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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 210

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This is the grave of Dixy Lee Ray.

One of the weirdest governors in a weird era of American politics, Ray was born Marguerite Ray in 1916 in Tacoma. When she was 1930, only 14 years of age, she changed her name legally to “Dixy Lee.” Why? To honor Robert E. Lee and the South!!!

She was always an unusual woman. She was the youngest girl at that time to climb Mt. Rainier, when she did so in 1928. She graduated as valedictorian from Mills College in Oakland in 1937 and then did a master’s degree studying crabs. She had no support from her family in any of this, who refused to pay for it. So she put herself through school working many low-paid jobs. She went on to complete a PhD in biology from Stanford, where she studied lanternfish. This was extremely unusual for a woman in the mid-20th century. Science was a boys club. So was politics. Ray was interested in both. She returned home to become a professor at the University of Washington. She was a controversial professor, with some people loving her and some hating her; certainly, she had a strong personality at a time when women weren’t supposed to be speaking their minds. She was popular and charismatic enough though that she got her own television show on Seattle’s PBS station to highlight marine biology. She was well-liked on that and then took over the Pacific Science Center, a new but nearly bankrupt museum. She was a successful fundraiser in reshaping the museum.

All of this made her well-known to Washington’s Democratic elite, such as Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson. Magnuson especially became her political mentor. In 1973, on his suggestion, Richard Nixon named Ray to the Atomic Energy Commission. Now, Ray was not exactly a normal Washington bureaucrat. In fact, she was pretty dang eccentric. She nearly didn’t accept the position because she was have to leave the good Washington for the bad Washington. I think every westerner in exile understands this. So she didn’t really quite live in Washington. Instead, she lived in a motor home in Virginia and was escorted in a limo every day to work. She went with her dogs everywhere, one of which was a 100-pound Scottish deerhound and the other a miniature poodle. That included taking them to work in the AEC offices. So naturally all the old cranky stodgy nuclear scientists thought she was a lightweight. She was not. She forced out Milton Shaw, head of reactor development and who had no respect for Ray, within a year. She then became Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International and Environmental Affairs in 1975 but resigned within six months when she realized the position had no power and she had no access to Henry Kissinger.

Ray decided to return to the good Washington and run for governor in 1976. She had never run for political office before. Being as blunt as ever, she managed to make some hate her, but she edged out Seattle mayor Wes Uhlman for the nomination and defeated King County executive John Spellman in the general election. In doing so, she became only the second woman to become governor of a state, outside of those who followed their husbands (this is an important point because of Alabama’s Lurleen Wallace succeeding George for a term when he was term-limited but didn’t want to give up power).

The 1970s were a very strange time in American politics, especially after 1975. This was a period where the parties were realigning and what it meant to be a Democrat or a Republican wasn’t always clear. The period was also dominated by new social movements coming to political prominence, new grassroots movements from the left and the right making unprecedented demands on politicians, all in a post-60s hangover. All of this meant there were a lot of really unusual politicians during these times. Dixy Lee Ray was among the most unusual of them all.

Ray was a Democrat. But what did that really mean? She wasn’t much in touch with a lot of growing grassroots movements that would create the Democratic Party of today. She was probably more in touch with the old-school Democrats she named herself after. She was particularly out of touch on environmentalism. This was odd on its own. She was a scientist and public educator on science who had revived what became a beloved Seattle science institution. But her time at the AEC made her very bullish on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Between this and her extremely blunt personal style, she managed to alienate people fast. She hated the media and fired a lot of Republican appointees, often replacing them with people considered sycophants.

That might have been politically OK, but her support for unrestrained suburban growth, the opening of the Seattle docks to oil tankers, and her wholehearted support of nuclear energy meant she alienated Democrats too. A lot of women voted for her because they wanted to see a woman in office. But then she refused to support the Equal Rights Amendment, angering that core constituency. Boeing, who knew a bought Washington politician when they saw one (i.e. Scoop Jackson) adored Ray. One Boeing executive called her, “the best friend business ever had.” She managed to alienate other governors, once publicly mocking Oregon governor Bob Straub’s energy conservation program in a joint press conference. Ralph Nader called her administration “gubernatorial lunacy.” She had conservative supporters–especially atomic scientist and kill ’em all nuclear madman Edward Teller, who wanted her to run for president in 1980. She was also criticized for creating a big zone around Mt. St. Helens where people couldn’t go once it started erupting, but that criticism turned to praise after its cataclysmic eruption in May 1980.

Ray lost a tight primary for her re-election in 1980 to Jim McDermott, who managed to lose to John Spellman in the general; McDermott has been a Democrat in Congress since 1989. Her post-gubernatorial period consisted of writing multiple books hating on environmentalists and supporting Reagan’s anti-environmental politics. She called for dumping radioactive waste in the ocean, opposed cleaning up Hanford, and wanted more heavy industrial development on Puget Sound. She even refused to call Chernobyl a catastrophe. She came to advocate taking away the suffrage from those who failed to vote in consecutive election and talked of ways to ban political parties. By the early 1990s, she was dismissing climate change. In the very last week of her life, she publicly attacked Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, saying she was “blaming all of her predecessors for things she says are terrible” and calling for more federal radiation experiments.

Dixy Lee Ray died in her home on January 2, 1994. She is buried in Fox Island Cemetery, Fox Island, Washington, which is a lovely part of the Puget Sound near Tacoma.

If you would like this series to profile more of the weirdo politicians of the 1970s, you can donate to support the required travel here. Some of them will have to wait though, as former Colorado governor Dick Lamm and former and current California governor Jerry Brown are still alive. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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