My mentor has done it again, further cementing his stature as the preeminent historian of high-stakes politics in this state over the past five decades.
In his latest book, former newspaper editor and publisher John C. Hughes ensconced as chief historian for the Secretary of States Legacy Project sheds an illuminating light on this states last Republican governor, John D. Spellman.
Its the third in a series of books Hughes has written about powerful political figures the other two featured former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton and former Gov. Booth Gardner. Knit the three books and life stories together and what unfolds is an in-depth look at yesterdays state politics the elected officials, the political insiders and appointees, the issues they faced, and the societal changes that buffeted and propelled them.
Theres a sense of urgency behind Hughes work that helps explain his almost obsessive productivity that has resulted in these three meaty books and more in five years. Hughes does biographies of aging politicians, reaching them before their memories fade or they pass away. A case in point: He connected with Booth Gardner in the nick of time, before the ravages of Parkinsons disease overwhelmed the two-term governor, who died March 16.
The urgency is personal as well: Hughes, my former editor at The Daily World in Aberdeen, is a colon cancer survivor whos grown to appreciate each new day as a gift.
Hughes ventured into John Spellman: Politics Never Broke His Heart carrying the same sort of cursory knowledge of the states 18th governor that most of us have: Spellman was a King County Executive and Kingdome backer, a pipe-smoker and a non-descript, one-term governor.
But who knows that Spellman, a devout Jesuit, studied for the priesthood as a young man before realizing it was not his calling? Who remembers that Spellman, in his first stab at elected office in 1964, ran fifth in an eight-man field for Seattle mayor, capturing a paltry 6,237 votes out of 137,000 votes cast?
Reflecting on his entry into King County and Seattle politics, Spellman shared this with Hughes:
I was concerned about pollution, urban sprawl, vice and civil rights, said Spellman, 86. I probably should have been a Democrat, I have a soft heart. I really do. But the Republicans I knew the Pritchards, Dan Evans, Jim Ellis, Slade Gorton were change agents. ...
In 1966, he captured a seat on the King County Commission, then led a government reform movement that helped clean most of the vice, corruption and patronage out of the courthouse. He went on to become the states first county executive.
Those of us baby-boomer age and older probably remember he lost to political newcomer Dixy Lee Ray in the 1976 governors race, topped Democrat Jim McDermott in 1980, then was swept out of office in 1984 by the charismatic Gardner.
But how many know his greatest political regret was allowing his 1984 campaign to run three sleazy ads insinuating that Gardner had questionable ties to union bosses and big labor?
Hughes reminds us that the state economy in the early 1980s was almost as challenging as the one Gov. Chris Gregoire struggled with in her second term. Spellman reluctantly raised taxes and sliced away at the state budget. During stalemated legislative budget talks in 1982, he called conservative Republican legislators troglodytes for their stubborn adherence to a no new taxes stance. Flash forward more than 25 years and you find Spellman calling Gregoire to offer his political support for a tax-and-cut approach to yet another state budget crisis of epic proportions.
John Spellman was a man ahead of his times, Gregoire tells Hughes. My heart goes out to him because I always believed good policy is good politics. Theres a man who did what his head and his heart told him to do, for which he was not re-elected.
As governor, Spellman took the environmental high road on a number of controversial issues, none greater than when he said no in 1982 to a plan by the Northern Tier Pipeline Co. to construct an oil port at Port Angeles and run an oil pipeline under Puget Sound.
Ignoring intense pressure from business interests and the Reagan administration, he reviewed the project in his lawyerly, pragmatic way and concluded Northern Tier had not demonstrated they could protect Puget Sound from a catastrophic oil spill.
Incidentally, Spellman quit smoking his pipe in 1996 in deference to public smoking bans and all the grandchildren running around his house. Thats just one of many personal anecdotes and political insights that await the reader. The book is for sale at Amazon.com or at the Secretary of States Office in the Legislative Building. Read it free of charge online at the Legacy Project website, www.sos.wa.gov/heritage/OralHistories.aspx.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444