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How a slate took over the Seattle City Council

A key actor in the formation of CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council) traces the campaign to transform Seattle politics four decades ago.
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Former Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman in 1975. (Seattle Municipal Archive)

A key actor in the formation of CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council) traces the campaign to transform Seattle politics four decades ago.

Forty years ago this month the political organization called Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) was unveiled to the Seattle public. In the context of our current, intensely divisive politics, it was remarkable – an ad hoc, youthful, bipartisan political action group operating by consensus. It became the campaign vehicle in the 1967-73 elections for activist citizens and organizations to inject new blood into the Seattle City Council, which opened the door for other reforms and innovations. In the middle of the 1960s Seattle was still a regional business center whose economy was primarily dependent on Boeing, a city that had not yet been significantly shaken by the social upheaval of the civil rights and anti-Viet Nam war movements. The average age of the nine Seattle City Council members was mid-60s. In addition, the city government operated under a "weak-mayor, strong council" form under which the City Council had the budget-making power and no single elected official was clearly in charge. The City Council was mostly devoted to fiscal conservatism and suspicion of federal programs. This was completely overturned by the end of 1971. The turmoil of the civil rights and antiwar movements had come to town. All nine council members were new since 1967, the city's mayor, Wes Uhlman, was the youngest in its history, and he had much greater powers than before. CHECC played a pivotal role in the revamping of the council. In the subsequent decades, the Seattle area was transformed from a regional center into an internationally significant metropolis. Here's how it happened. The formation of CHECC began in December 1966. Richard Bushnell approached David Wood at a social event to discuss what action might be taken to reform city government. Bushnell was a public relations executive and the immediate past-president of the Young Republicans of King County (YR). Wood was a University of Washington executive and treasurer of the Metropolitan Democratic Club (MDC). They agreed to explore whether members of the YR and the MDC were interested in creating a reformist political action organization. A group of YR and MDC officials met in January 1967 and decided to take some concrete action, but a parallel development involving the Seattle Junior Chamber of Commerce (JC) caused a major expansion of the concept. Unaware of the YR/MDC initiative, the leadership of the JC had also decided to seek election of new council members. The senior Chamber of Commerce objected, so once the JC learned of the MDC/YR leaders' plans, its leaders joined forces with them to form an independent organization. A series of exploratory meetings were held in February and March. The people participating grew to include George Akers, Tom Alberg, Chris Bayley, Duncan Bronson, Bushnell, Bruce Chapman, Camden Hall, Lem Howell, Peter LeSourd, Gary Little, Linda McDonald, James O'Connor, John Watson, and Wood, with Hall acting as informal chair by consensus. By May, Robert Keene, Allan Munro, Steve Murphy, and Llewelyn Pritchard joined the group. Almost all of its leaders were under 30 years of age, and 11 of them were attorneys. Bushnell proposed a "perceived amalgamation" of the YR, MDC, and JC, fearing that the YR membership would not agree to lend the club's name to a bipartisan political effort, and the JC could not afford to contravene the senior chamber's demands. On April 7, the final key decisions were made. By unanimous consensus, Democratic attorney LeSourd was designated as chair, and Republican attorney Hall as vice-chair. This decision to have the group led by someone who had a clear identification as either a Democrat or Republican demonstrated the collegial, consensus-based approach of this group of partisan political activists. The big press conference At a press conference announcing the formation of CHECC on April 24, reporters were present from both daily newspapers, all the local network TV stations, and a number of radio stations and weekly newspapers. LeSourd and Hall sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a podium with officers of the JC, MDC, and YR standing behind them. A list of CHECC's "sponsors" that was distributed clearly demonstrates the core public relations strategy that Bushnell had originally proposed. Twenty-six people were named, not in alphabetic order or with its officers first, but seemingly at random. In fact, the sequence was carefully constructed. It alternated among persons with JC, MDC and YR membership. The "perceived amalgamation" was achieved, without any of those organizations taking a formal vote on whether to participate. CHECC's formation was favorably reported on local TV newscasts and in both daily newspapers. In a period of only about two months, a bipartisan group of young experienced political activists had created a reform organization and successfully announced it to the public. It has been often asserted that CHECC was formed and controlled by Harvard University graduates, and that many of its leaders were newcomers to Seattle. The fact is, however, that more of the people who were leaders in its founding and operation as of June 1967 were graduates of Puget Sound-area universities than were graduates of any "national" universities. At least 11 were Seattle-area natives, and two of the others had lived here since starting their undergraduate studies in local universities some 10 years earlier. CHECC decided to endorse and provide campaign support to candidates in two council positions in the primary election, which were officially nonpartisan offices. In recognition of the bipartisan nature of the group, one of the candidates was to have an identifiable Democratic background and the other a Republican one. The credible contenders for CHECC's two endorsements were Republicans Robert Dunn and Tim Hill, and Democrats Robert Block, George Cooley, Phyllis Lamphere, and Sam Smith. At a public meeting on July 6, its Executive Board recommended to the membership that Lamphere and Hill be endorsed for positions 3 and 5. Although Cooley and Smith received significant consideration, the members chose Hill and Lamphere by substantial majorities. Now CHECC had to devote its full attention to becoming a successful political campaign organization. However, racial unrest across the country upstaged the election campaign in the month ahead. Violent rioting in Newark, N.J., and Detroit killed 60 people. As rumors spread in Seattle that violent acts might be planned here, Mayor Dorm Braman and Washington Gov. Daniel J. Evans helped defuse the tension at an August meeting with young activists in Seattle's African-American community. CHECC is challenged in print The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a long opinion piece on July 16 openly challenging CHECC to endorse Smith, an African-American, for council position 2. Suddenly the candidacy of the only credible candidate of minority race in the Seattle election became of special significance. Would the racial tensions work for or against Smith, and how would CHECC respond? Lamphere was running a powerful campaign against Cooley and incumbent Ed Riley. Hill was much less known, was running against incumbent Clarence Massert, and also apparently had a strong opponent in challenger Eddie Black, an experienced business executive who had substantial support from the business community. CHECC's leaders were concerned about potentially diluting the value of its endorsement and support of Hill. In addition, there was the fundamental assumption that CHECC's endorsements would be equally balanced between Republicans and Democrats. The Board had imposed on itself a rule that any endorsements proposed to the membership would have to be by a two-thirds favorable vote of the Board. Neither Democrat Smith nor his opponents, Democrat Block and Republican Dunn, was able to get this super-majority. At a public general membership meeting on Sept. 7 the Board recommended no endorsement in position 2. A simple majority of votes cast would decide the issue. After a passionate and lengthy debate, a vote was called for. The result was a tie. LeSourd stood before the group and made an instant decision. Exercising his prerogative as chair of the meeting, he cast a "yes" vote and the motion not to endorse was passed. CHECC's candidates in the primary election would only be Hill and Lamphere. Besides raising money, which was either passed on to candidates or spent in their support, CHECC researched and published four position papers on major issues. One of them charged the City Council with "neglect and indifference" toward Seattle's park system. The P-I reported that CHECC had criticized the city for allowing "large piles of freeway dirt" from the construction of the Interstate 5 highway two years before to remain in Montlake Park, despite pleas from neighborhood residents. The dirt was removed within a few days. CHECC clearly had the attention of City Hall. When the Sept. 19 primary election ballots were counted, not only were both Hill and Lamphere nominated by huge margins but also the incumbents in their races were eliminated. In the race for position 2, Dunn and Smith finished in a virtual tie, with Block losing by only 4,000 out of 60,000 votes cast. CHECC had succeeded in getting across its basic message that these times required new leadership in city government. But its leaders noted another startling aspect of the primary election: only 19 percent of Seattle's registered voters had voted, the lowest ever in the city's history up to that time. If a much larger number were to vote in the general election, whom would they support? Hill's opponent had greatly outspent him in the primary, and was raising more money for the general election. More than twice as many voters turned out for the Nov. 7 general election. Nevertheless, more than a two-to-one margin elected Lamphere over Cooley, and Hill out-polled Black three-to-two. The closest race was between Dunn and Smith, with Smith winning by 6,682 votes out of almost 106,000 votes cast. CHECC's goal of electing two reformist Council members had been exceeded. Now there were three new faces, the beginning of a complete transformation of Seattle city government. After the 1967 elections, Hill, Lamphere, and Smith from time to time were able to persuade members Ted Best, Charles Carroll, and Myrtle Edwards to take a more forward-looking approach to city affairs. Their consistent support could not be counted on to create a majority, however, and the other holdover council members continued to represent the old way of doing business. To achieve the CHECC reformers' goals, more new blood was needed in the council. Early in 1969 Hall became CHECC's chair, and young Democratic attorney John Hempelmann became vice-chair. Hempelmann moved up to chair in 1970, and was followed by young Democratic lawyer Randy Revelle in 1972. Over the course of the 1969 and 1971 council elections, CHECC successfully backed newcomers Liem Eng Tuai, a Republican and Chinese-American lawyer, and John Miller, a young Republican lawyer and environmentalist, and 1967 candidate Cooley for the council. However, in 1973 CHECC successfully ran Revelle against Cooley, and Tuai lost a race for mayor instead of running for reelection. CHECC also endorsed the reelection of Hill, Lamphere, and Smith. Two CHECC candidates lost in the 1969 election. In addition, one of its founding members, Chapman, was elected in 1971. Contrary to popular lore, CHECC did not endorse Chapman. It had adopted a requirement of a two-thirds favorable membership vote to back a candidate, and neither Republican Chapman nor his opponent, Democrat Jim Kimbrough, were able to gain that super-majority. The city's transformation is complete So by December 1973 there were five Seattle City Council members who were directly associated with CHECC, and a sixth who had its endorsement in his reelection campaign. In addition, the structure of city government had also been completely transformed through charter amendment and legislative action. In the 1967 election, Lamphere would probably have won even if CHECC had never appeared on the scene. However, Hill would not have run for election but for CHECC, and he gives substantial credit to it for his success. In 1971, Chapman benefited greatly from his image as a CHECC founder, and says that he probably would not have considered running had he not previously played that role. CHECC successfully challenged the established order, and created a campaign climate that favored change and gave credibility to young candidates such as Hill, who was only 31 years old. In addition, 34-year-old Uhlman's successful mayoralty campaign in 1969 took full advantage of the positive image of CHECC's youthful reformers to convince the voters to elect the youngest mayor in Seattle's history. This political climate likely also helped Smith's nomination and election as the city's first African-American council member. Under the new elected officials, major decisions were made from 1968 through the 1970s that benefited the city. The contentious and emotional issue of "open housing," prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race in the sale of private residences, provides a dramatic example. In 1963 the City Council majority refused to adopt such a law. Instead, they referred a proposed ordinance to the voters, who turned it down by a two-to-one margin. In the spring of 1968, six council members introduced another proposed open housing ordinance. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The ordinance was passed unanimously on April 19. Uhlman took office as mayor in December 1969. In race relations and youth protest matters, he proved to have an intuitive understanding of how to respond to the protesters and the courage to take positions that were highly controversial within the traditional community power structure. For example, in the aftermath of the May 4, 1970, killing of student anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University, Uhlman ordered authorities to shut down the I-5 express lanes on May 8 to allow a massive protest of an estimated 15,000 students to march from the University of Washington to the downtown federal courthouse. The majority of the Council members generally supported his positions and initiatives in these matters, and were themselves active in seeking solutions. Employment of minorities was another problem area. According to UW history professor Quintard Taylor, the mid-1960s economic boom generated in the Seattle area by Boeing's expansion did not substantially benefit the black community, which faced racial discrimination in employment. Unemployment there in 1967 still was three times the overall rate for the city. This was one of the issues that created the tense racial situation in Seattle that summer which led to Governor Evans' involvement, and inflamed tensions again in 1968. However, by the mid-1970s, progress was being made in bringing more minority students into the University of Washington and in opening up economic opportunity for minorities. This occurred in municipal employment, union hiring halls, and private businesses, and in promoting minority-owned business. Many people played a role in these successes: the council; Mayor Braman and Ed Devine, his deputy; Mayor Uhlman; UW President Charles Odegaard; and other civic and business leaders and organizations. Those issues were not the only serious ones facing city government during this period. Boeing began slashing its employment in the fall of 1969, and in 18 months its workforce in Washington shrank from more than 100,000 to less than 40,000. Seattle's unemployment rate soared to 12 percent, the worst to that time in any major American city since the Great Depression. At the same time, the city was grappling with how to solve its urgent transportation problems while also preserving its "soul" and "quality of life." These issues played out in the context of controversies such as the proposed R.H. Thompson and Bay freeways, Forward Thrust's rapid-transit projects, and the Pike Place Market redevelopment proposal, all of which were defeated. After Uhlman became mayor, there was the sort of tug-of-war between him and the council that one would expect, especially since he was the first mayor elected after the city budget process was moved from the chair of the council finance committee to the mayor, and other changes had been made which strengthened the mayor's power. Lamphere recalls that by the time Chapman and Miller were elected to the Council in 1971, all the council members "worked very well together," and Uhlman "responded positively." Uhlman agrees that his dealings with the council were productive. There was an impressive amount of brainpower and political savvy spread around the two governing floors of the Seattle Municipal Building. As a result, a wide range of innovative programs came out of city government from 1968 through the 1970s: expansion of community and senior services; historic preservation; open access for citizen participation in governmental decision-making; arts funding; parks overhaul and expansion; revision of land-use planning and permitting procedures; residential housing rehabilitation; high-rise downtown residential living; downtown ride-free transit zone; p-patch program; licensing procedures reform; and others. Without CHECC's influence on the elections of that period, the newcomers might not have been as "centrist" as they actually became, and the council could have become deadlocked within itself or with the mayor. CHECC's membership reflected a reformist bipartisan attitude, and most of its endorsed candidates fit that mold, in which a new urban consensus was found. CHECC had shown how a group of young Democratic and Republican political activists could find a common ground and vision, overcome controversies that could have blown the organization apart, and successfully contribute to a new direction in city government. The organization held together until 1977, by which time Seattle had perhaps tilted too far toward being a Democratic city to sustain the bipartisan approach, and many of the founding generation had developed important careers in the private sector. The organization, declaring victory, decided to disband.

   

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How a slate took over the Seattle City Council

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