Why hasn’t Seattle had a woman mayor?

Phyllis Lamphere and Norm Rice

Why no woman mayor?  Here’s my take on that.

First, let me say that in my mind being a big city mayor is the toughest political job in the U.S., second only to that of president.

I’ve been involved with cities all my life. I’ve worked with many mayors and understand the price they pay for the privilege of being on call round the clock. Why do they do it?  Because serving as mayor is the best way they can leave a lasting mark on their city.

I decided to run for mayor in 1977. The stars were all in alignment that year. I had the requisite credentials, including 10 years on the City Council, Vice President of Forward Thrust, Finance Chair of METRO, member of the State Law and Justice Committee, etc.  When I announced in the spring, I was widely considered the front-runner.

So what went wrong?

As your recent article pointed out, other pastures were calling. Mine were in Washington D.C. where I was installed as president of the National League of Cities in the very same year I was running for Mayor. My duties as NLC President required my presence not only at national board meetings, but also at numerous state association meetings, national conferences on urban affairs, meetings with legislative leaders and cabinet officers, etc., all to advance NLC’s urban agenda inside the sacred halls of the other Washington. It was a heady experience, but one that was counter productive to a demanding local campaign.

Lesson One: Stay on the playing field.

There’s more. Three of my City Council colleagues also decided to run for Mayor in 1977: Tim Hill, Sam Smith and Wayne Larkin. We had worked well together on the council, but there was an anti-incumbent sentiment brewing in the community at large that year. Whatever positive support we enjoyed was destined to be divided among us in the primary which, predictably, none of us survived.

Lesson Two: Beware of circumstances where you wind up splitting the primary votes from a common constituency.

There are the personal considerations too. My trial by fire happened a long time ago, when campaigning was on foot and in person (no electronic media); when the time demands of a high-visibility campaign weighed heavily on any candidate, but especially  on a woman with a family; and where the daily press and weekly newspapers provided limited coverage of campaign stops and candidate appearances.

Back then, any misstep by a woman candidate or officeholder raised questions about all women candidates. I experienced this with Dixy Lee Ray, who was Washington’s governor in 1977. Dixy had been waging an “in your face” battle with the press, which I won’t belabor here. Suffice to say, she didn’t project the image of an effective woman executive.

Lesson Three: Don’t let anyone tar you with another female politician’s “bad brush” — see the recent press about the ex-mayor of San Diego — any more than one would react in like manner to a same situation involving male politicians.

It’s true about the heat in the kitchen. Facing the day by day, event by event, demand by demand, never ending appearances required of a mayoral candidate is exhausting, especially when you’re expected to be perfectly “coiffed.” groomed, attired and poised on all occasions.

On the plus side, visiting neighborhoods and talking to everyday citizens is enlightening, often entertaining and always humbling. There’s nothing like it! But the non-stop schedule – days, evenings, weekends, holidays – totally disrupts family life, for you , as  wife and mother, but also for your partner who has to accompany you to too many evening performances following a challenging work day.

Lesson Four:  Know what you’re getting into and be sure it’s the life you want to lead.

Chalk me up as a little old lady whose bubble burst when she failed to become mayor of the city she loved. Oh, I went on to become Regional Director of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, then spent many years as a public affairs consultant before devoting my energies to community projects — the Convention Center, Lake Union Park, the “new” MOHAI — designed to improve this great city. But I missed the brass ring, and I wanted to tell you why.

I also wanted to say that Seattle has had a number of great mayors since 1967, the year we passed the budget reform act (I was its principal lobbyist) that moved Seattle from a weak-mayor to a much more effective strong-mayor form of government. Ask Wes Uhlman or Charley Royer or Norm Rice or Greg Nickels if they would have run under the old weak-mayor system. I feel good about accomplishing that transformation.

In detailing the particulars of my own mayoral race, I don’t wish to imply that I lost out because of bad luck or external forces. In the end, I lost because someone was in a better place at a better time.

I hate to say it, but if you’re an established woman leader thinking about running for higher office, I’d keep an eye on options on state or federal office instead. At those levels the big issues are fewer, more long-term and less confrontational, and the working environment is different, providing opportunity to learn and grow. Although running for statewide office requires campaigning throughout Washington, visiting the diverse regions of our state and getting to know their unique communities is fascinating. If you’re thinking about a congressional race, your district will be smaller than the city of Seattle, its issues fewer and less immediate than the day-to-day problems of the city.

There are good reasons why Seattle hasn’t had a woman mayor. The campaign is grueling. The loss of privacy is especially hard for a woman with a family. Women often find it harder to raise money for themselves than for a cause or project they believe in. And we are judged differently; any miscue can be devastating, and the faux pas of one female public official can taint us all. Finally, there are more and more opportunities in both the public and private sectors for qualified women to find professional fulfillment contribute to their community and maintain a balanced personal life.

My experience may not influence any young woman who is contemplating a run for elective office. But maybe it will help the press answer its own question about why Seattle hasn’t had a woman mayor since Bertha Landes.

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