Gordon Clinton, Mayor of Seattle 1956-1964

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 3/30/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7697

On March 30, 2004, HistoryLink Executive Director Walt Crowley (1947-2007) interviewed Gordon Clinton (1920-2011), who served as Seattle's mayor from 1956 to 1964. This was during a pivotal period in the region's history: Metro was formed to clean up water pollution; Seattle became one of the first cities to join President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Sister Cities Program; the Space Needle and Monorail were constructed; and the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair took place.

Gordon Clinton

I was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. My father was a railroad brakeman and he served on the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways. He and his family, the Clintons, had come out from Tennessee and five, six generations back, from New York. My five-times great grandfather was DeWitt Clinton, Governor of New York, builder of the Erie Canal. Founder of public education in the state of New York. Very influential and from what we know, a very fine individual.

My father was born in Tennessee and came out to Oregon and Washington. During the First World War, toward the end of it, he was in some exchange operation with the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He found his way up to Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and met my mother who was singing in the church choir. Subsequently they married. I had an older brother and I was born April 13, 1920.

He was always an American citizen and he came down with my mother in 1922 into Seattle. I had an older brother and two sisters and a younger brother. My mother had some problems develop during the Depression and my father became involved with a drinking problem. That sort of left us all in a lurch. He died when I was about 11 or 12.

My mother was able to get us into the Theodora Home, which was run by the Volunteers of America. It was the home for mothers and children. We lived there for a period of time and my mother worked. We lived there, four kids and my mother. I went to Bryant School and Roosevelt High School and later to the University of Washington. I took a degree in Political Science with honor. I went to law school and graduated with a J.D. from the University of Washington.

Tradition of Service

I went to work for the FBI while I was still in law school. After I got a degree I was sent back to Washington, D.C., and received an appointment as an FBI Agent and served in Washington Field Office, Richmond, Virginia, and then in Louisville, Kentucky. At that time, being of the right age, I was granted a leave of absence and went into the service.

I went into the Navy and went to boot camp and received a commission in the Navy as an ensign. In 1943, I went back to Harvard, Finance and Business School, finished from that. I went down and joined a ship in California the U.S.S. General Stuart Heintzelman (AP-159). It was an attack transport. We carried 3,500 troops and 500 ship's company. We made four trips across the Pacific and were the first ship into Tokyo Bay after the surrender. We carried MacArthur's headquarters from Manila to Tokyo. There was no particular fighting, we just went to Japan and the Philippine Islands.

Then I was released from active service and my wife Florence [Vaghinger] -- her father was a businessman in West Seattle -- we married December 19, 1942. It will be 62 years this December. She is a very brave gal to put up with me. We met at a church camp at Epworth Heights for Methodist kids from Seattle, Tacoma, Auburn, and the area. I was with the First Methodist Church and she was from Tibbets Methodist Church in West Seattle. After I got back from the service I worked for the Prosecuting Attorney's Office in King County, Lloyd Shorrett was then the Prosecuting Attorney. I worked in the afternoons and went to law school in the morning. I had some finishing up to do before I took the bar in 1947. I became a Deputy Prosecutor and served for two years. In 1949 and 50, I practiced law in the Hogue Building. All we did is practice, but some pretty fine people there.

City Politics

In 1953, the City Council had a public meeting on some alleged irregularities in the operation of City government in three particulars. I did that and had a public hearing supported by the Municipal League, which covered the whole thing. There were three things they were concerned about. One was the operation of the watershed, the Green River. The Building Department, and the identity of sponsors of political advertising. The City later passed an ordinance to fix your name to political advertisements.

Two years later, in 1955, I ran for mayor. At that time as a part of my campaign we had "A Hundred Young Men for Clinton." That was let by Will Pasco and Joel Pritchard and Frank Pritchard and Wally McGovern, Paul Motz.

The Municipal League was not necessarily part of my power base, but I was active in that. I did a lot of work in the community in Scouts and YMCA and the Council of Churches, I was secretary and legal counsel for the Council of Churches. I did this special thing that they called me to handle for the City.

I ran against Allan Pomeroy, a good guy, a fine fellow. One of the best compliments I ever got what when, after his death, his wife called me and asked me to present their son with his Eagle Scout rank. I had known Allan Pomeroy when he was with the United States Attorney's Office. He could have done a more proactive job, he did an able political job, but he may have spent too much time playing poker. He was an Assistant United States Attorney when he ran for mayor and he had a lot of people support him, but I had these Hundred Young Men that were the thrust of my activity. I had a wonderful young man as my campaign chairman, Mike Dederer. Bill Devin appointed me and I served four years as an acting Police Judge in the Municipal Court and Traffic Court, when I was 29 years old. That was the only position I had, other than in the community.

World's Fair

There was a lot of thought that went into the location of the Center. One of the compelling things was at time was it was relatively flat. Together with the fact that it was very accessible to the town and transportation facilities.

My concern was mostly that buildings were being constructed and the involvement with the Space Needle and the other problems that would develop in and around the city. About that time they were starting to make noises about another bridge, 520. In 1956, the Highway Act was signed by President Eisenhower and that opened up a number of things throughout the nation. We participated in part of that. We later tied in that bridge with that operation, I-5.


I knew about Alweg, the Swiss firm, but the Engineering Department did the negotiating for the Monorail going a mile and two-tenths down Fifth Avenue. Even at that time there was a hope, looking ahead, that it might be projected out to the airport. There were a number of people that felt that should be the case. That would be a natural extension. Something first of all to be added to the Seattle Center. Afterwards, what do you do with it? In the City, we planned for a staged development. First of all you'd have a civic auditorium, what was the old civic auditorium, which we had a $10 million bond issue. I came in on it. We built that opera house and complex. We got the State to come along with the Pavilion. We worked an arrangement with them where they would turn it over to the City and we would put in seats and so forth.

The thought came up have we reached the point with population to justify and go to the people and so forth. I was not involved with that. I was concerned about parking. I tried to get the City to, through Irv Smith -- he was vice president of Continental and head of the Chamber of Commerce, very fine citizen -- he felt that around the Seattle Center we should make adequate provision for parking. The City did not follow through on that. The council didn't see fit to follow through with that as a priority.

Jim Ellis felt, quite properly, that there should be a park-like concept over the freeway. He worked hard for that. I felt that there should be a lane in the very center for rail or buses. Our friend Mr. Bugge, the State Highway Director felt that would impede or slow down what we were doing.

Sister Cities

At the same time, Senator Magnuson and Jackson and the others were working with the Federal Government to come up with a Federal Building complex. I had the privilege to go with former Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, President of Rotary, YMCA, a very distinguished businessman, Walter Williams back to Washington, D.C. We met with President Eisenhower through Sherman Adams his personal secretary. That was probably in 1958. We extended the invitation and asked him to contact 200 countries of the world and invite them to participate and be a part of the whole emerging Century 21 Exposition. It then became the World's Fair. It opened April 21st, my youngest daughter's birthday, 1962. President Eisenhower came out to push the button, to start the countdown.

The scripture says that you cannot be proud of anything except the Lord Jesus. I put things in perspective. It is the way we have established the Sister City Program that started off and there are now some 800 or 900 cities throughout the world that are in 80 different countries that are involved in this thing. In our own bumbling way, perhaps, we tried to establish things and one instance in my word when Florence and I went to kick off part of the program for sister cities, the Mayor of Kobe designated a junior college student to be our interpreter and driver. This girl, Motoko, subsequently graduated from Kobe College and got a master's degree and then taught. Her husband was a physicist. They had four children and their oldest son is now part of their foreign office in Japan.

[The Port of Seattle], through its very competent commissioners, most of whom [have] retired by now of course, had a sense that what was needed was to be forward-looking in their approach. For example, they stuck their necks out and put in the large cranes as a prelude to the containerization that was coming, they had seen coming. Which resulted later in Seattle becoming one of the principal ports. And that all tied in with our sister city Kobe. Which I was pleased to be a part of.

After President Eisenhower contacted the mayors of the various cities in 1956. He called together a number of mayors and felt that he didn't want to be known only as a man of war. He wanted peace. By contacting people on an individual basis, people to people, person to person, you could develop a rapport, it would be of importance. We said to the President and his people, where do you think we could be of help in this thing. He said the Pacific, because where you are. We are thinking specifically of Kobe.

This is one of the things I take the greatest pleasure in. Bill Evans knew Mayor Haraguchi of Kobe. He set up the prelude that led to the trade fair, one of these things that came along as a result of Bill's foresight. I tried to pick up and carry along what he did. We set up the Sister City Program with impetus from President Eisenhower and the Sister Cities International, which board I served on for 20 to 25 years.

I saw big changes in development with the Port and helping, good people that pioneered and pushed the thing along who had the foresight to see how things could be handled. There weren't any strikes, there wasn't any disorder, or anything funny happening. The people of the city of Seattle acquired confidence in the members of the Port Commission and had trust in them. So that as they stuck their necks out and put money into these big gantries [gantry cranes]. They supported it. They had the best interests in the city involved.

One was a labor man, Merle Adlum. Ray Siefeld was very active in that. Some of these other fellows on the board, the commission ... They were excellent in their approach and how they handled it. I had no particular content with Dave Beck except that on the Maritime Commission that Mr. Pomeroy set up. I kept on going because I thought it was a very worthwhile thing. I've met consistently with members of the Maritime Commission and settled problems. For a number of years, there never was a strike. They worked together.

Good Government

I appointed the first Human Rights Commission. I got Rabbi Raphael Levine to go on that and some other people as well. The only disappointment I had was that I asked one man, a very influential president of a big facility, a bank or something, to serve as a member of the commission and he said, "No, I don't think I can get the approval of my board for that." Well I knew that was a misstatement because he had the controlling interest in the stock. He just didn't want to become involved.

On the other hand, to show you how people didn't participate, when it came to trying to come up with an up-to-date comprehensive plan for the city of Seattle, which would involve how we affect Harbor Island, I asked the head of Fisher Flouring Mill, John Lock, to serve as a member of the planning commission. I knew him at church. I said what we'll need on that commission would be people who had all points of view. We needed industry, the homeowners, transportation people. All to get a good look or analysis for the best way to develop and to come up with a plan. Bless his heart, John Lock said, "You've decided that you will be our mayor. The least I can do is try to help." He served as a very effective member for over six years on the planning commission. Cal McCune was one of my guys and he represented the University District. Good citizen I should say.

Wing Luke graduated from Roosevelt High School, very fine gentleman. Was a good councilman. He represented the best interests of what a councilman could do and be. He was of a different political party than I basically am, but not the way I acted because I acted on a nonpartisan basis as mayor. My Democratic friends said I appointed too many Republicans. My Republican friends said I appointed too many Democrats. So I did it just right.

Wing Luke was a very able man, a nice guy to work with. A real tragedy that he was lost [in a plane crash]. He was a big advocate of open housing. The referendum first came up and it was defeated. The city of Seattle did not pass it even though I went to members of the Council and others and said that my feeling is that a lot of the churches and the people would support this. But as it turned out, didn't do it on the first time around. After I was out, Dorm Braman was in, who was against it in the first place, it was passed. I campaigned for the referendum. The first time it came out, Mrs. Edwards and Floyd Miller and I were the only three that supported the concept. I felt that no one should be discriminated [against] in living anywhere because of their color. That would be a basic fundamental proposition in this country. Where a man lives should depend on what money he has, what he's able to do, and what he can afford. But he shouldn't be precluded from going anywhere. The city was against this, but the next time around, after I was out, we at least got everyone thinking about it again, they pushed it through then.

[Regarding police corruption] I knew and understood what was happening. Not known to the public, I personally arranged for an investigation into the operation of our police department. Over and above, I made a report to [Police Chief] Frank Ramon. I had confidence in him and the other men there. I appointed Frank after Jim Lawrence stepped down. I've known Frank since he was a sergeant in the office of George Eastman.

The sequence is in December of the time of the Fair [1962] I got back, in my own independent view, the information that there were problems. I testified [later] before the grand jury about my knowledge. I don't know if I mentioned this investigation that we paid for out of the Mayor's Fund. Mrs. Esther Searing who was my executive secretary, the widow of a judge -- she and I and the people that handled the investigation were the only ones who knew the sequence involved ... because it was paid for out of the Mayor's Investigative Fund. From what I knew was happening, I cut off a [particular internal police] procedure [that allowed the gambling and other vice to go on], but my friend Dorm Braman [succeeding mayor] didn't think that was too good an idea. So he changed it, allowed it [the procedure] to drop back two or three years later. After I was out. They sort of eased off and didn't regard it as serious. Couldn't maybe see what the effect of some of this activity would result in. With my experience as a deputy prosecuting attorney and as municipal judge and [after working in] the FBI and as mayor there were some things that really concerned and bothered me.

Our [recent] City Council [has been] rather obtuse for not seeing what would happen if you allowed yourself to get in the position that someone did something for you and expected something back. Which may or may not be in the best interest of the city. We almost lost our fine newspaper man on the council, Jim Compton. They didn't realize what members of the Council could have found out if they had inquired. Even now 30 years, 40 years later, the family that was identified with the initial report as to the reasons for doing what we did [tolerating gambling and other vice], Colacurcio, are still in the news.


Jim Ellis was the guy who tried to get my predecessor to maybe do something [on the water pollution problem in Lake Washington]. It wasn't until Jim came to me and we felt we should do two things, get together a group of people who should support the concept of getting the state legislature to pass enabling legislation that would be needed in all events. Second, to appoint a committee that would be representative of both inside Seattle and the 13 taxing districts that would become the metropolitan concept.

When the question came up, we said to Jim, would you be chairman of this thing? No, he said, I think Carey Dunworth should do that. I'll help out and be legal counsel. And that's the way it worked out. Carey did a very statesman like job and there are a number of people joined together. Pennington from Bothell and Renton helped us. Kirkland. We didn't go beyond, up into Edmonds. The big key was to not only get it approved by the city of Seattle, but by the area outside. Initially, we appointed someone to help on the basic Metro. When that didn't go over, we sensed that it was the outside of Seattle that needed it. We got the medical society doctor to chair a committee that would work on this.

Then we worked on what was emerging as a problem, [which] was, what do you do about these cities that had installed sewage systems? How do you gear that in to what you are trying to do [in terms of sewage processing] on behalf of all? It turned out ... we suggested, and it came out, we will have the total concept [of Metro] pick up and retire all the obligations. That was the key.

Madeline Lemire was such a dear working with us on Metro. She was a psychiatrist and League of Women Voters. She and others were such an integral part of my operation, which I recognized. Helped us with a Booze Allen and Hamilton report that we got out. In the sister city and Human Rights Commission, women were inescapably involved and I wanted them to be involved. They had such a contribution that they could make. Men needed to and did accept a number of these things that came along from women. They still haven't gotten quite to the point that we'll do exactly what women want. I told my wife, that isn't going to happen.


After I left the Mayor's Office I practiced law. I had my own law firm. Jim Anderson was one of my law partners and he later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Don Fleck. He was a singer and a very fine lawyer. He was our operating partner for 40 years. He and I worked together with nothing more than a hand shake. We never had anything in writing. He was the fairest guy you'd every meet. Clinton, Anderson, and Fleck. I was attorney for the Japanese Consulate. For the Philippine Consulate. I did a lot of work for the Korean Consulate. Lot of international work.


Walt Crowley interview with Gordon Clinton, March 30, 2004.

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