John Spellman was Washington’s last Republican governor and a vanishing breed in politics. He took a centrist path and embraced civility.
Spellman died early Tuesday at the age of 91. At a time our political parties are in fierce mortal combat with each other, it’s more than timely to remember Spellman’s years as governor during 1981-85 and before that as King County executive.
His record of success should wake up Washington Republicans who no longer win statewide elections very often – at least not in the way they regularly did in the 1970s, ’80s and even the ’90s.
Ultimately Gov. Spellman was a Republican with a progressive streak who could compromise when needed but he had the spine to reject the Northern Tier oil pipeline under Puget Sound during the Reagan years. He also resisted a potent lobbying campaign in rejecting the Chicago Bridge and Iron graving dock near Bellingham.
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During the height of the most severe recession to hit the state between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, Spellman had a narrowly Republican Legislature for two years after one Democrat’s party switch, but he then faced Democratic control of both chambers for his last two years.
He had the guts to agree to a sales tax increase and spending cuts to pass a budget although he later paid a political price.
Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman praised Spellman’s integrity and spirituality. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, praised Spellman for his willingness to do the right thing.
Early on in his political career Spellman was practical and principled. He helped push King County reforms to curb cronyism, worked to open up contracts to bids by minority-run businesses, and he got the Kingdome stadium built to draw major league baseball and football to Seattle, his friends recalled this week.
State archivist Steve Excell worked on Spellman’s gubernatorial campaigns and served as his chief of staff for three years. He referred to Spellman, his one-time mentor and friend, as “Mr. Civility.”
Excell said Spellman showed “calmness in crisis,” had a “passion” for civil rights and protecting the environment, and appointed women as judges in the male-dominated courts.
Spellman arrived in Olympia in the wake of “four very turbulent years with (Democratic governor) Dixy Lee Ray.’’ Excell noted that Spellman’s accomplishments included creation of the state Housing Finance Commission and the Office of Minority and Women owned Business Enterprises.
Spellman also oversaw the move of state adult prisons into an agency separate from the Department of Social and Health Services at a time prisons were overcrowded and under court orders.
To the extent that Spellman and others of his generation governed from the middle, Excell thinks it was mostly out of a sense of community building: “A lot of these guys came out of World War II. Building community was important to them.”
Spellman’s passing should give Republicans and Democrats a nudge that way. He was a governor who displayed courage and civility when it was, as today, badly needed.