Seattle mayor's office: Hard to hold on to

Snowstorms, anarchists and gold rushes. It's not easy being Seattle's CEO.
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The mayors of Seattle's past

Snowstorms, anarchists and gold rushes. It's not easy being Seattle's CEO.

Seattle's voters can be fickle, the political winds tough to read. Greg Nickels, a powerful pol, was brought down in part by a rare snowstorm — a snowstorm of all things! How ironic for a man who gained a national reputation combating global warming.

His predecessor, Paul Schell, saw decades of civic commitment undone in part because of a few WTO anarchists and Mardi Gras thugs. Both Nickels and Schell were bounced in re-election primaries — incumbency is no protection in Seattle. The 2013 mayor's race is crowded precisely because prospective mayors sense a weak incumbent in Mike McGinn. At least that was the conventional wisdom six months ago.

In the annals of fickleness though, our current times don't hold a candle to days gone by. Seattleites have often second-guessed themselves — or the majority — and have threatened or tried to recall a number of mayors, including John Dore, Edwin Brown, Robert Harlin, Ole Hanson, Charles Smith, Wes Uhlman and Mike McGinn. They've succeeded twice.

The first mayor tossed out was Hiram Gill. Gill won election in 1910, but was successfully recalled during a special election a year into his two-year term. The recall was apparently powered by newly enfranchised women voters who were not happy with the mayor's tolerance of vice. That wasn't the end of it. Gill ran for mayor again, and was rejected again. Then he ran again and won in 1914, and was then re-elected in 1916. He was defeated (again) for re-election in 1918. He was accused of corruption, taking bribes from bootleggers, and was disbarred. Seattle apparently loved Gill, then hated him, then was ambivalent, then loved him again, then wanted him in jail. The Seattle Times' Ross Cunningham later assessed the mood of the era: "The city's electorate first blew hot against vice, but returned to tolerances when it was deemed that too much reform was intolerable."

The second mayor successfully recalled was a newcomer to politics, Frank Edwards, who emerged from a crowded field to defeat Seattle's first and only female mayor, Bertha Knight Landes, in 1928. Edwards ran on a pro-business platform (he was a former movie theater magnate). He was re-elected in 1930, but infuriated the public by firing the popular and powerful head of City Light, J.D. Ross. He was successfully recalled by a large majority in 1931, and the president of the city council, Robert Harlin, was appointed to take his place, and Ross got his job back.

Edwards had been re-elected for second two-year term but was recalled a year later. Seattle has a reputation for civic constipation, but when it comes to the mayor's office we have a track record of political diarrhea. A two-year term was apparently too long to wait for change.

Voters haven't been the only ones wielding the fickle finger. Some of our mayors have often been uncertain about the office they filled. In the beginning, it was a one-year appointed or elective office with little to recommend it. As described by one Seattle paper, in the early days "the emoluments of the office were inconsiderable and its duties not over-exacting. It was fitly deemed an honor, however." Seattle has had many mayors who willingly gave up office — men who simply didn't like the job, found something better to do, or diverted to an easier path to emoluments, if not honor.

In 1872, Mayor Corliss Stone reportedly left town and resigned his office after embezzling $15,000 from his business partner and heading to San Francisco with a woman who was married to someone else. Things must have worked out because he returned to the city and, like many of our mayors, was a successful local developer. One of his projects was near Lake Union. Stone Way is named for him.

Another developer-mayor, Harry White, helped to rebuild Seattle after the fire. He bought at auction the city's post-fire City Hall at Third and Yesler, a bizarre, rambling, "oddly agglomerated" structure dubbed the "Katzenjammer Castle" and later called a "monstrosity." White resigned in 1891 under criticism for his management. He was reportedly ordered to quit by Leigh Hunt, the powerful publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and boss of local politics. White went on to be a developer in California and invest in coal mines in Alaska.

Businessman Frank D. Black had the shortest tenure. He resigned after only 16 days in office, citing health in 1896. Black was reportedly a reluctant Republican nominee, chosen by his party to fend off the possible election of a Populist candidate. Black was reported to have become "disgusted" with politics before the campaign was even over. Once in office, overwhelmed by office-seekers and demands for patronage trade-offs, he simply quit.

Black's place was taken by William D. Wood, a jurist and early developer of Green Lake (he married a Wallingford). But Wood didn't last long. When the gold-laden steamer Portland came into Seattle and kicked off the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, Wood quickly took a 60-day leave from office to start the Seattle and Yukon Trading Company to make money off the boom hauling men and supplies to Alaska. The mayor's office was declared vacant and the council selected someone else to fill out his term. Gold fever seems like a pretty good reason to bug out — if nothing else he was following the hype that helped launch modern Seattle. Wood, however, did not leave town for good. The judge continued to play a role in civic affairs for years after.

Ole Hanson became mayor in 1918 and left office in 1919, but he had an eventful term that included dealing with the Seattle General Strike and the influenza epidemic. He also survived an assassination attempt when a city clerk discovered a package sent to Hanson's office was a mail bomb containing dynamite and acid. That clerk, by the way, Milton Strouse, went on to become one of Seattle's longest serving public employees with a 45-year career. Not Hanson. After only a year on the job he proclaimed, "I am tired out and am going fishing." He moved to California and founded San Clemente.

At least two other mayors have left for better public sector jobs. Republican Arthur Langlie, the last Seattle mayor to run for and win higher office, became governor in 1941. Republican Dorm Braman resigned in 1969 to take a job in the Nixon administration as an Assistant Secretary of Transportation.

The office of Seattle mayor has long had a reputation as a stepping stone to political nowhere — I found an article from 1917 on this topic. But it's also true that for some, the position itself has been a slippery thing — hard to hang on to and easy to let go of. For many mayors, it has not only been unrewarding in the political afterlife, but in the here and now.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.