Health care reformer, public transportation advocate, politician, civil servant, businessman, inventor, environmentalist -- Aubrey Davis affected the lives of Northwesterners for more than half-a-century. He helped create King County Metro; ensured the survival of what a New England Journal of Medicine editor called health care's "model of the future" (The New York Times); pioneered community involvement in highway planning; ran businesses that created products ranging from military weather stations to waterproofing for decks; advocated to preserve abortion rights in Washington; and chaired the task force that investigated the 1990 sinking of the Interstate 90 floating bridge. His political life included election as mayor of Mercer Island, running for King County Executive, managing the last campaign of Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989), and chairing the state transportation commission. Then-State Representative Ed Murray once described Davis as "a man of the future ... a visionary" (Hadley). A Seattle Times reporter said Davis is "crusty, stubborn, indefatigable and widely respected. He leads -- and lasts -- with patience and persistence, taking on the big issues without ego interfering. ... Aubrey Davis has no patience for failure" (Gilmore). Andrew Johnson, an adviser to former Governor Gary Locke, said, "Folks like Aubrey are giants" (Gilmore). Aubrey Davis died on February 17, 2013.
An Ordinary Boy
Davis was born on September 29, 1917, in South Pasadena, California, grandson of a Presbyterian minister, and son of a life-insurance salesman and a housewife. The family later moved to semirural Altadena. The Davises had a cow. “We could have milk on tap,” he later recalled. “I was a very ordinary boy, good in school, and I loved football. Later, when I was a teenager, we had horses” (Glickstein, 1994).
The Depression hurt the senior Davis's insurance business, so he went into mining, and Aubrey spent some of his teen years in mining camps, working as a company storekeeper in Searchlight, Nevada, and as a laboratory assistant at a mine near Chloride, Arizona.
He went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he majored in history and political science because, he said, a pro-New Deal teacher in high school impressed on him that “government activity to solve the people’s problems was the right thing to do. Public Service was a noble expectation” (Glickstein, 1994).
After earning a B.A. and Phi Beta Kappa in 1939, Davis went to Washington, D.C., as an intern with the National Institute of Public Affairs. He intended to be a city manager. After six months, he began working at what became the Federal Public Housing Authority, the agency charged with building affordable housing. His job was to ensure that local officials, not federal bureaucrats, made the decisions.
In fall 1940, Davis met another intern, Henrietta “Retta” Herzberger, at a party. He kidded her about why Colorado voted Republican in the recent election. They married the next year.
With war raging in Europe, Davis, who had been influenced by Quakers and was concerned about the impact of militarism, became a conscientious objector to military service. But in June 1941, Germany invaded its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. Davis decided that nonviolence wouldn’t work, took his name off the list of conscientious objectors, and “was promptly drafted” after the U.S. entered the war (Glickstein, 2007).
He served two-and-a-half years in an ordnance unit in Calcutta, assembling trucks to be sent to China.
The Move to Seattle
Returning from India in 1946, Davis had re-employment rights with what was now called the Public Housing Administration. Because Retta was from Colorado, and Davis California, the couple decided to move to Seattle as “neutral” territory (Glickstein, 1994). They moved into “temporary” veterans’ housing at the Rainier Vista project. (The project was being replaced in 2007 after its “temporary” use of more than 50 years.)
As a federal housing administrator, Davis learned firsthand about the relationship between special interest groups -- in this case, the real-estate industry which opposed public housing -- and government. “Federal agencies that are worth working in are put under political pressure by opponents who don’t want those things to be done. We were housing poor people, and the real-estate people really were opposed to that. Congress kept circumscribing what we could do,” Davis recalled (Glickstein, 1994).
Meanwhile, Retta became a volunteer for then-U.S. Senator Hugh Mitchell (1807-1996), with whom Davis became a friend and later a business partner.
Beyond government and politics, the Davises joined Group Health Cooperative in February 1947 -- one month after it opened.
Group Health Cooperative
Group Health was founded by a coalition of consumers, Grange members, small businessmen, and union members. It challenged the assumptions -- and financial incentives -- of the medical establishment with prepaid care, salaried physician employees, a focus on prevention, and cooperative governance by patients. Group Health was promptly blacklisted by the King County Medical Society. Its doctors were denied privileges at other hospitals and membership in the Medical Society, and it became the target of a whispering campaign about alleged Communist leanings. This was abetted, no doubt, by a 1948 visit to Group Health Cooperative by former California Congressman Jerry Voorhis (1901-1984), who had been defeated for re-election in 1946 by a red-baiting Richard Nixon.
Most important, Group Health changed the financial incentives in health care. Because its coverage was prepaid, the Cooperative was financially rewarded for keeping people healthy and out of hospitals. This contrasted with the medical establishment that was financially rewarded on a piecework basis without regard to patient outcomes. Blue Cross, in fact, didn’t pay benefits at all unless a person was hospitalized.
The blacklisting ended on November 15, 1951, when the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously that King County Medical Society had tried to maintain an illegal monopoly at Group Health’s expense.
Two days later, Davis, who had been an active participant in Group Health’s governance, was elected to the Board of Trustees.
Member No. 239
Davis had joined the Cooperative one month after it opened. Retta had had a miscarriage in 1946, and they felt a consumer-governed group practice, like Group Health, would be less risky than a private practice. Davis also liked the idea of consumer control of health-care policy.
“Our membership number is 239. The dues at that time were $3 for an adult per month,” Davis recalled in 2002. “When we started out, we had a group of doctors and a hospital. We were selling individual memberships in the Co-op. I had to pay $100 to join to help provide capital to pay for things like hospitals. People bought their way in and provided their own capital ... After we had been going for seven years, our net margin was $7,000. Now that was really nonprofit. We redefined the term 'nonprofit'" (Maher interview).
Group Health’s fight for survival didn’t just depend on its antimonopoly suit against the King County Medical Society. Internal battles between the doctors and the consumer members, the members and their management, the management and the doctors, and the various factions of the consumers also threatened the Cooperative. Davis and his fellow board members devoted much time to fighting and resolving these battles.
Years later, Davis would describe his early work at Group Health as his biggest accomplishment. "My role in making Group Health work and survive is the most important thing I’ve done," he told an interviewer in 2007. The early days, he said, were "boot camp. We’d have meetings lasting until midnight, and hours and hours of negotiations with the medical staff. ... It was touch and go" (Glickstein, 2007).
And Group Health’s survival was important because it helped change the way health care is practiced in the United States. By minimizing hospital use and maximizing efficient and effective care, with resulting lower costs but no decrease in clinical quality, Group Health provided a model, which, wherever it was adopted on a large scale, produced similar results, Davis said (Glickstein, 2007). This conviction was confirmed by an eight-year landmark study by the Rand Corporation published over four years in four prestigious journals, starting in 1984 with the New England Journal of Medicine. The federally funded Rand study concluded that Group Health did indeed reduce costs with equal or better quality by practicing a different style of medicine (Crowley, p. 187).
"We Made a Difference"
Group Health also showed that a consumer-governed health care system could succeed. '"“Management behaves a lot differently when big decisions are made by members ... . It makes some things go slower, but most of the slowness is management preparing itself so it doesn’t become foolish or do something that can’t be explained to other people," Davis said. Other health care systems "don’t have any direct consumer input in what they’re doing. They are managed by boards, which are pretty much creatures of the current manager in charge. We’re fundamentally different" (Maher interview).
"We made a difference," Davis said in a 1994 interview. "We were unique. We were successful. We were able to preserve that 'hands-on' from consumers in a way that worked against all common wisdom" (Glickstein, 1994).
Davis's Day Job
Davis’s involvement in Group Health was unpaid. In his other world, the government reorganized the housing administration, sending Davis’s job to San Francisco. Davis stayed in Seattle, joining the federal Wage Stabilization Board, first as head of administrative operations, then as head of research. The board was charged with administering wage and price controls, imposed to curb inflation resulting from the Korean War. "I learned just how many, many ways there are of cutting a deal," Davis remembered (Glickstein, 2007).
In 1954, with the war over, Davis left the government and cashed in his federal retirement benefit of $3,500 (Glickstein, 2007). With that money, he, Hugh Mitchell (now a former Congressman), and another friend bought a struggling rubber products company, which they renamed Gaco Western.
Davis became company president, and eventually bought out his partners. The company developed chemical rubber coatings, roofing, waterproofing, and lining material. Davis himself invented a no-slip decking compound, pulverizing various materials in his basement until he discovered that crushed walnut shells provided the missing ingredient. Gaco decks are found in “thousands and thousands” of homes throughout the West (Glickstein 1994). Gaco remains a Davis family business, managed in 2007 by Davis’s son, Peter.
Keeping Mercer Island Green
The Davises now lived in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood. Retta was volunteering in the schools to help kids learn to read, and she decided to return to college to get a graduate teaching degree. In 1960, Retta got a teaching job on Mercer Island, and the Davises decided to move there, buying a lot for $4,000.
Mercer Island was considered Republican in the early 1960s, but Davis became involved in the city’s Democratic politics. In 1967, friends urged him to run for city council. While his opponent talked blandly and condescendingly about the duties of city officials, Davis advocated for keeping Mercer Island green and supporting its relaxed lifestyle.
On election day, Davis pulled an upset, winning 67 percent of the vote. He would go on to serve 11 years on the council, including two as mayor, starting in 1970.
His terms as mayor were highlighted by a dispute with the State of Washington. The state highway commission had proposed widening Interstate 90 to 16 lanes with ramps four stories high -- taller than the highest building on the island. "In the '60s, the highway folks would decide where to build and what to build and just do it. I don’t think they asked anybody. There was no environmental regulation," Davis recalled (Hadley).
Davis demanded that the state redesign the highway to take into account the impact on the community. He testified at a hearing: "We don’t want to see it. We don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to smell it." The state agreed to redesign the road and create a process that included community input. The new design process was a "fishbowl," and, for the first time nationally, the environmental community was brought into a model process (Glickstein, 2007). The result, noted one reporter, was that "after years of negotiations, the bridge ended up at eight lanes and Mercer Island got textured concrete lids over the freeway covered with lush plantings and specially design lighting" (Hadley).
In later years, when Davis served on the state transportation commission, local politicians would push back and tell him, "Aubrey, we just want what you got" (Glickstein, 2007).
Moving into Transportation
As a Mercer Island City Council member, Davis volunteered to be the city’s representative on Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle Council. Metro, now a King County department, was at the time an interagency, regional group that was trying to coordinate and consolidate several public services, including transit and a clean-up of Lake Washington.
For years, community leaders had been trying to regionalize the city-owned Seattle transit system and the privately owned suburban system. Voters balked at the cost, turning down proposals to build a regional rail mass-transit system in 1962, 1968, and 1970. (After the 1970 vote, about $1 billion in federal money that had been slated for a Puget Sound rail system went to Atlanta, Georgia.)
In 1971, Davis became chair of Metro’s Transit Committee, and the next year, voters approved Metro’s takeover of the local bus system without any rail component. It was the first time since 1918 that voters had approved a new tax for transit.
Davis credited community reformer and lawyer Jim Ellis (b. 1921) for the successful referendum, but Davis and others were responsible for implementation. Success wasn’t a given. Ridership had fallen to an all-time low, the fleets were aged, and the systems on the verge of collapse.
Metro began operations on January 1, 1973, and in the coming years became a model transit system. "We were a national model," Davis said. "We built a transit system out of what had become dust" (Glickstein, 2007). The accomplishments included pioneering the downtown Seattle ride-free zone, articulated buses to increase capacity without increasing costs, and the nation’s first successful handicapped-accessible buses. "At one point, we were carrying more disabled people than all the transit systems in the country put together," Davis said (Glickstein, 2007).
King County Executive Campaign
With a growing reputation in the county, Davis decided to run for county executive, a decision made easier when the incumbent, John Spellman, said he would run for governor and not stand for re-election. Davis filed for the fall 1977 race in December 1976 to pre-empt other Democratic candidates.
The strategy was successful, and Davis won the Democratic nomination. But Spellman, losing his 1976 gubernatorial race to conservative Democrat Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), changed his mind about running for re-election as county executive. County Auditor Harley Hoppe entered the race as a tax-cutting independent.
It was now a three-way race, and Hoppe split the Democratic vote. "I got pictured as a flower-loving Democrat," Davis said, so conservative members of the party voted for Hoppe, with the election going to Spellman.
Beyond the split vote, Davis sometimes appeared to be a diffident campaigner. A friend, Don Munro (1940-2012), once described how Davis insisted on going to a meeting of the Puget Sound Council of Governments to discuss policy instead of an Elks meeting in Ballard to press the flesh. "There was no political reason to go to PSCOG. Everyone there either loved or hated him. There was every political reason to go to Ballard Elks. He was more interested in public policy than shaking hands. We threw up our hands. It was an epiphany. Aubrey was completely detached from running for office. He didn’t need it" (Gilmore).
The same month Davis was defeated, the state highway commission became the Washington Transportation Commission, with a broader charter to consider more than just highways. Governor Ray wanted the commission to name Davis the first transportation secretary, but the abrasive Ray wasn’t able to persuade the commissioners.
Instead, Brock Adams (1927-2004), the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and former Congressman from Seattle, named Davis to head the regional Department of Transportation office. The next year, with Adams having resigned from the Carter administration, the new Transportation secretary, Neil Goldschmidt from Oregon, named Davis regional administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA).
At first, the national UMTA staff was skeptical at what they perceived as the appointment of a political hack. But Davis won them over because they soon realized he had actual "local transit experience" -- not to mention 10 years of federal government administrative experience (Glickstein, 2007).
At UMTA, Davis lobbied for and distributed federal money to improve mass transit in the region. This included getting federal money for Seattle’s downtown bus tunnel and Portland’s light rail. The distributions didn’t stop with large cities. Davis’ UMTA provided money to improve the transit infrastructure throughout the Northwest, including bus maintenance bases for every major Northwest transit system.
Magnuson's Last Campaign
Davis left UMTA in 1980 -- temporarily as it turned out -- after several friends persuaded him to be the hands-on manager for Senator Warren G. Magnuson’s re-election campaign. Davis had never been a Magnuson insider, but the senator’s ablest protégés were committed to their own successful careers, and existing prospective campaign managers seemed to be embroiled in strategy disagreements. Davis was the outsider who could work with all the factions.
His first day on the job was the day Mount St. Helens erupted -- May 18, 1980. Davis told reporters that it wasn’t true that Magnuson -- legendary for his power and effectiveness -- had made the volcano erupt.
Magnuson, Davis said, had "remarkable ways of making things happen" (Glickstein, 2007).
Nonetheless, the senator was showing his 75 years. Although his mind was sharp, he appeared frail, his hands trembled, and it was understood that he was an alcoholic. A pollster told Davis, "You’re carrying water in a paper bag," and the only issue was whether the bag would burst before or after the election. Davis tried to hide Magnuson from unfavorable photo ops, while the senator’s opponent, state Attorney General Slade Gorton, didn’t have to do anything except show his own health and vitality jogging in front of cameras. Ten days before the election, Magnuson lost his lead in the polls. He would lose the election (with 46 percent of the vote) as part of a national Republic sweep.
After the campaign, Davis returned to UMTA, where he stayed through late 1987.
During these years, he also returned to the Group Health Board of Trustees, served on the board of the Municipal League, and, in 1986, became a shareholder and chairman of a small, five-year-old private Seattle company, Coastal Climate, later renamed Coastal Environmental Systems. Coastal creates and sells specialized weather stations to government, fire departments, the military, and Antarctic science programs. It has become the primary supplier of weather instrumentation for the federal government.
Group Health President/CEO
Davis turned 70 in September 1987. Less than three months later, he resigned from the Group Health Board of Trustees to become Group Health’s president and chief executive officer. Susan J. Doerr, chair of the Cooperative, described him as having "political savvy and ... business sense" (Doerr).
That savvy and that business sense would be needed because Group Health faced increasing competition brought on in large part by its successful model being adapted by others. Morale was shaky, and staff felt uneasy.
Nonetheless, Davis accepted the new job. "My first reaction was, 'You’ve got to be kidding.' This was not in my career plan." But he decided to take the job because "one of the things I learned a long time ago is that my first reaction to a new idea is usually wrong" (Buck).
Davis faced difficult challenges.
During a five-week nurses’ strike in 1989, he tried to find the right balance that would maintain Group Health’s affordability for patients and its reputation as a fair employer. (Group Health nurses were and remained among the highest-paid in the state.)
Davis, with his board’s support and earlier membership votes, insisted on endorsing and supporting a controversial abortion-rights initiative in 1991. One colleague described his advocacy for the initiative -- "the right thing to do. The alternative, jeopardizing choice and doctor-patient privacy, is unthinkable" -- as a "bravura display of decisiveness and moral leadership" (Glickstein, 1994).
He also made Group Health the first participant in Washington Basic Health, which began in 1987 to provide coverage for the working poor. At the time, no one knew if plans would lose or make money serving that population. "We helped make it a success," he recalled (Glickstein, 2007).
Improving quality while controlling costs was at the heart of competing. "We’re trying to move into a new generation of quality, a model where everybody has a responsibility for quality, all the doctors, all the nurses, all the employees. A lot of us think the ultimate rewards will go to the people who provide the best quality health care" (Buck).
Survival was at stake in the competitive and consolidating health care industry. Davis told a reporter in 1988, "I want Group Health to be incredibly flexible and responsive to change. Just because Group Health added 6,000 new members this January doesn’t mean it will continue to grow indefinitely ... I need to set the stage, point in directions, and seek concessions. If compromises can’t be reach, then I’ve got to make decisions" (Jaquette).
In his Group Health office, Davis hung a gift friends gave him: a Kwakiutl talking stick given to chiefs as a reminder to "speak good words on behalf of their people. ... I thought that a talking stick was a pretty good symbol for a CEO to have. ... I think leadership positions are meant to be used and not held. ... There is no point to being the administrator if you have to follow the book all the time" (Glickstein, 1994).
Davis "retired" as Group Health’s CEO in 1991 to become its president emeritus. This was no honorary position. Among other duties, Davis was charged with representing Group Health in Washington, D.C., where, in 1992, a coalition of business and industry leaders were developing a health-care reform plan.
Modeled as "managed competition," the proposal would have had health plans offer standard benefit packages, and then compete on the basis of price and quality. People would become members of purchasing groups -- either through their employer, government, or other organization. Davis believed that decentralized decision-making among competing plans -- as opposed to a single-payer plan -- would maintain innovation and control costs.
"Our plan had one fatal flaw: There was no pathway to universal coverage, but that could have been negotiated later," Davis said. Newly elected President Bill Clinton decided to set aside this proposed and assigned his wife, lawyer, and later U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton to develop a new plan. A year later, that plan failed. "What a disappointment," Davis recalled. "What an opportunity missed" (Glickstein, 2007).
Davis believed that for reform to be effective, insurance companies needed to think differently about risk. Instead of avoiding risk, they need to spread the risk over larger numbers of people. "This idea has been brought to them. I’ve done it and so have others. They’re not interested. ... It would take leadership calling the insurance industry to task and saying, 'Look guys, this isn’t working. Our public is not being served by the way it’s working. It’s not all your fault, but we’ve got to change the way we’re doing things, or else we’ll take it away from the insurance system.' I haven’t seen any leader willing to do that" (Maher interview).
With health care reform stymied in Washington state as well as Washington, D.C., Davis retired as Group Health’s president emeritus and was asked to return to the Group Health Board.
Bridges and Roads
Meanwhile, on November 20, 1990, the Interstate 90 bridge connecting Seattle and Mercer Island across Lake Washington, sunk during a storm. The bridge floated on concrete pontoons. Davis was named to chair the blue-ribbon commission that investigated its sinking. The commission concluded that the sinking was due to a failure to recognize that "a float bridge must be treated as a boat" (Glickstein, 2007).
It wasn’t Davis’s last involvement with transportation. In 1992, he was named to the Washington Transportation Commission, which he served on into 2004. For three of those years, he was chairman.
Davis was credited with "helping to turn what used to be the state Highways Department into today’s more multimodal Department of Transportation. The department still builds and promotes highways, but it also runs a rail program, works closely with Sound Transit, and operates commute trip-reduction programs aimed at getting solo drivers out of their cars" (Hadley).
One Amtrak official said Davis and former Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison created the state’s rail program. "They had a vision of what could happen in rail," the official said (Hadley).
Morrison’s successor, Douglas B. MacDonald, said Davis’s legacy included support for high-occupancy vehicle lanes, high-capacity transit, and additional transportation funding. "The depth and breadth of his knowledge of Washington’s transportation issues is unprecedented," MacDonald said (WSDOT, 2004).
Even after leaving the commission, Davis continued to advocate on transportation issues, working in 2007 with the Puget Sound Regional Council on issues such as congestion pricing, which charges people to drive during peak hours. "Driving is a great thing in our society," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2004. "It gives us freedom and privacy we all love, but we’re wholly unable to vote for the taxes to support that habit" (Hadley).
But he also had critics. State Republican Chair (and former King County councilman) Chris Vance described him disparagingly as a zealot. "I don’t like zealots on either side, and Aubrey is a transit zealot." His support of congestion pricing is "Orwellian. It’s Big Brother government, social engineering, and I think it’s wrong" (Gilmore).
Davis, in 2007, also worked with the nonprofit Economic Opportunity Institute, serving on its board as vice president. His area of interest: strategizing about what it would take to get voters to approve a state income tax, with a goal of making tax policy fairer.
The Davis Style
The Davis style was to focus relentlessly on pragmatic change. "Davis was the best public official I worked with because he knew his priorities," said one Metro official. "He was able to transcend his ego and able to deal with the real substance and detail of an issue" (Jaquette).
Davis himself explained, "You either get things done or take credit" (Jaquette). One professional colleague said Davis "can’t stand people who can’t set aside personal ego for the cause. He finds it hypocritical. He can even put up with scoundrels, but not people who will only do something if it enhances their own self-image" (Gilmore).
Davis often sat in meetings, his eyes closed, seemingly taking a nap. Out of nowhere, he would sit up and ask a piercing, relevant question.
Frequently honored for his work, Davis used the ceremonies as an opportunity to talk about the issues. When honored by Sound Transit, he devoted most of remarks to discussing Portland’s light-rail experience. Honored by the Washington Health Foundation, he used the occasion to talk about health-care reform.
But Davis was more than a policy wonk. He and Retta were avid Mariners’ fans; Retta kept her own scorecard, notating every play of the games they saw. They also loved theater, going to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, yearly. “He’s an incredible family man,” said former Group Health CEO Cheryl Scott, who was mentored by Davis. “He’s totally in love with his wife of 60-plus years and totally committed to his kids and grandkids. I don’t know how he pulls it off” (Hadley).
Aubrey Davis died on February 17, 2013.