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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,315

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This is the grave of John Spellman.

Born in 1926 in Seattle, Spellman was a rich kid. His dad was an insurance executive and a starting guard on Oregon’s 1917 Rose Bowl team (Go Ducks!). Spellman graduated from a fancy Seattle high school in 1944 and joined the Navy through the Merchant Marine cadet program. After his stint in the Navy, he went to Seattle University, graduating in 1949. He then was off to Georgetown Law, where he finished in 1953. He moved back to Seattle and worked in law there.

Spellman’s real interest was in politics. He was a liberal Republican of the Nelson Rockefeller type. In the 1950s, there was a chance that the reactionary elements of the party might disappear. To say the least, this did not happen, as we all know. But in Washington, Spellman was among those who saw a reasonable Republican Party that at least accepted the idea of labor unions and integration as part of an inevitable future. He became a fixture in the state Republican Party. He ran for mayor in 1964 but did not win the primary. Nonetheless, he was a key figure in the election of Dan Evans to the governor of the state later in 1964, was elected to the King County Commission in 1967 and then became the county’s chief executive when that office was established in 1969. As such, he was critical to the building of the Kingdome in the 1970s, which was quite a controversial project. The Kingdome was built next to the traditional Chinatown in Seattle, now called the International District, and there were significant fears that part of this project’s real aims was to eliminate that community entirely from its traditional home in Seattle. There were pretty major local efforts to halt Kingdome construction. That didn’t succeed, but it did succeed in preserving most of the district.

Spellman was able to build on his popular work in Seattle (getting an NFL and MLB team will raise one’s profile) to become the Republican nominee for governor in 1976. He lost that race to the bizarre proto-Trump Democrat Dixy Lee Ray, who did not exactly become uncontroversial after her election. People’s disgust with Ray led to her lose the Democratic primary in 1980 to Jim McDermott. Meanwhile, Spellman was the Republican nominee again and this time he won the general. He is the last Republican to be elected governor of Washington.

As governor, Spellman was something of an anti-Reagan. While Reagan named James Watt Secretary of the Interior and launched a new federal war on environmentalism, Spellman defied many in the business community of his state to support a strong environmental agenda. There was a huge battle in Washington during these years over whether to build an oil pipeline under Puget Sound to move Alaska oil east. Big business supported this project and it was a gigantic conflict in state politics. Somewhat to people’s surprise, Spellman came out against it and that basically killed the project. Other environmentally risky projects he vetoed and had his veto overridden by a state legislature largely in the pocket of the state’s corporate leaders.

This hardly means Spellman was a Democrat or something. When Scoop Jackson died, Spellman named Dan Evans to the Senate instead of a Democrat, outraging the state’s Democrats. He was certainly pro-business on most economic issues. In 1984, Democrats were able to knock Spellman out with Booth Gardner.

After his term as governor, Spellman went back to the law and to being a political insider, where he might have been more effective anyway. He did run for office one more time, for the state Supreme Court in 1990, but he lost that race too.

Spellman died in Seattle in 2018 after he fell and broke his hip. He was 91 years old.

John Spellman is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Seattle, Washington. Sorry the picture is a bit out of focus, it had just rained and I didn’t want to get my shoes wet so I took the picture from farther out than normal.

If you would like this series to visit other governors of the 1980s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. J. Joseph Garrahy is in South Kingstown, Rhode Island and Robert Orr is in Indianapolis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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