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Washington GOP's record gubernatorial drought

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There was surprisingly little fanfare or discussion over the fact that Gov. Jay Inslee’s re-election extended his party’s record hold on the governor’s mansion so that when his term ends in 2020, it will have been four decades since a Republican was elected governor in Washington.

But both John Spellman, elected to what turned out to be a single term in 1980 as the state’s last Republican chief executive, and Dan Evans, who left office in 1976 after a record three terms, are convinced it’s more than running in an increasingly blue state that has denied the GOP the statehouse for a longer period than any other state.

Inslee defeated Republican challenger Bill Bryant, 55 per cent to 45 percent, with the GOP lamenting that there wasn’t much bad that could be said about a governor who hadn’t done a lot.

And as Evans quipped, when I asked him about what it would take for Republicans to win the governorship again, ”what we need is someone with Inslee’s looks and Bryant’s brains.”

In fact, although Washington is far more blue now than it was in either Evans’ or Spellman’s time, both had as much appeal to Democrats as to Republicans and that could help indicate the challenge for a rightward drifting state GOP.

Both Evans and Spellman were strong protectors of the environment. The State Department of Ecology was created during Evans’ term, as well as legislation to protect shorelines. And Spellman became the darling of environmentalists while raising the ire of everyone in his party, from the president’s energy secretary to members of Congress and legislators, over his decision to prevent construction of the Northern Tier Pipeline project.

And neither shied away from taxes. Spellman told me, during an interview in 2011 on the 30th anniversary of his inauguration, we passed more taxes in my four years than they have before or since. 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.”

Spellman paid the price for raising taxes and defying special interests in a tumultuous term marked by a serious recession and a hard-right Republican Party, losing in 1984 to moderate Democratic businessman Booth Gardner.

I asked Spellman, who turns 90 next month, 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 in retrospect that may be an accurate assessment.

For his part, Evans, who just had his 91st birthday last month, was and remains a fan of a state income tax, as long as it’s part of “tax reform,” saying in an interview “I killed the income tax for two generation by getting a vote on it.  After that, the no-tax pledge became required in campaigns.”

“If we had prevailed with tax reform and the income tax component, we would be $4.5 billion better off in this state,” Evans added.

The governing philosophies of those two may indicate how close to ideologically blue a GOP gubernatorial candidate might have to be to break the Democratic hold on the state’s chief executive job.

Of course the Republican candidates have been competitive in some recent elections, with Dino Rossi losing to Christine Gregoire in 2004 only after a recount confirmed her victory, and Rob McKenna seen as losing to Inslee four years ago primarily because of some campaign missteps.

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 as he successfully campaigned to become the first King County Executive. 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 who I was about to meet.

The passage of years has dimmed the remarkable courage Spellman evidenced in holding firm to his decision not to permit a pipeline to be constructed under Puget Sound despite pressure from a Republican administration, his own congressional delegation and the legislature.

That conviction brought him national attention in the form of a People magazine April 1982 profile of the little-known elected official who was “bucking president and party to turn an oil pipeline into a pipe dream.”

The profile went on to discuss how “one of the nation’s mightiest public-works projects, the $2.7 billion, 1,490-mile Northern Tier Pipeline designed to carry Alaskan crude oil from Puget Sound to Midwestern refineries, is being blocked by a single man, Governor John Spellman of Washington.”

And given the current political controversy about what attitude should guide this country’s view of international trade, Spellman’s thoughts on its importance would put him in the thick of any discussion on the topic today.

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 in our interview. “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.”

I asked Spellman during our telephone interview for that 2011 column 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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