When it comes to mayors, Seattle loves newcomers

Of the 52 mayors who've run our fair city in the last 144 years, how many do you think were Seattle natives? Precisely one.
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Seattle City Hall

Of the 52 mayors who've run our fair city in the last 144 years, how many do you think were Seattle natives? Precisely one.

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.

Place of birth as a non-indicator of political success

The pattern suggests the enduring importance of Seattle's migrants and immigration. It also suggests that in our urban political arena, native sons and daughters are often out-competed for the top job. It's true that some mayors were raised in Seattle from an early age (Greg Nickels, for example) or have lived most of their professional lives here. Their actual birthplace makes no substantive difference. Looking at birthplaces is interesting civic trivia, but does it say anything about our politics?

It might. Carl Abbott, professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and author of "How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America," notes that Western cities, unlike, say, Boston, Chicago or New York, have "tended to have open and permeable leadership because of continued high rates of in migration and limited importance of ethnic communities as political blocs." Political machines tend to be weak here, and the tide of fresh blood very strong.

It has been noted by many observers that Seattle has a relatively flat hierarchy, and that it's fairly easy for young achievers, newcomers and political neophytes to rise to the top. McGinn was a Sierra Club activist, Royer a TV commentator. Neither of them slogged up the political, business or labor ladders. Neither had even held elective office.

This attraction to newbies points to another dynamic often seen in Western cities. Many people come here to improve on the old ways, stymied in places where opportunity and upward mobility is limited, where the politics are corrupt, stagnant or too competitive. Onetime Seattle mayor George Cotterill (born in Oxford, England, elected mayor as a reform candidate in 1912) voiced that spirit of wide-open potential when he proclaimed that the Northwest was "the world's outpost of outlook and opportunity, the place of vision and achievement."

From the late 19th century onward, reform movements in politics have been evident here, and populist tools like recalls and initiatives have been vigorously applied at state and metro levels. Seattle has seen periodic political upheavals due to labor activism, women's suffrage, William Jennings Bryan-era populism, Bull Moose progressivism, New Deal-driven change and the GOP-led housecleaning of institutional police and political corruption in the '60s and '70s.

Philip Vandermeer, associate professor of history at Arizona State University whose expertise includes Western urban politics and the Gilded Age Progressive era, notes that Western cities have seen "the creation of nonpartisan political groups that used but didn't require long-term residence." In other words, anti-machine campaigns have often been a force and fresh faces considered an asset.

Vandermeer notes that in Phoenix, the Charter Government Committee from the 1950s-70s elected slates of reform candidates. That committee echoes Seattle's CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council), the late '60's-era group which backed reformist slates. Organizer Peter LeSourd has described CHECC as an "ad hoc, youthful, bipartisan political action group." It was also criticized for being a cabal of newcomers. Over the course of a decade, CHECC helped to overthrow an old-guard in city politics.

Vandermeer also reflects that urban politics in the West tend not to be about where you're from or family pedigrees. "Western cities are more open to newcomers and less dominated by older families, in general," he says. Thus, more important than bloodlines are current connections, networking, contacts, the ability to raise money from various interests. It's not about old families running things behind the scenes at the Rainier Club, but about who you know and who you can mobilize. Prof. Cherny says that the lack of political entrenchment makes for "more fluidity in the political process," an appropriate word for politics in a rainy city.

Interestingly, in 2013, the crop of major candidates challenging McGinn suggests some potential for native Seattleites in 2013. Bruce Harrell and Peter Steinbrueck were born in the city, and Ed Murray was born in Aberdeen. (Seattle native Tim Burgess abruptly dropped out of the race last week.) Still, if history is a guide, McGinn's New York origins might give him an edge.

Ultimately, being a Seattle native has not proven to be an advantage in mayoral politics. Perhaps transplants are more fired-up with civic fervor and thrilled to have a more level playing field on which to play. In Seattle's politics of perpetual growth, renewal and restlessness newcomers tend to be rewarded, not punished. Newbies also might possess the zeal of the converted: people who come to Seattle often become determined to protect it or compelled to push the city toward some new vision.

Perhaps those born and raised here are a bit more complacent, tired of or a bit embarrassed by politics. For a town where people value their privacy, all that flesh-pressing and dialing for dollars can seem rather unseemly. The success of non-natives is likely more a function of migration and moxie than moss.

Note: Thanks to Jeannette Voiland of the Seattle Public Library's Special collections for her assistance in researching the birthplaces of our mayors.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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