John Spellman, best leader for tough times

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Don C. Brunell

Too often, virtues and accomplishments of quiet leaders go unsung. Such is the case with John Spellman, former Washington governor and King County executive, who died Jan. 16 at the age of 91.

Now many friends, colleagues and adversaries from both political parties extol Spellman’s courage, integrity, leadership, humility, tenacity, wisdom, inclusiveness, helpfulness and civility — all values of a strong and effective leader.

John Spellman was the right person for our state during some of the most difficult times we faced since the Great Depression. We needed someone who could bring people together and solve tough problems.

Serving in public office was never easy for Spellman.

When he was elected King County Executive in 1969, Boeing had 83,700 workers in the Seattle area. By 1971, it dropped to 20,750. The infamous billboard appeared: “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn out the lights.”

The unemployment rate shot up to 14 percent, the highest in America. Housing vacancy rates rose to 16 percent from one percent in 1967 and out-of-work families had to sell their homes at “fire sale” prices.

Spellman was heralded as the King County Executive who built the Kingdome and brought the Seahawks and Mariners to Seattle by the time he moved into the Governor’s Office. Spellman managed well during his 11 years in the courthouse and left the county with money in the bank.

When he took office as our state’s 18th governor in 1981, our economy was in an uncontrolled free-fall. Complicating matters was the previous legislature that drained the reserves and Spellman was left with no cushion.

While the nation faced a crippling triple threat from double-digit interest rates, inflation and unemployment, in Washington workers compensation rates also were skyrocketing. Some small businesses received 20-25 percent rate increases.

“We had a crisis, as evidenced by the fact we had 13.6 percent unemployment rate at one time, and in a crisis, you have to act,” Spellman told retired Puget Sound Business Journal publisher Mike Flynn. “People didn’t elect me to do nothing.”

Spellman not only faced a fiscal crisis, but Olympia politics were testy as well. Democrats were smarting from the 1980 election loses. The state House went from a 49-49 tie to a 56-42 Republican majority. Then on Feb. 13, 1981, the Senate control abruptly switched when Democrat Peter von Reichbauer joined the Republican caucus. That move further exacerbated the bitter internecine war.

Life in the Republican caucus was no bed of roses because 24 legislators, known as the “troglodytes,” refused to vote for any new taxes. Spellman scrambled to patch together support from Republicans and Democrats.

During his four years, Spellman was forced to cut deeply in state funding for education and human services, but he was unwilling to solve the state’s fiscal problems through spending cuts alone.

By 1984, Spellman, who ran on a “taxes as last resort” platform, presided over largest series of tax increases in state history. He shouldered the blame, but the death nail was temporarily putting the sales tax back on groceries in 1982. It lasted for 14 months.

Spellman entered his 1984 re-election campaign with heavy political baggage and lost to Democrat Booth Gardner. “It wasn’t devastating,” he told Flynn. “I knew I had done a lot of things that weren’t calculated to make getting re-elected easy.”

John Spellman was a quiet and thoughtful man with a broad Irish smile. He ruled with dignity and respect. Spellman firmly believed people elected him to make our state and their lives better regardless of political consequences.

A good dose of John Spellman’s humility, bipartisanship and level headedness would be welcome today.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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