Gordon Clinton, elected mayor a half century ago, helped create modern Seattle

Former Mayor Greg Nickels remembers a predecessor about whom he knew little initially.

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Ex-Mayors Gordon Clinton and Norm Rice at Greg Nickels' office in City Hall (2003).

Former Mayor Greg Nickels remembers a predecessor about whom he knew little initially.

Last Saturday (Nov. 26), former Mayor Gordon Clinton died at the age of 91. Mayor Clinton was elected Seattle’s 44th mayor on March 6, 1956 defeating incumbent Allan Pomeroy. At 35, he was our youngest Mayor until the election of Wes Uhlman in 1969. He was reelected in 1960 and became the first Seattle mayor to serve two four-year terms.

It was my pleasure to visit with Mayor Clinton at his home in the Bayview Retirement Community on the South Slope of Queen Anne Hill in July 2002, shortly after I became his successor. I knew little about the man or his work while mayor. But I found him to be thoroughly engaging and made a point to learn more about his time as mayor. (Along that line, in 2004, Walt Crowley interviewed Mayor Clinton for HistoryLink.org.)

Mayor Clinton joined me for my 2003 State of the City address and the dedication of Seattle City Hall, where we started a new tradition of mayors signing our names in the drawer of the historic Mayor’s desk. (Ironically, Mayor Clinton had built the City’s much-maligned Municipal Building, “paid for with cash,” and lived to see it demolished and replaced by its successor City Hall in 2003.)

Mayor Clinton began Seattle’s first Sister City relationship with Kobe, Japan. This relationship continues today, more than a half-century later. Mayor Clinton was instrumental in the Sister City movement in Seattle and nationwide. He served many years on the Board of Sister Cities International. At his suggestion I paid my respects at the grave of Mayor Haraguchi during my visit to Kobe in 2002. Mayor Haraguchi was Mayor Clinton’s counterpart in establishing the Sister City bonds and a revered figure in Kobe.

Mayor Clinton oversaw the preparations for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a seminal event that marked Seattle’s coming of age. He helped create the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) to clean up Lake Washington at a time when the environmental movement was in its infancy. Now, as part of King County government, Metro not only treats the region's sewage but also runs its transit. Those are legacies that have benefitted all of us who followed him, whether in office and or as citizens of Seattle.

He also wrestled early with the issues of open housing and civil rights, creating Seattle’s Civil Rights Commission. An important Open Housing measure was defeated by voters the day Mayor Clinton’s successor was elected (March 10, 1964).

Mayor Clinton was old-school. He was close to the business community and the city's Republican Establishment (yes, Seattle had one of those back then). But he was ahead of his time on many issues that Seattle and the nation were beginning to confront then and would for many more years. The values he espoused as mayor and his foresightedness can be seen even today, a half-century later, as we look to move Seattle forward.


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