CHECC: Its role in the transformation of Seattle, 1967-1978, Part 2

  • By Peter LeSourd
  • Posted 4/30/2007
  • Essay 8144

A broad-based citizen-activist movement spearheaded the numerous political and social changes that took place in Seattle during the 1960s and 1970s. Although many organizations participated, this account (updated in February 2009) focuses on the role played by one of them -- Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC). It was written by CHECC participant Peter LeSourd. This is Part 2 of a two-part essay.

Choose An Effective City Council -- CHECC, Part 2

Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) was an ad hoc, youthful, bipartisan political action group operating by consensus that became the campaign vehicle for injecting new blood into the Seattle City Council between 1967 and 1973. In the opinion of The Seattle Times, stated in a December 26, 1993, editorial, "... Much of what Seattleites most love about their city today can be traced, directly or indirectly, to that quiet revolution. CHECC-backed politicians helped preserve the market and urban neighborhoods. They pushed for open meetings, campaign-finance reform, licensing reform and much more. They helped transform a sleepy company town into a city known for its livability."

That was an uncharacteristic bit of overstatement by that newspaper about the breadth of the role played by "CHECC-backed [i.e., -endorsed] politicians." However, it does highlight the fact that major decisions were made from 1968 through the 1970s that had a positive effect on the city.  

Between 1967 and 1973, the Seattle city government was completely transformed. All nine City Council members were new since 1967 and the city's mayor became the youngest in its history. The structure of city government was changed by charter amendment and legislation from a "weak-mayor, strong-council" form to one in which the mayor had much greater authority, including the budget power. 

During that period, city officials had to deal with the turmoil of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. In 1967, racial protests in Seattle over school segregation, employment discrimination, and other matters created an atmosphere in the city that led Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans to involve himself personally in negotiations to defuse the tension. Beginning in the fall of 1969, a severe economic recession gripped the region. 

The contentious and emotional issue of "open housing," prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race in the sale of private residences, provides a dramatic example of a new attitude at City Hall. In 1963 the City Council majority refused to adopt such a law. Instead, they referred a proposed ordinance to the voters, who turned it down by a two-to-one margin. In the spring of 1968, six council members introduced another proposed open housing ordinance. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. A unanimous council passed the ordinance on April 19.

Wes Uhlman took office in December 1969 as Seattle's youngest mayor, serving two often-controversial terms. In race relations and youth protest matters, he proved to have an intuitive understanding of how to respond to the protesters and the courage to take positions that were highly controversial within the traditional community power structure. For example, in the aftermath of the May 4, 1970, killing of student anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University, Uhlman prevailed upon authorities to shut down the I-5 freeway express lanes on May 8 to allow a massive protest of an estimated 15,000 students to march from the University of Washington to the downtown federal courthouse. The majority of the council members generally supported his positions and initiatives in these matters, and were themselves active in seeking solutions.

Employment of minorities was another problem area. According to University of Washington history professor Quintard Taylor, the mid-'60s economic boom generated in the Seattle area by the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company's expansion did not substantially benefit the black community, which faced racial discrimination in employment. Unemployment there in 1967 still was three times the overall rate for the city. This was one of the issues that created the tense racial situation in Seattle that summer, which led to Governor Evans's involvement, and inflamed tensions again in 1968. 

However, by the mid-1970s, progress was being made in bringing more minority students into the University of Washington, and in opening up economic opportunity for minorities and women. This occurred in municipal employment, union hiring halls, and private businesses, and in promoting minority-owned business. Many people played a role in these successes: City Council members; Mayor Dorm Braman and Ed Devine, his deputy; Mayor Uhlman; UW President Charles Odegaard; and other civic and business leaders and organizations. Thus, the dramatic racial and anti-Vietnam War tensions that convulsed the country during this period were present in Seattle but, overall, more successfully handled by its governmental and organizational leaders than in many other cities.

Those issues were not the only serious ones facing city government during this period. Boeing began slashing its employment in the fall of 1969, and in 18 months its workforce in Washington state shrank from more than 100,000 to less than 40,000. Seattle's unemployment rate soared to 12 percent, the worst to that time in any major American city since the Great Depression. This resulted in the humorous/infamous billboard, "Will the last person leaving SEATTLE--turn out the lights."  

The federal government established its "Model Cities Program" at the end of 1967 and the federal "revenue sharing" programs in 1972, from which millions of federal dollars flowed to the city. The mayor and council had to sort out how to use these funds most effectively and creatively, which led to ultimately productive "give and take" between them.

Even more importantly, highly skilled but laid-off Boeing employees did not "turn out the lights." They stayed around and began developing new businesses. Additional millions of federal defense and research dollars flowed into area businesses and institutions during the 1970s, and since the 1960s the commissioners of the Port of Seattle had been pursuing an aggressive and successful modernization program. The region's economy eventually recovered from the Boeing recession, and the Puget Sound area grew into an international center of business, research, culture, medicine, and technology.

The city also grappled with how to solve its urgent transportation problems while at the same time preserving its "soul" and "quality of life." These issues played out in the context of controversies such as the proposed R. H. Thompson and Bay Freeways, "Forward Thrust" rapid-transit projects, and the Pike Place Market redevelopment proposal, all of which were defeated.

After Uhlman became mayor, there was the sort of tug-of-war between him and the City Council that one would expect, especially since he was the first mayor elected after the city budget process was moved from the chair of the council finance committee to the mayor along with other changes that also strengthened the mayor's power.

In 2006-2007 the author [Peter LeSourd] interviewed various participants in this history. Phyllis Lamphere, who was elected to the council in 1967, said that by the time Bruce Chapman and John Miller were elected in 1971, all the council members "worked very well together" and Uhlman "responded positively." However, the unsurprising fact is that relationships among the elected officials got testy at times. In those interviews, various members of city government during this period used terms such as "undependable," "negative," "prickly," "partisan," "not collegial," "opinionated" and "played things close to his vest," to describe some of those officials.  

Chapman asserted, "Uhlman discovered that Miller and I were more progressive than he and had supporters who were important to him." Tim Hill, who was elected in 1967, agreed that most of the council members were "creative, progressive people," but alleged that George Cooley, Wayne Larkin, and sometimes Jeanette Williams (1914-2008), who were elected in 1969, formed a "new old guard." However, this characterization of Williams can be challenged by the fact that she was committed to human rights and women's rights causes. Lem Howell, Cooley's unsuccessful proponent in CHECC for his endorsement in 1967, ruefully agreed that Cooley ended up following Larkin's lead.

Whatever the dynamics were within the council and between it and the mayor's office, most officials were willing to consider new ideas, and there was an impressive amount of brainpower and political savvy spread around the two governing floors of the Seattle Municipal Building. Uhlman says that his interaction with the council was "80% favorable," and therefore highly productive when measured by the practical world of elected executive/legislative relations

As a result, a wide range of innovative programs came out of city government from 1968 through the 1970s: expansion of community and senior services; historic preservation; open access for citizen participation in governmental decision-making; arts funding; parks overhaul and expansion; revision of land-use planning and permitting procedures; residential housing rehabilitation; high-rise downtown residential living; downtown ride-free transit zone; "pea-patch" program; licensing procedure reform; recycling of surplus city-owned buildings into new community-related uses; and others. Some were initially proposed by various council members or by the mayor, and others by civic organizations such as the Seattle Municipal League, League of Women Voters, National Organization for Women, American Institute of Architects, Allied Arts of Seattle, and local community organizations.

The changes in city policies that these events brought about were controversial to some segments of the community, and the mayor bore the burden of a backlash. An attempt to recall Uhlman made it onto the ballot in a special election on July 1, 1975, but lost by a vote of almost two to one.

A CHECC-related council majority held office until the fall of 1978. Without CHECC's influence on the elections of that period, the newcomers might not have been as "centrist" as they actually became, and the council could have become deadlocked within itself or with the mayor. CHECC's membership reflected a reformist bipartisan attitude, and most of its endorsed candidates fit within that mold, in which they helped create a new urban consensus.

According to the conventional wisdom at that time, interests who could veto the implementation of new ideas dominated the city. By challenging this convention and prevailing, CHECC opened the door for an explosion of creative policies and programs over the next decade. CHECC's members did not fear change. Instead, they embraced it, dealt with it in a constructive way, and sought to preserve the unique aspects of Seattle without limiting its future development. 

A wide range of activist organizations and citizens participated in the transformation of Seattle. Some scholars have made a persuasive case that, since the CHECC era, there has been a great decline of civic participation in our society by people motivated by broad general welfare policy concerns. The political influence of special interests and of the creed of "privatism" has grown. Who will carry the political ball today for the values of civic-minded action and the importance of the public realm?

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"

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