Durkan isn’t the first: The history of Seattle mayoral recalls

In the 1970s, popular anger threatened to topple Mayor Wes Uhlman — not once, but three times.

Seattle mayor Wes Uhlman

Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman speaks with reporters at Pike Place Market during an event celebrating the 69th annniversary of the market. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Despite numerous threats over the years, Seattle has only twice recalled a mayor. Such efforts have made the ballot just three times in the past 109 years. It is still uncertain if the current move to recall Mayor Jenny Durkan will come to a public vote — she has appealed the ballot petition effort to the state Supreme Court — but now seems like a good time to revisit the moments in Seattle history when popular anger threatened to topple an embattled executive.

Previous successful recall efforts targeted both pro-vice Mayor Hiram Gill, who was ousted from office by reformers and newly enfranchised women in 1911 (he later made a comeback to the mayor’s office), and Frank Edwards, the "business man mayor" who defeated Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha Knight Landes, in 1928 but was recalled three years later for firing the popular head of the city’s public utility, City Light.

Most recently, in the summer of 1975, a special election gave Seattleites an opportunity to dump a young, progressive mayor named Wesley “Wes” Uhlman. Amazingly, it was the third of three attempts to recall him, according to documents in the city’s Municipal Archives. The Uhlman recall saga offers both a glimpse into a tumultuous era in Seattle politics and perhaps offers some lessons for today.

Recalling the Uhlman recalls

Uhlman was a Democrat in the state Legislature when he became mayor of Seattle, at age 34, in 1969. The youthful politician began his tenure with perhaps unrealistic high hopes; he was an ambitious leader ready to take Seattle into a new era. His youth seemed an asset compared with an older, clubby civic “establishment.” Many hoped that he could modernize Seattle into a more diverse, less provincial community and bring reforms to a stagnant city government. Seattle Magazine put the mayor on its cover and wondered whether he would “grow up to be president.” Rarely have such aspirations been publicly voiced for a Seattle mayor.

He entered office during “a dramatic transitional period in Seattle’s history,” wrote Seattle Times political reporter Ross Anderson, in assessing Uhlman’s tenure. The drama of the late 1960s and ’70s in Seattle included protest and economic hardship. The Boeing recession — at the time, the worst downturn in the city since the Great Depression, with double-digit unemployment and massive layoffs — kicked off as Uhlman entered office. Social unrest over the Vietnam War was massive. The Black community had entered a period of frequent marches and intense activism demanding equality and justice. The Seattle Police Department was in turmoil over efforts to clean up longstanding practices, from outright corruption to operating with zero public accountability.

The city’s physical infrastructure was also at issue: preserving the Pike Place Market or razing it, building or not building the Bay Freeway project through South Lake Union, converting an old railroad right-of-way into a bike and pedestrian trail (the Burke-Gilman), turning Pioneer Square into a vibrant historic district, expanding open, public and affordable housing for people of color, adding parks, creating new public institutions for groups that were protesting for inclusion (El Centro de La Raza, Daybreak Star), retooling the waterfront, and siting and building the multipurpose Kingdome stadium — all of this was part of the changing chessboard of Seattle real estate.

A campaign flyer for Wes Uhlman's 1969 mayoral bid touts his experience in the state Senate and state House. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

The new guard wanted change; the old guard, fearing that society was spinning out of control, wanted to protect the status quo. Uhlman felt he needed to manage change himself as a kind of city CEO, relying less on city departments to run themselves. As it turned out, he faced significant pushback.

Lowering the flag

The first recall petition against Uhlman was filed in 1970, not long after he took office. On May 18, City Hall’s American flag flew at half-mast on the mayor’s orders to honor the students killed during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio. The tragedy filled Seattle’s streets and freeways with demonstrators, and some veterans groups viewed Uhlman's flag move as a symbolic and illegal way to “placate” demonstrators. A petition to that effect was submitted by a citizen, Richard Schultz, but it was rejected by the City Law Department because such a flag order was not “malfeasance or misfeasance.” Lowering the flag had not been illegal or a violation of Uhlman’s oath, so it did not meet the requirements justifying a recall.

Still, the discontent of one citizen reflected greater unhappiness among people who believed that the city was not taking a harder line on anti-war and civil rights activists. A group called Help Eliminate Lawless Protests complained that the mayor was too liberal and was tying the hands of police, preventing them from cracking down. Seattle was more conservative then, with an active, though generally pro-reform Republican Party. With a first term marked by unrest and recession, Uhlman eked out a narrow reelection win in 1973, but his margin over his opponent, Seattle City Councilmember Liem Tuai, amounted to only 5,000 votes, a far cry from the more than 40,000-vote margin he secured to win his first term.

Don’t mess with City Light

The second recall effort came on the heels of Uhlman’s reelection. The recall was organized by disgruntled employees at Seattle City Light who did not like Uhlman’s pick to head the utility, Gordon Vickery.

Vickery was an old bureaucratic warhorse, the longtime fire chief noted for his longevity, experience and success launching the innovative Medic One program. In 1972, Vickery retired from the Seattle Fire Department, but Uhlman immediately appointed him to lead City Light to shake the place up. He replaced him as fire chief with his own pick, Jack Richards. Both moves came back to bite Uhlman.

Citizens complained that Vickery was “unqualified and disabled”— at the time, he was collecting disability payments from his previous job. Recall petitioners said Uhlman had hired and refused to remove an incompetent Vickery, who was driving the utility into the ground through “managerial incompetence.” Vickery had gotten crosswise with the utility workers and their unions by using outside contract employees in apparent violation of the city charter and civil service rules. During the dispute, Vickery’s home and car were vandalized. The King County Prosecutor’s Office found that the charges against Uhlman and Vickery did qualify for a recall ballot, but by the end of 1974 the effort had failed to obtain enough signatures — 47,000 was the goal — to get on the ballot for a special election. The clock on that recall effort had run out.

Voters attempted to recall Wes Uhlman three times. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

A fire fight, with racial overtones

But the City Light rebellion laid the groundwork for another attempt to get rid of Uhlman. In late December of 1974, the mayor fired his own pick for fire chief, Jack Richards, when Richards balked at budget cuts and other initiatives Uhlman pushed, such as exploring the possibility of privatizing some Medic One service, reducing the number of fireboats and scaling back the arson investigation unit, among other things. Richards had tried to go around Uhlman to get budget support from the city council, infuriating the mayor.

The post-recession city was hurting for revenue, and Uhlman was looking to cut expenses. His point man was the city budget director, Walter Hundley. The recall effort claimed that Uhlman had hired and retained Hundley knowing he was “unqualified and incompetent” to carry out his duties, and that, in firing Richards, Uhlman had made false statements about Richards and had covered up Hundley’s incompetence. The firefighters union threw its weight and money behind the recall effort.

For many, targeting Hundley was problematic. He was a Black civil rights leader who had made a name for himself running a highly regarded Seattle Model Cities program. The recallers claimed he had no training in budgeting, that in fact his background was as a preacher. Hundley, who came to Seattle for a church job, had a degree from the Yale Divinity School, but the criticisms ignored his relevant Model Cities work and his time as executive director of the Central Area Motivation Program, an early Seattle anti-poverty agency of the Civil Rights Era. Hundley was also capable of defending himself. He said Richards was fired “because he was a lousy administrator” and accused the recallers of a “dastardly lie” in claiming he tried to get rid of Medic One.

While the white rank-and-file firefighters supported the recall, 35 Black firefighters in the local unit withdrew their support of the effort; other members of the Black community voiced support for the mayor as well. The Church Council of Greater Seattle worried about the "racial overtones" of the Fire Department’s recall efforts. Uhlman later said department opposition to Hundley was because he was Black, and the Fire Department was resistant to affirmative action.

Other unions also encouraged the recall. Support came from Metro Transit workers, City Light’s electricians and members of the Public Service League representing thousands of municipal employees. One writer for the Service League’s journal compared Uhlman to “the little corporal,” aka Adolph Hitler, in his attempts at one-man rule of the city. Such rhetorical overreach from the recall’s proponents did not aid the effort.

Beating the recall

The anti-Uhlman forces, fueled by significant union funds, bought bus signs, staged rallies and took out newspaper ads attacking the mayor. In their view, they were running a referendum on Uhlman. It looked like the mayor was in a politically weak position, especially with his lackluster re-election numbers.

But Uhlman — aided by political operators like his former deputy mayor, Bob Gogerty — went into full campaign mode and switched the messaging. “The basic issue,” Uhlman declared in early 1975, “is whether the city employees are going to run the city government for their own sake and their own interests — the bureaucracy for its own perpetuation — or whether elected officials and the public are going to be served by the city bureaucracy.” In other words, the recall was reframed as nothing but a power-grab by unelected public employees. Imagine if every decision a mayor made was second-guessed under the threat of disruptive recalls over policy or budget disagreements.

That framing drew support from good government groups like the Municipal League, Republicans and the downtown business community — people not generally considered Uhlman supporters. Despite the initial glum outlook that three would surely be the recall charm, Uhlman’s defense worked. He beat the July 1975 recall vote by a 2-to-1 margin.

The recall wars’ fallout

In the short term, and for the remainder of his time in office, Uhlman’s win strengthened his political hand. He rallied good government liberals, the Black community and business conservatives to his cause. On that strength, he decided to run for governor in 1976. Outside of Seattle, many people viewed his victory over the recallers as standing up against “narrow vindictiveness on the part of some city employees who want a larger share of available city funds,” as a Spokane Spokesman-Review editorial put it. Uhlman had staved off Seattle civic anarchy.

But he was beaten in the gubernatorial primary by Dixy Lee Ray. He won almost every county in the state, but he lost Pierce, Ray’s home county, and, due to some very hard feelings, ran third in King County, behind Ray and Marvin Durning. Observers claimed he had a local image problem and was “too slick” an operator. Uhlman survived the third recall, but he was not going to grow up to be governor, let alone president.

Uhlman is now 85 and lives in the Queen Anne neighborhood. He thought then, and now, that recalls are “terrible governance.” He told me recently that fighting them ate up a lot of “energy and activity,” and amounted to having to run another reelection campaign in the middle of his second term. He definitely thinks it cost him his bid for the governorship.

The issue was and is, “Who is going to run city government?” he says. “I said it back then, ‘The animals shouldn’t run the zoo.’ ” As for Durkan’s recall, if it goes forward, “She has a real job to get through that.”

So far, Uhlman is the only one who has.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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