Seattle's comeback mayors

Could we see Nickels or McGinn back in City Hall? Three Comeback Mayors of Seattle's distant past.
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The "new" Hiram Gill, welcomed back from the dead by the Seattle Star in 1914.

Could we see Nickels or McGinn back in City Hall? Three Comeback Mayors of Seattle's distant past.

Seattle's ex-mayors have a poor track record when it comes to attaining higher office after their terms end at City Hall, but not all go out to pasture. Three former mayors left office, then returned for a sequel — and action-packed sequels at that.

Contrary to popular belief, there are sometimes second acts in Seattle mayoral politics. It hasn't happened in a long while — not since the Great Depression — but with so many incumbent mayors turned out in recent years, and with some of these men still in their prime, we seem to be overdue for an encore performance. Could Mike McGinn or Greg Nickels make mayoral returns? Could Charley Royer resurrect himself for an unprecedented *fourth* term? Stranger things have happened. Here are three former mayors who qualify as Comeback Kids:

Henry Yesler, mayoral terms 1874-5, 1885-6

Seattle's first second act mayor was Henry Yesler, one of the city's earliest settlers and founders, whose steam sawmill was budding Seattle's first real payroll — the logging era's equivalent to Boeing. It also laid the foundation for civic life: Its cook house served as community gathering place, restaurant, hotel, court, jail, military barracks, theater and house of worship for the city's first decade.

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In 1870, Yesler ran for mayor with the slogan, "The Best Friend Seattle Has Ever Had," but the citizens disagreed and elected Henry Atkins by a vote of 80 to 64. The terms then were one year. Yesler tried and was defeated again in 1873 by John Collins. Yesler ran again the next year and won in a veritable landslide, racking up 292 votes with only 13 other write-in votes against him.

Still, he seemed to believe that what was best for him was best for Seattle, and spent little of his one-year term pushing for civic improvements. Distracted during his term with trying to sort out his own business affairs, which included a lottery scandal and being swamped with debt, he was accused of running a "do-nothing" administration.

Yesler did not run for re-election, putting politics aside to focus on becoming the city's first millionaire. Suing the city over its attempts to stick businesses with the bill for things like road regrades was just one part of that. But nearly a decade after his first mayoral term, Yesler was called back to city politics.

In 1884 he was elected to the city council as a member of what was subtly called, "The Business Man's Ticket." It was an exemplar of the bi-polar politics that have frequently pitted reform vs. vice in Seattle history. A group of do-gooders, the "Law & Order League," wanted to crack down on sin in Seattle, to regulate the saloons and maintain the Sunday ban on booze.

The business community, with Yesler as their chief spokesman, opposed such restrictions. After Yesler's sawmill, vice was Seattle's next most important industry. Whiskey and women were money in Deadwood-on-the-Sound. The vice district sat on landfill made by sawdust from Yesler's mill. Businessmen wanted prosperity over prudery. In 1885, Yesler — wealthy, 75 years old and the very embodiment of Seattle's roots — was elected mayor for a second time.

It was not a happy term. He was plunged into the middle of the uprising against Chinese immigrants, and Yesler was in the position of trying to keep civil order in the city, an act for which mayors have often been punished. George Cotterill (Potlatch Riots), Ole Hanson (General Strike), Paul Schell (WTO, Mardi Gras), and Yesler all felt the sting of civil unrest. Yesler was no stranger to controversy — he was notoriously litigious. He also provided civilian leadership during the Indian War and in mending native relations afterward.

As labor groups and unruly mobs driven by race rage and economic fears tried to oust the Chinese violently from Seattle, Yesler attempted to uphold the rule of law, even while he agreed that the Chinese should leave. Yesler's second term was anything but "do nothing." The city, for a time, was placed under martial law with the U.S. Army patrolling the streets.

Yesler himself endured death threats, an attack on his home where his wife sheltered their Chinese cook from an angry mob, fake bombs planted in his yard, and the poisoning of his livestock. This was not the era of "Seattle nice" — a more modern contrivance. Disgusted at the way many in Seattle had behaved, Yesler left office after a year and resumed tending to his business affairs. He could take some satisfaction in having navigated the city through a frightening civic storm, but it's hard to imagine that his second turn was what he expected.

Hiram Gill, 1910-11, 1914-18

The next Comeback Kid was like the zombie that wouldn't die — a political cat with nine lives. Hiram Gill was a member of the city council who was said to be councilman for "the whiskey ring." In other words, in the battle between vice and virtue, Gill's political bread was buttered by those who profited from Seattle being an open town: saloons, prostitution, gambling.

Crosscut archive image.Gill argued that vice should be contained and tolerated in a vice district — that the main issue wasn't stamping it out but corralling it, and still continuing to profit from it. As one journalist later phrased it in McClure's magazine, it was a matter of "municipal cultivation" and keeping the "tenderloin capitalists" thriving while not turning the entire city into their playground. Gill ran for election in 1910 on a pro-vice platform and won.

But two other things happened that soon put him crosswise with citizenry. The police chief he appointed, Charles "Wappy" Wapperstein, was corrupt. A tough cop, "Wappy" took illegal payoffs from those operating in the vice district, including an alleged $10 per month from each of the nearly 2,000 women working in local brothels. Reported McClure's "[I]t is obviously easier to shear a flock of sheep in a corral than when they are scattered on the open hillsides."

With the cops collecting official graft, Seattle became, according to one police detective, "the vilest city in America."

Stirred up by the Wapperstein appointment, the reformers redoubled their efforts. Women, who had newly regained the right to vote in Washington, and religious leaders put together a coalition to recall Hiram Gill. Recalls were brand new in American politics, the first successful recall of a mayor had just occurred in Los Angles in 1909. They mounted an effort led by the Public Welfare League and the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs and it was successful. In 1911, Gill was recalled and a new mayor, George W. Dilling, put in his place.

Gill protested that the entire recall effort as simply a partisan conspiracy of his enemies. He claimed that the recall petitions were loaded with phony signatures and that the whole thing was drummed up as a vendetta by the politically ambitious owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "a newspaper that would go through the blackest depths of its campaign of falsehood because I would not bow the knee." The chief editorialist against Gill was Erastus Brainerd, the man whose public relations abilities had successfully sold Seattle as a Klondike gold rush Mecca. This time, Brainerd railed against what he called "Gillism."

But it wasn't just the P-I. While the Seattle Times backed Gill, the progressive daily Seattle Star also backed unseating the mayor: "The Star stands squarely against Hiram Gill and his policy of turning the city of Seattle over to be looted by the vice syndicate, to the uncounted cost in men's and women's souls." The conviction on corruption charges of Gill's chief Wapperstein vindicated their view. Wappy was sent to the state pen in Walla Walla. Gill was out. On his last day in office he philosophically observed, "Many a good fish gets the hook."

Such public disgrace would seem to be enough to finish off any politician, but not Gill. After a period of reform, Seattle seemed to grow a little tired of it. Gill, a lawyer, recast himself as a reformed reformer, running for mayor again in 1914 promising that this time he would really do better at limiting vice. He also ran as a friend to labor. The Seattle Star marveled at what it described as Gill's "political pendulosity."

Gill received the endorsement of some women and reform groups and three years after his recall won a new term with a sizable majority. Said his law partner Herman Frye, "It's a brand new Hi Gill that will go up to city hall tomorrow — new inside and out." Well, maybe not out. Gill was given a new suit for the occasion, but forgot to wear it to his swearing in. But he did sport a new corncob pipe.

Gill made a strong statement immediately by appointing one of his mayoral primary opponents and critics, Austin Griffiths, as the new, clean police chief. It was a strong signal that there would be no return to the times of Wappy. The Times crowed, "Seattle Vindicates Gill in Royal Style."

Gill was re-elected in 1916, but corruption charges dogged him again. He was accused of taking bribes from bootleggers during Prohibition (Washington went dry that year), and he was also disbarred for illegally soliciting legal work. He survived a call for his impeachment. He was defeated for re-election in 1918 — coming in third in the primary. Seattle, a city of second chances, had a limit to its patience.

John F. Dore, 1932-4, 1936-38

Crosscut archive image.Before the era of nice mayors, there was John F. Dore, a pugnacious, successful trial attorney who carried a gun, made incendiary speeches — including one from a boxing ring. He was voluble, of Irish descent, and had a knack for provoking the opposition. During a trial, Dore once induced the prosecutor to slug him in the nose by implying he was a liar. According to one writer, Dore "used to pack a gun in his pocket, which he would show if someone in the audience waved a firearm at him."

Dore's feisty appeal helped him get elected in tough times. He came into office in 1934 when the Great Depression was hammering Seattle. City unemployment was at 11 percent in 1930, but by 1935 it had risen to 26.5 percent. More than one Hooverville had popped up in town. There was labor unrest and a high population of unemployed — mostly middle-age, unskilled male workers with few immediate prospects. Dore sympathized and ran on a platform that argued for government work programs and tax relief.

As mayor, Dore started an open-door policy. Every Friday, he hosted "Trouble Day" at City Hall when ordinary citizens could bring him their problems and Dore played civic Solomon. Wrote the Seattle Times, "The waiting room outside the mayor's private chambers was thronged with men, women and children seeking aid, mostly as the result of unemployment. A week ago, Mr. Dore said, he bought 55 pairs of shoes for those coming to him with their troubles."

While he had been elected as a champion of those on relief, he soon lost favor with labor and others who expected more. Dore was determined to cut taxes, but also expenses in city government — what he characterized as "municipal extravagance." He cut public jobs and civil service pay, he suspended firefighters and chopped the budget. Business liked these moves, but public employees turned against him. Dore also cracked down on some strikers with over-the-top language: "I'll maintain 'lor' and order if it’s necessary to kill every person who raises a hand against the constituted authorities." When it was time for re-election, Dore was abandoned by labor, public employees and business, which wanted a mayor more fully in their court. He lost to their candidate, Charles Smith, in 1934.

If Mayor Gill had been accused of "political pendulosity," the defeated Dore also proved flexible as he planned his comeback. He embraced labor, or at least one powerful faction of it. Amid major strikes and upheaval on the docks and in the warehouses that were the city's lifeblood, Dore joined himself at the hip with rising Teamsters leader Dave Beck.

Beck was a union strongman, and as he fought for labor he also did battle with labor's left. While many in business considered all of labor to be "reds," Beck positioned himself as the labor boss the owners could deal with. But they had to accept his dominance.

Dore did a full swing on his previous policies. According to historian Richard Berner, the new Dore promised no more wage cuts for city workers and pledged that city departments could elect their own department heads. With strong Beck backing, Dore won his comeback race in 1936. He decried labor's "soviets," but he put Beck and the Teamsters in a different category. "I am going to pay back my debt to Dave Beck and the Teamsters in the next two years regardless of what happens."

The 1930s were filled with labor strife as Beck fought the Longshoreman. There were strikes, strike breakers, riots, goon squads, even bombings as unions fought for turf. Beck was increasingly seen as a kind of gangster. If Hiram Gill had been married to the vice lords, Dore was seen as an enabler of labor racketeering.

The public tide turned against Dore's brand of pro-labor politics. An ailing Dore ran for re-election in 1938, but was once again turned out of office, this time by a reform Republican with business backing named Art Langlie. Dore still nursed political ambitions. He said, "Instead of making the mayor's office a millstone, I'd like to turn it into a stepping stone…" He wanted to be governor, but didn't have the chance. Dore died in office before his term was officially over. Ironically, it was Langlie who used it for a stepping stone to the governor's mansion. Langlie was elected governor in 1940, the last Seattle mayor to attain higher elected office.

Seattle's comeback mayors all experienced terms of tumult. All three were stubborn men who persisted in politics. All were buffeted by a fickle electorate that often swung between polar positions. All three combined charm with toughness and a bluntness that could haunt them. None were afraid to make enemies, and they all did. Gill and Dore especially showed a willingness to shift with the political winds, like lawyers making their best case to the jury with the facts at hand. Seattle has always been a city friendly to reinvention, and sometimes that has included our mayors.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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