Seattle's political culture is often criticized for being provincial, inbred, a captive of "old Seattle" customs and nostalgia. But when it comes to the mayor's office, nothing could be further from the truth. Of the 52 individuals who have served as mayor in the last 144 years, how many do you think were Seattle natives?
Precisely one. And he was appointed, rather then elected, and served less than a year.
That native son was Floyd Miller, a city council member who took over after Dorm Braman resigned in 1969 to join the Nixon administration. Miller, an orphan, was a successful self-made businessman and longtime Seattle city councilmember prior to becoming interim mayor. Few remember his tenure.
According to a check of local newspaper and library archives, only two other mayors were even born in Washington State: Charles Smith, who served during the Great Depression, was from Auburn; Wes Uhlman, our youngest mayor, was born in Cashmere, home of Aplets & Cotlets.
The other 49 Seattle mayors came from all across the country and beyond. A survey of press clippings, census documents and other records shows that nine were born overseas, including three in England, two in Germany and one in Sri Lanka; six hailed from New England; five from New York State or New Jersey; 16 came from the Midwest; six from Southern or border states; and five from Western states other than Washington, including one Californian.
A frontier town
It's understandable that Seattle's early leadership was, by definition, made up of non-native pioneers and frontier settlers who arrived here via wagon train, ship or eventually railroad to seek a new life on Puget Sound. Our first four mayors were New Englanders from either Vermont or Maine. Our fifth was the first foreign born mayor, a son of Ireland.
But as Seattle has grown and flourished right up to the present our mayors, with the noted exceptions, have been born elsewhere. It is relative newcomers and transplants who rule and represent the Seattle Way. But Seattle is not alone in this. According to Jewel Lansing, author of "Portland: People, Politics and Power 1851-2001," Portland has had only one native-born mayor in 162 years. That would be Earl Riley, who served from 1941-49.
Perhaps, Seattle and Portland are still under the influence of Horace Greeley's "Go West, young man" exhortation. By the way, Seattle mayor Beriah Brown (1878) was a newspaperman and personal friend of Greeley's from New York State, so he might have gotten that advice first-hand. He certainly took it.
One would think that a century or so after its incorporation Seattle would have raised a home-grown, web-footed contingent of pols to call Hizzoner (or Herzzoner in the case of Bertha Knight Landes). Prof. Robert Cherny, urban and political historian at San Francisco State University, guesses that since the mid-1890s, probably half of San Francisco's mayors have been from that city. He notes, however, that their current mayor, Edwin Mah Lee, is a Chinese American from Seattle (Beacon Hill). Cherny says that widespread population mobility caused by the Great Depression and World War II is probably a factor in keeping the place-of-origin pot well stirred. "Literally anybody can run for mayor of San Francisco," he says.
That's true in Seattle too.
The last 35 years in Seattle have been little different from the first 100. Since 1978, our mayors have been Charles Royer (born in Oregon), Norm Rice (Denver), Paul Schell (Indiana), Greg Nickels (Chicago) and Mike McGinn (New York). All fit a pattern. Our mayors tend to be people whose parents came to Seattle for a job or a better life, or who came here on their own early in their careers. Many sank roots and have thrived in all walks of life, from journalism and lawyering to dentistry and saw milling.
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