The death of former Gov. John Spellman from pneumonia early Tuesday at the age of 91while hospitalized for a broken hip stirs recollections for many of an elected official applauded for his integrity and courage. Spellman's passing reminded me of a column I did to mark the 30thanniversary of his 1981 swearing-in as what would be the state's last Republican governor, an anniversary I thought noteworthy enough to call him for an interview and do the following Flynn's Harp on him in January of 2011.
I once asked John Spellman what kind of governor he had been and with a twinkle in his Irish eyes, he replied: "I was a darn good governor." And beyond the tumult of his times, including what he'd suggest may have been the worst economic period the state has experienced, there's much to suggest that may be an accurate assessment.
But it would have been difficult for many who were there at the time to accept that assessment, since during his 1980-84 single term as governor, Washington's last Republican governor, he managed to make decisions that irritated almost every segment on the political spectrum. But Spellman understood more than most elected officials that being good was different than being popular.
One such decision came about because of his strong commitment to environmental protection. Thus, despite enormous pressure from business groups, many legislators and, most notably, his own Republican president, he used his authority to prevent permitting for what he felt was an environmentally-risky development project in a sensitive shoreline area of Whatcom County.
Another was that "we passed more taxes in my four years than they have before or since" Spellman recalled in a telephone interview this week. "One of the challenges in seeking to get re-elected was that I said I would raise taxes only as a last resort and some people took that to mean I wouldn't raise taxes.
"We had a crisis, as evidenced by the fact we had a 13.6 percent unemployment rate at one point, and in crises, you have to act," he added. "People didn't elect me to do nothing."
He spent two years fighting with a Democrat-controlled legislature and two with one controlled by Republicans.
The recession that began in 1981 "was much worse than anyone thought it would be and we had to do some things to get the economy moving and some money coming in," Spellman recalled. "So I announced an economic revitalization plan that included, among other things, an industrial development bonds program that had long been a tool of other states, but hadn't been available here."
Spellman was an early believer in the importance of establishing relations with foreign nations and is proud of initiating relationships with Schewan Province in China and furthering relations with Japan during his term.
"Both world trade and world peace were in play then, as now, and relationships are very important in international affairs," said Spellman. "The relationships we have are extremely important to the world in terms of peace and tranquility and trade, but trade is third among those in importance."
Spellman, who at 84 still puts in four days a week at Seattle law firm Carney Badley Spellman, practiced politics in a long-gone era when Republican elected officials could be moderate enough to sometimes find Democrats to the right of them.
So it was when Spellman ran for Seattle mayor in the mid-60s in his first attempt at elective office, an unsuccessful race in which he favored open-housing legislation and opposed the county's gambling tolerance policy. Both were positions with which a majority of voters in then-conservative Seattle and King County disagreed.
Spellman, handsome and personable with a winning smile, was an attorney, graduate of Seattle University then Georgetown Law School, whose ever-present pipe would be lit and relit during lengthy discussion sessions.
Because one of his legal clients was the United Steelworkers Union local, he had support from a lot of labor-union members. In fact, my first meeting with Spellman in 1967 was when my steelworker uncle introduced me to him at a cocktail party in downtown Seattle after explaining to me what a fair and fine man this was whom I was about to meet.
Spellman remembers of the mayoral race, a quest for a non-partisan office, that he was "very young and I didn't have much of a campaign. But I enjoyed the process and people noticed me because my views were the correct ones."
But he put on the Republican label when he ran for and won a seat on the King County Board of Commissioners and, after the county changed its charter to provide for a county executive, Spellman ran for and won that office.
Since Washington State now has the longest period of any state since having a GOP chief executive, I asked Spellman why he thought it was that the four governors who followed him, including Booth Gardner who unseated him, were all Democrats. His response was typically candid: "The Republicans' problem was the quality of the candidates," Spellman said. "They were all good people but unelectable."
I asked Spellman during our telephone interview how it felt to lose his re-election bid. "It wasn't devastating. Maybe to some of my kids it was, but not to me," Spellman replied. "I knew I had done a lot of things that weren't calculated to make getting re-elected easy."
Would that the integrity connoted by that comment were a legacy imparted to current elected officials.