A water taxi named 'Dixy'?

In the naming contest for the county's new water taxis, a proposal in honor of the state's first female governor deserves a second look.
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Dixy Lee Ray

In the naming contest for the county's new water taxis, a proposal in honor of the state's first female governor deserves a second look.

I was thrilled to see that my suggestion to name the new Vashon-Seattle water taxi after the late, great writer and onetime Vashon commuter Betty MacDonald (author of "The Egg and I," and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, among others) made the list of finalists. Please vote for Betty!

The King County District ferry folks are naming two boats — the other runs the West Seattle-Downtown route —  and the finalists include names that could prove popular, among them: "Doc Maynard" after one of Seattle's most colorful founders; "Princess Angeline," after Chief Seattle's eldest daughter who lived to a venerable age in a shack below what is now the Pike Place Market and was famously photographed by Edward S. Curtis; and the "Cobain Watertrain," the kind of name likely to excite the elders among The Stranger's audience.

Another name on the list is well worth considering: the "Dixy Lee Ray."

Former Governor Dixy Lee Ray is out of step, favor and fashion with our green times. She famously warred with what she described as "radical" environmentalists because, she concluded, they "hate people." She favored an oil super-port on Puget Sound and her support of nuclear power garnered her the title "Madame Nuke." She was elected as a Democrat in 1976 but was more popular with conservatives. She claimed to be a fiscal conservative herself, but not a "sociological" one. In some ways, she was the Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom of her times. And she grew unpopular quickly. By 1977, one Seattle couple had set up a cottage business selling Dixy dartboards. Dixy named a litter of pigs after members of the Olympia press corps.

But let's look at what is in her favor. First, Dixy was only the second elected female U.S. governor on her own (meaning one who did not follow her husband in office). She was the first woman to serve as governor of Washington. She was one of a kind, a product of Washington who rose in academia as a marine biologist and University of Washington professor. Dixy broke glass ceilings, she was tough and independent-minded. She was a scientist and academic, not a politician. She was also an island dweller (Fox Island).

She headed the Pacific Science Center and, through grit and personal will, saw it through its transition from a former world's fair pavilion to a permanent institution devoted to scientific education and engagement with the public, a significant legacy in these science-challenged times. In the 1960s, Dixy and the Science Center were inseparable in the public mind. She spoke out and lobbied against the trade in Puget Sound's orcas by guys like Ted Griffin, captor of Namu the killer whale, and denounced the marketing in marine mammals. Dixy was a great character too — few people knew it, but she had a great laugh and smile, drove a red convertible sports car filled with dogs and was notable for her butch style: short hair, tweed skirts and open-necked shirts with pointy collars. She was unafraid to be herself, like her or no.

Dixy served on the Atomic Energy Commission (appointed by President Richard Nixon) and later became its chairman. She also served as an assistant secretary of state advising on oceans, environmental, and science policy under President Gerald Ford. When she returned to Washington to run for governor, she was seen as carrying the banner of independence, feminism and a non-politician's cred, which appealed post-Watergate. Many progressives were torn in that election that pitted Ray against a moderate King County Republican, John Spellman (who became governor four years later).

Since Dixy's political temperament and views were relatively little-known, she seemed to some like a breath of fresh air who could bring a fresh perspective to Olympia politics. Indeed, she was not a little like former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in that way: someone who spoke her mind and wouldn't back down. "I tend not to be swayed by what might be the political thing to do or the popular things to do," she said. She was elected in part because she was an outsider who eschewed politics. Not always the precursor of a smooth ride, to say the least.

Anti-oil tanker, anti-pipeline, anti-nuke politics were the order of the day, and provided the governor with plenty of targets and enemies to rail against. But it's interesting to note that many of her views are either mainstream or are creeping back into acceptability. She was pro-growth, pro-development. A smart little vessel plying Elliott Bay and delivering commuters to work in a city of cranes would undoubtedly please her.

Even her nuclear stance has gotten a second look. Dixy underplayed the dangers of nuclear power — safer than eating, she said — but she insisted the industry could be safer and cleaner. And she argued that it was necessary because carbon fuel sources were going to run out. In an era of climate change, a number of greens have shifted their stance on nuclear power as a post-carbon, planet-saving strategy (Stewart Brand and James Lovelock of Gaia theory fame come to mind). One wonders, though, what the political pugilist of Fox Island would have become in the age of Fox News. One can well imagine her enjoying ruffling liberal feathers, but somehow, I think the scientist in her would have prevailed. She did believe in progress, after all.

Dixy Lee Ray deserves some kind of recognition for her achievements. If Bertha Knight Landes gets a tunnel-boring machine, at the very least a marine biologist with Dr. Ray’s career accomplishments should rate a scrappy little vessel that can bull its way against storms and tides.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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