spellman joined the Seattle law firm of Carney, Stephenson, Badley, Smith & Mueller, now known as Carney Badley Spellman. In 1990, Spellman became the first former governor to run for a seat on the Washington Supreme Court when he challenged incumbent Justice Richard Guy. To the surprise of many, Guy won, and Spellman remained with his law firm, where he practiced business, municipal, and administrative law. He was still actively practicing in his mid-80s, and continued weekly visits to the office up to the year he turned 90.

John Spellman died on January 15, 2018, at the age of 91.


George W. Scott, A Majority of One: Legislative Life (Seattle: Civitas Press, 2002), 95-114; Duff Wilson, "John Spellman: The Voice of Sweet Inevitability," Argus, July 2, 1976, pp. 3, 8; Dan Seligman, "John Spellman's New Incarnation as a Land Use Activist," Ibid., September 30, 1977, pp. 1, 4-5; Dan Coughlin, "Spellman Leaving an Indelible Mark," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 4, 1981, p. A-6; Lyle Burt, "Wallace Points to Record; Spellman Raps Courthouse Project," The Seattle Times, October 26, 1966, p. 22; William Gough, "John Spellman Enters County-Executive Race," Ibid., December 10, 1968, p. 16; Gough, "County to Tap Stadium Loan," Ibid., September 15, 1975, p. A-8; "County Jobs to Get New Titles," Ibid., December 9, 1970, p. A-10; Polly Lane, "Change Orders Granted to Stadium Builder," Ibid., November 13, 1974, p. C-8; Dean Katz, "Spellman Favors 2-Term Limit But May Run for Third," Ibid., November 5, 1976, p. B-3; Katz, "Spellman to Run Again," Ibid., February 24, 1977, p. A-14; Richard Larsen, "A Push for Hoppe That Backfired?" Ibid., November 2, 1977, p. A-14; Larsen, "Spellman: Aggressive Tactics, ‘Tavern Vote' May Make It His Year," Ibid., November 2, 1980, p. C-3; Alex MacLeod, "Spellman: New Interest In Old Job," Ibid., November 6, 1977, p. A-24; Sally Temple, "Spellman's Veto of Rezone Flusters Council," Ibid., April 23, 1978, p. A-8; Lansing Jones, "Spellman Joining Seattle Law Firm," Ibid., March 4, 1985, p. D-1; Carlton Smith, "Disappointed Spellman Won't Try Again," Ibid., September 20, 1990, p. A-4; Mary Hurd Savela, "The King County Seesaw of Power" (master's thesis, Seattle University, May 10, 1979) (copy in collection of Seattle Public Library); "Friend of Housing Award Winners for 2004," Washington State Housing Finance Commission website accessed February 14, 2006 (http://www.wshfc.org/Newsletter/Oct2004/FOH.htm); "John D. Spellman," Carney Badley Spellman website accessed January 27, 2006 (http://www.carneylaw.com/attorneys/getProfile.asp?attorney_id=97); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "John Spellman: King County Politics in the Sixties, Seventies and Beyond" (interview by Heather MacIntosh), "Kingdome: The Controversial Birth of a Seattle Icon (1959-1976)" (by Heather MacIntosh), and "King County voters approve a $50 million Farmland Preservation bond on November 6, 1979" (by Alyssa Burrows), http://www.historylink.org (accessed February 8, 2006); Frank Chesley interviews with John Spellman and Steve Excell, February 24, 2006; Jack Broom and Jim Brunner, "Former Washington Governor, King County Executive John Spellman Dies," The Seattle Times, January 16, 2018 (www.seattletimes.com/).
Note: This essay was updated on July 10, 2013, and on January 16, 2018.

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