Uhlman, Wesley Carl (b. 1935)

  • By Emily Lieb
  • Posted 12/21/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7854

When Wes Uhlman became the mayor of Seattle in 1969, an all-powerful City Council (mostly concerned with the interests of the downtown business establishment) dominated municipal politics. By the time he left office, in 1977, he and his staff had shaped a new city government, led by a strong executive and professional administrators and designed to respond efficiently to the needs of all of Seattle’s citizens. Uhlman ran the city during one of the most tumultuous periods of its history. He was a politician of his times, and the sweeping political and cultural revolutions of the 1960s paved the way for the changes he made. Wes Uhlman left behind a very different city from the one he’d found eight years before.

An Evangelical Outlook

Wesley Carl Uhlman was born in the tiny town of Cashmere, Washington, on March 13, 1935. His parents, both Pentecostal preachers, encouraged their four children to use the lessons their faith taught them to better the secular world. This evangelical upbringing would help shape Uhlman’s reformist political sensibility.

Uhlman began his political career while an undergraduate at the University of Washington, where he served as president of the notoriously upright, politically centrist Young Democrats. After he graduated, he stayed in Seattle with his wife (the former Leila Hammond, one of his college classmates) and returned to the UW for law school. In 1958, as a 23-year-old, third-year student there, he ran a Young-Democrat­–sponsored campaign for the state House of Representatives. His platform -- more money for schools, workers’ rights, and tax reform for the elderly -- had something for everyone in his district -- but few thought he had a chance against incumbent Hartney Oakes in the traditionally Republican district (then the 32nd, now the solidly Democratic 43rd). He even "lost" a bet with other Young Democrats to stand in the election, but he astonished skeptics with a solid victory that made him the youngest member of the State Legislature when he took office in 1959, two months before his 24th birthday.

When he got to Olympia, Uhlman (dubbed “the kid from the U”) continued to develop this passionate but middle-of-the-road brand of liberalism as the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. An astute and skilled politician, he kept his distance from the state’s two major Democratic factions, even after he joined the state Senate in 1966. This apparent independence from machine politics-as-usual endeared him to reform-minded voters who were tired of old-fashioned back-room dealmaking and patronage. Such cronyism seemed particularly unsuited to the unstable political atmosphere of the late 1960s.

The City and the Sixties

The 1960s were an age of urban crisis across the United States, but before Mayor Uhlman took office it seemed that Seattle had managed to escape the worst of it. The city was endangered, to be sure -- highway builders were itching to build a network of “ring roads” that would destroy swaths of residential neighborhoods; a police-payoff scandal was brewing and crime rates were going up; and Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market were scheduled for demolition. Still, it seemed that the city had made it through the chaotic decade mostly unscathed. (One story, possibly apocryphal, sums it up: after taking a tour of Seattle’s poorest, most desperate neighborhoods, urban-crisis expert Edward Banfield is said to have turned to his guide and remarked: “Now, show me your slums.”) In their 1967 application to make the Central Area, the International District, and Pioneer Square part of the fledgling federal Model Cities project -- the linchpin of President Johnson’s War on Poverty -- Seattle’s boosters made it clear that they thought the program could prevent “the crisis situation of the older urban centers.” “If Seattle can’t be saved,” they wrote, “no American city can.”

Nevertheless, city, state, and national politicians were sure that ruin -- maybe not on the scale of catastrophic cities like Newark or Detroit, but ruin just the same -- could be just around the corner. Riots in Seattle's mostly African American Central Area, the rise of a drug-infused counterculture, and antiwar turmoil on the UW campus in 1968 seemed to confirm their fears.

So, civic leaders tried two brand-new, sometimes-contradictory ways to nip Seattle’s crisis in the bud. Programs like Model Cities and a huge city and county capital improvement program dubbed Forward Thrust (1968) changed the way the city functioned by helping regular citizens participate in its day-to-day operations.

Model Cities, for example, sponsored a network of community-run neighborhood centers that controlled the money the federal program dispensed. Forward Thrust financed parks, sewers, fire stations, and other neighborhood improvements that local residents and community groups designed and approved. Both encouraged Seattleites to think bigger -- both about what the city could do and about how much power they had to define its goals and make decisions.

At the same time, though, city government was becoming more centralized. Before 1966, the City Council had controlled the budget, and it had allowed various city commissions and departments to work without much oversight. But that year, state law had given budget-making authority to the mayor’s office. For the first time, the city’s chief executive would be more than a figurehead.

Whoever ran the city in the future would have to find a way to balance these two competing impulses: to disperse the power to preserve and shape the city’s neighborhoods to the people who lived in them, and to centralize authority in the executive. Ultimately, Wes Uhlman found a way to do both.

Becoming Seattle's Mayor

The 1969 mayoral primary put Uhlman in a field crowded with "progressives" such as Lud Kramer (1932-2004), and he was not favored to win. Again, his eclectic platform of civic goodies and a strategic outreach to core constituencies such as the elderly (then an undiscovered voter bloc) and neighborhood activists buoyed his candidacy. The general election pitted Uhlman against Mort Frayn, a printing executive and standard bearer for the Central Association (now Downtown Seattle Association) and downtown business establishment.

Uhlman’s approach reflected the practical political sensibility that had made him such a popular state legislator: He talked about many concerns that liberals shared, including neighborhood preservation, white flight to the suburbs, and mass transit, and yet he also emphasized crime and public safety, the need to support the city’s police department, and “citizen alienation” from municipal politics and politicians. This part of his rhetoric echoed the complaints of many working- and middle-class voters who were, according to one local newspaper, “sick to death of hippies, pampering of the Blacks, [and] paying taxes for welfare.” It was a delicate balance of Great Society and Law & Order rhetoric.

Both liberals and “backlash” voters turned out in droves in neighborhoods like Ballard, Phinney Ridge, and West Seattle, and they won the election for Uhlman. He was 34 years old, the youngest mayor in Seattle’s history, and the city’s first Democratic mayor in nearly 30 years. He had no idea what he was getting into.

"A Very Troubled Time"

Mayor Uhlman took office in December 1969, replacing acting Mayor Floyd Miller (1902-1985) -- the elected incumbent, Dorm Braman (1901-1980), had accepted an appointment by President Richard Nixon to the new federal Department of Transportation. He immediately confronted with a host of unpleasant problems. The City Council thumbed its nose at his first proposal, to subsidize public transit by raising the cost of parking downtown. The city lost its baseball team, the Pilots, to Milwaukee. The police chief resigned amid an expanding police payoff scandal. Demonstrators repeatedly shut down buildings at the UW, clogged downtown streets, packed the courthouse lawn, and (every day for one memorable week in May 1970) occupied the Interstate 5 freeway. Police officers shot an African American Vietnam veteran who had put a bomb in a Central Area real-estate office, and it seemed that Seattle’s most populous black neighborhood might finally come apart at the seams. These concerns led Uhlman to personally block a planned federal raid on the Seattle offices of the Black Panther Party, an action that earned national headlines in February 1970 along with the permanent enmity of the Nixon White House.

Uhlman was also hobbled by an eager but inexperienced staff and a hostile press corps, especially The Seattle Times, which actually dispatched reporter Don Duncan to Spokane to "dig up" the body of a prostitute Uhlman was rumored to have murdered there. Uhlman aide Dave Wood, a leader in the powerful CHECC ("Choose an Effective City Council,") movement active from 1967 to 1977, spawned embarrassing headlines by casually and unofficially suggesting that a "third baby tax" might be needed to help slow world population growth, then a hot issue.

Worst of all, Boeing went bust after Congress cancelled its supersonic transport contract. Uhlman recalled that Boeing president T. A. Wilson (1921-1999) called him to alert him that "significant layoffs" were planned. In fact, nearly 60,000 of that company’s employees -- 60 percent of its local payroll -- and countless others in related industries lost their jobs in 1970. (A popular local joke held that a Boeing optimist brought lunch to work, while a pessimist left the car running in the parking lot.) Laid-off workers flooded the classifieds with house-for-sale ads, and real estate prices plummeted. By the end of the year, the unemployment rate in Seattle was the highest in the United States -- 10.5 percent, more than double the national average -- and experts predicted that soon one-quarter of Seattle’s population would be out of work.

If the city was finally in full-fledged crisis, so was the new mayor. “If somebody else wants [my] job,” he told an interviewer in 1970, “he can have it.”

The New Wes Uhlman

At the end of that first frustrating year, Wes Uhlman virtually disappeared, hunkering in the political bunker. He proposed no new initiatives and held no news conferences. In fact, he rarely left his office. Then, when the mayor resurfaced, he had a new plan: He would save the city by streamlining it and turning the welter of city agencies into an efficient bureaucracy.

First, he set about creating a number of new departments -- he called them “superagencies” -- that would give as much authority as possible to Uhlman and his appointees, mostly enthusiastic young professionals without much civil service experience. He tapped federal funds to create offices of Human Resources and Community Development that consolidated a number of older city agencies into more efficient and assertive bureaucracies with strong social constituencies such as the elderly and neighborhoods. At the same time, these new departments challenged the inefficient, self-interested "hydra-headed monsters" that he said the old city departments had become.

The first new superagency that Uhlman built was an Office of Management and Budget (1971), which could finally take full advantage of the budgetary authority that the Legislature had granted his office five years before. The Office of Management and Budget and its director, the assertive Woody Wilkinson, kept tabs on city departments, checking up on their spending and staff and standardizing their hiring and promotion practices. At the same time, Personnel director Jack Driscoll ran roughshod over civil service and unions to pursue an aggressive affirmative-action program to integrate the city's nearly all-white work force. Uhlman appointed the city government's first African American department heads, Department of Buildings director Al Petty and Fire Chief Claude Harris, and promoted Model Cities director Walt Hundley (1929-2002) to City Budget Director, among other minority advancements and hirings.

Uhlman used federal money to increase the number of available city jobs, which in turn he made available to more Seattleites by pursuing an aggressive affirmative-action and fair-employment policy. (By the end of his second term, minority workers made up 15 percent of the city’s workforce, compared to 7 percent when he took office in 1969.) As a result, many city employees loathed the mayor, something that would come back to haunt him.

Second, Uhlman funded an increase in social services -- he thought the city needed more of these, and better ones, if it was going to find a way out of its predicament -- by luring record amounts of federal money to Seattle. In 1971, he added a long list of neighborhoods to the original Model Cities area. He eventually used that program’s funds to built a controversial network of Community Service Centers, known as Little City Halls, that hired laid-off Boeing workers to provide drop-in employment counseling and social-service outreach to people in troubled neighborhoods. He spent enormous amounts of time traveling -- to Washington, to New York, to meetings with other mayors -- and these efforts drew massive contributions to the city.

A third tenet of the Uhlman plan was expanding citizen participation in the day-to-day functions of city government. Besides the Little City Halls, he created countless planning agencies that relied on citizen involvement: historical commissions, arts commissions, policy boards, a Seattle 2000 Commission that defined goals for the city’s future, the Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority and the Landmarks Preservation Board, and commissions on the status of women and minorities. He took these bodies seriously and listened to the recommendations they made; even more important, though, he made many Seattleites feel like their city would persevere because of the contributions they had made. More people than ever before had a share in the city’s triumph.

Uhlman was also an active regionalist. He supported strong growth management and transportation planning for the metropolitan area through the Puget Sound Council of Governments. As ultimate head of a city bus service headed for bankruptcy, he teamed with County Executive John Spellman (1926-2018) to persuade the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, or "Metro," a water quality utility, to try again to win authority for a county-wide bus system (its Forward Thrust rail plans had failed in 1968 and 1970). Voters approved Metro Transit in September 1972, and Mayor Uhlman personally persuaded the managers of the new system to establish a "ride-free zone" in downtown Seattle.

Surviving the Recall

These sweeping changes earned Uhlman plenty of enemies. Even after he’d barely survived a strong challenge from City Councilman Liem Tuai in the 1973 re-election campaign, he kept on trying to remake the city, adding an Office of Policy Planning (1974) to the roster of municipal superagencies and reorganizing the city’s job-classification system so that it would be even more accessible to women and minority workers. Still, all the bad blood in the civil service corps was bound to come to a boil, and in 1974 it did.

That year, city workers who believed his efficiency drive had come at their expense launched a campaign to recall the mayor from office. Uhlman’s opponents had plenty of explanations for their vitriol: for example, they accused Budget Director Hundley of incompetence. (These charges proved mostly spurious, and may have been motivated by racism and resentment of Hundley’s aggressive management style.)

The leaders of the recall effort also opposed the mayor’s dismissal of popular long-time fire chief Jack Richards. Most of all, they were outraged by his refusal to fire the controversial superintendent of Seattle City Light, Gordon Vickery (1920-1996). Vickery had been the fire chief himself until Uhlman hired him to rid the utility of, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “nepotism, favoritism, wasted motion, and goofing off.” In just a year on the job, he had fired or dismissed hundreds of employees, had others prosecuted for theft, and changed City Light’s staffing policies to make sure more women and minorities (and fewer inept relatives) were hired and promoted. Not surprisingly, Vickery’s employees hated him. They went on an 11-day wildcat strike in 1974 to protest his management, and when that failed they went after Uhlman. Then the firefighters’ union, upset over Richards’s dismissal, joined the recall campaign, and they were followed by thousands of other city workers and dissatisfied citizens. In the end, on July 1, 1975, the initiative was defeated by a wide margin, mostly because the downtown establishment -- not exactly Uhlman’s base -- finally found it easier to support the mayor than to ally with his union antagonists.

After the recall election, Uhlman developed a new, more compelling political persona, guided in large part by Deputy Mayor Robert Gogerty. He no longer seemed like just a smooth-talking politician or a wishy-washy liberal; now, he was a hard-nosed, commanding executive who made unpopular choices and took on powerful interest groups for the good of the city he loved.

In 1976, Uhlman decided to run for governor of Washington, but he ran afoul of the powerful Washington Education Association (WEA), the state teachers union, when he withdrew support of its proposed corporate income tax plan and curried favor with business interests. The WEA fielded environmentalist Marvin Durning (1929-2013), creating a three-way primary fight with popular, if quirky, Pacific Science Director Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994). Uhlman lost by a whisker to Ray, who went on to defeat King County Executive John Spellman and win the election. When he left the mayor’s office the next year, Uhlman publicly closed his political career.

Uhlman and his first wife divorced soon after he left office and he later married former King County Deputy Executive Carolyn Purnell. While he focused his energies on his law practice and a lucrative career in housing and real-estate development in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, he continued to dabble in politics. With his accustomed eclecticism -- a social liberal and economic conservative -- he campaigned in 1978 against repeal of Seattle's civil-rights protections for gays and lesbians and later opposed expanded legal rights for renters. He headed the Seattle-King County Apartment Owners Association and the Association of Washington Business. As of 2006, he maintained a home on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill and an office near Seattle Center.


“City’s 50 Mayors Range from Leaders to Losers,”  The Seattle Times, September 16, 2001; “Uhlman Ready and Willing for the Governor’s Mansion,”  Argus, December 19, 1975;  “Mayor Wes Uhlman -- Four More Years,”  Argus, May 18, 1973; “Royermania,”  The Weekly, January 11–17, 1978; “Why Wes Lost,”  The Weekly, October 6–12, 1976; “You’ve Come a Long Way, Wes,”  Seattle Magazine, December 1970; Walt Crowley and Emily Lieb interview with Wes Uhlman, September 19, 2006, Seattle, Washington;  “The Best and the Brightest in the Uhlman Administration,” The Weekly, April 27–May 3, 1973; Michael Eagan Jr.,  Seattle: Renaissance of America’s Most Livable City (1978); “Why Uhlman Must Go,” Argus, June 13, 1975; “The Lindsay of the West;” City, October/November 1970; Raphael H. Levine and Anne Barlow, Rabbi Raphael Levine’s Profiles in Service: Stories of People Who Help People (Seattle: Evergreen Publishing, 1985); “A Candid Interview with Wes Uhlman.”  View Northwest, September 1975; “Liberals vs. Establishment in City Finals,” Argus, September 19, 1969; “Mayor Uhlman’s Future,”  Argus, July 11, 1975; “Mayoralty Candidates Outline Goals for Argus Readers,” Argus, September 5, 1969; "'Toughest Job in Town' Seems Attractive -- Mayoral Hopefuls May 'Cut Each Other Up,'" Argus, July 25, 1969; former Uhlman aide Walt Crowley provided supplemental commentary.
Note: This essay was corrected on August 25, 2009, and updated on October 27, 2013.

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