Republican John Moyer was a gynecologist/obstetrician from Spokane who served three terms in the Washington State House of Representatives from 1986 to 1992 and one term in the Washington State Senate from 1992 to 1996. He was born in Montana, raised in North Dakota, and graduated from the University of Illinois School of Medicine. He moved to Spokane with his family in 1955 and established a thriving medical practice. He went on to deliver about 7,500 babies. In 1978 and 1979, he served one term as president of the Washington State Medical Association. After he semi-retired from medicine, he launched his political career with the goal of improving health care in the state. One of his Democratic opponents once noted ruefully that it was hard to defeat a man who had "delivered half the population of the district" (Sher and Bonino). In 1996, Moyer lost a state senate race and devoted himself to many Spokane civic causes. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2001. After coping with the disease for many years, he died in 2014, earning tributes from both Republicans and Democrats as a kind and compassionate soul.
John Arthur Moyer was born on February 25, 1922, in Glendive, Montana, to Arthur Moyer (1893-1975) and Nora Moore Moyer (1893-1927). His father owned a small farm, established a thriving feedlot business, and at one time owned part of a butcher shop in Glendive.
John Moyer remembered his childhood as happy. He rode horses and played outdoors with his two siblings. However, his life changed in 1927 when his mother died of pneumonia, at age 34. For several years, his father hired housekeepers to take care of the children. His father was often away conducting his livestock business. Not all of the housekeepers were kind. One had a bad temper and would lock him out of the house when he misbehaved. Another fed the children nothing but oatmeal three times a day until their father noticed that they were losing weight.
When John was about to begin high school, his father married Elvera Howell, a teacher at John's school in Glendive, which began a happy period in the Moyer family's life. John and his siblings loved and revered Elvera. The family moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where John attended high school. His father and Elvera added several more children to the family. John worked hard at his father's feedlot business, sometimes working half the night. John later told his own children that his father taught him a strong work ethic and "would keep your feet to the fire when it came to working and getting the job done"(“Memorial”).
But it wasn't all work. John showed an early interest in woodworking and one day his parents returned home to find that John had transformed his stepmother's sewing machine into a power jigsaw. It was the beginning of what would become a "lifelong hobby" of woodworking (Interview). Also, his stepmother was a musician and she taught him to play her Conn saxophone. He was named first chair in the all-state band in 1936. He was a bright student and by the time he was in high school he had already decided that he wanted to pursue another of his interests, medicine. His father was opposed to this, because he wanted John to follow him into the livestock business.
Learning Medicine in the Army
Yet John's resolve was never shaken and he entered North Dakota State University in 1939 to pursue pre-med studies. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1943, but World War II interrupted his plans to go to medical school. He was drafted into the army, yet before long the army approached him with an offer.
"They were so short of doctors, they came and said, 'If any of you want to take an exam to see if you qualify, we will send you to medical school,'" said his second wife, Joanne Halstead Moyer (Interview). He passed the exam and in 1943, the army sent him to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, to take medical courses. He later said he "learned how to be a gentleman" at Washington and Lee (Joanne Moyer interview). He was there for six months and then he went to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine in Grand Forks (he would later win a distinguished alumnus award from that school). He was "still in the service, but not exactly in the service, because his duty was to go to school" (Interview).
He went to school there until 1945, taking more pre-med courses. Then he went to the University of Illinois School of Medicine in Chicago, where he earned his medical degree in 1947. He served a general internship and a general surgical internship at Garfield Park Community Hospital from 1947 to 1949. Then he chose obstetrics/gynecology as a specialty. He served a preceptorship in obstetrics/gynecology under medical professor George H. Rezek at the University of Illinois from 1949 to 1951, and then did his residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago from 1951 to 1953. Shortly after this, he was called back into the army to serve as an army doctor at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.
Delivering Babies, Having Babies
"He said 'I never really felt like I was in the service, because I went to Fort Huachuca and the first thing I did was deliver the commander's baby. That's what I did. I took care of wives and babies. They needed care, too,'" recalled Joanne Halstead Moyer (Interview).
By this time, he had a family to care for as well. In 1946, he had married Caroline Atkinson (1923-1986), also a student at the University of North Dakota. They had their first child in 1947, beginning a family that would eventually grow to 10 children. He and Caroline were devout Catholics. It wasn’t until 1954 or 1955 that he was free from his schooling and his army obligations and was able to consider private practice.
"He always said he was 32 before he ever made a dime," recalled Joanne Halstead Moyer (Interview).
Some medical school friends who had moved to the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area apparently extolled the beauties of the region and the virtues of starting a practice there. So in 1955, John and Caroline Moyer put their four children in a car (the other six children would arrive over the next decade) and came out West to start a practice in Spokane. He partnered with several other obstetric/gynecology physicians and eventually started his own practice, Gynob Northwest. By his own account, he would deliver about 7,500 babies over the next 31 years. He quickly became one of the best-known obstetrician/gynecologists in Spokane.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, he was busy with the demands of his medical practice and of his own 12-person family -- demands that often intersected.
"Unlike other children raised in 'normal' families, our dinner meals were often interrupted by telephone calls from nurses at the hospital reporting the progress of dad's patients in labor and delivery," wrote his children in a memorial after his death. "For the Moyer children our education of the delivery process started at an early age and became common mealtime conversation. Just ask any Moyer about this. We often wake up at 3 a.m. remembering a phone call and our father asking 'How far along is she?'" ("Memorial").
Professional Life, Social Concerns
He was a staunch supporter of the American Medical Association and in 1971 he was named president of the Spokane County Medical Society. In that capacity he was often called upon to speak publicly, not just about medicine, but also about politics. When Senator Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009) proposed a national health-insurance bill, Moyer was quoted in The Spokesman-Review as opposing Kennedy's plan but favoring a "catastrophe plan," which would protect people from catastrophic medical bills in which patients are "crushed financially" (Cross, "Health").
One of Moyer's first goals as president of the Spokane County Medical Society was to encourage doctors -- and the entire community -- to become more involved in social-action programs for low-income people. He advocated a "vastly improved system of delivering medical services to low-income persons, especially the working poor" (Cross, "Social").
"The poor are our brothers and it is up to us to take care of them -- and that is a fact," said Moyer. "I feel the burden is on the community just as it is on the medical community" (Cross, "Social").
In 1977, Moyer was elected president of the Washington State Medical Association. He served as president-elect for a year until he formally took office during the group's annual meeting at Spokane's Davenport Hotel on September 24, 1978. He told reporters that during his one-year term he wanted the state organization to turn its attention to the "image of the physician as a humanist" ("Costs Concern Doctors"). He said physicians needed to look for ways to reduce violence and encourage preventive medicine.
Meanwhile, he was introducing practices in his own office that were innovative for the era. In 1968, he pioneered the use of Lamaze childbirth courses in Spokane. He was one of the first doctors in the region to allow fathers into the delivery room, as part of the family-centered birthing movement. In 1978, he and partner Dr. Larry L. Brewer hired the first licensed nurse-midwife in Spokane, specializing in home births.
At Home and in Politics
The Moyer home life centered on music -- all of the children had music lessons -- and the Catholic Church. "On Sunday mornings, our family of twelve would fill a pew at Our Lady of Fatima church," wrote Moyer's children in his memorial. "During the sermon, Dad was known to draw woodworking designs on the church pamphlet. If any of us misbehaved, he had his stern 'over the glasses' look he learned from his own father. Every Easter, he selected corsages for his daughters and wife to wear for Mass. Following Mass, we would head home for Dad's famous 'Sunday Starter' breakfast, a recipe of hash browns, green peppers, onions plus leftovers from the refrigerator" ("Memorial").
He developed an interest in politics during his tenure with the Washington State Medical Association. He became knowledgeable about statewide medical issues and dealt extensively with the state legislature. His political acumen did not go unnoticed. Mike Padden (b. 1946), a Republican state legislator, once told Moyer that the Republican Party would like him to run for the legislature.
"John said, 'Not yet, Mike, I'm too busy. I'd consider it after my practice is established and things are going better in my own personal life as far as responsibilities,'" recounted Joanne Halstead Moyer (Interview).
And in any case, he wasn't certain which party he would fit into. He told Padden, "I can't tell you whether I want to be a Democrat or a Republican" (Interview). Padden replied, "Ah, you'd be a great Republican" (Interview). The idea went no further for many years.
However, in 1986, profound changes were taking place in Moyer's life. On January 4, 1986, his wife Caroline Moyer died of emphysema after a long and debilitating illness. They had been married for 39 years. His children were all grown -- the youngest was 22. He was also preparing for an enormous change in his professional life. He closed his private practice in 1986, and began working part-time for Group Health Cooperative to develop a program for at-risk pregnancies. He now had time to devote to politics, and he finally took up Padden's offer to run for the state legislature.
The First Election
"I'm alone now," Moyer said. "I've got to do something with my life" (Camden, "Seeking Women's Vote").
He said his work as state medical association president convinced him that "the health-care community was not well-represented" in the legislature (Camden, "Seeking Women's Vote"). He chose the Republican Party, which appeared to be the only sensible option in his district. He lived in the affluent and Republican-leaning Sixth District of south Spokane. It was nicknamed the Silk Stocking Sixth and had not sent a Democrat to the legislature since 1934 -- although Moyer would soon learn that the Republican lock on the district was loosening.
When Moyer announced his candidacy on June 2, 1986, he labeled himself "a conservative Republican," which distinguished him from his Democratic opponent, Jan Polek (1933-2012), director of the YWCA Alternatives to Domestic Violence program (Camden, "Doctor-Candidate"). He made it clear that his main interest was in state health-care policy and his goal was "better health care for less money" (Camden, "Doctor-Candidate"). In his announcement, he said he favored improved prenatal health care, changes in the tort system, and changes in liability insurance reform.
He did not have a Republican opponent in the September 1986 primary. However, voters gave Moyer a wake-up call when he received only 7,522 votes in the primary, against 6,481 for Polek. This was considered a surprisingly close margin for a Republican in the Sixth District, and the consensus among political observers was that Polek had proven she had a chance at pulling off an upset.
Polek proved to be a tough opponent. At one point, she accused Moyer of failing to pay taxes on real estate he owned. Moyer said he was untangling some complex financial issues in his real-estate partnerships, and vowed to pay whatever taxes he owed. Polek also said she was a staunch opponent of a controversial proposal to make Hanford a nuclear waste dumpsite. Moyer responded by saying that he, too, was strongly opposed to the dump. The campaign also centered on women's issues, although the Polek campaign had a hard time portraying Moyer as against the interests of women. One of Moyer's support groups was named Moms for Moyer, made up largely of his women patients.
One "women's issue" did separate Moyer and Polek: abortion. Polek was pro-choice and supported a woman's right to an abortion. Moyer opposed abortion. He said he had never performed one and believed it was best to "reduce the need for abortion" (Camden, "Seeking Women’s Votes"). However, his abortion stance had some nuances. He said he believed "abortion is a moral issue, not a political issue" (Camden, "Seeking Women’s Votes"). He did not think abortion should be illegal, since that would simply drive the practice underground. Early in the campaign, he said he opposed state-funded abortions, but he later modified that stance and said "poor women should not be denied any aspect of health care" (Camden, "Seeking Women’s Votes").
The Spokesman-Review editorial board endorsed Polek and called her "articulate and thoughtful" ("Polek Has Potential"). However, it noted that the Sixth District was "blessed" in having two good candidates, and either one would serve the residents well ("Polek Has Potential"). When votes were counted on the evening of November 4, 1986, residents still didn’t know which candidate would serve them. Polek had a lead of 13,401 to 13,275. This was far too close to call with more than 1,000 absentee votes still to count. "We'll just have to sweat this one out," said Moyer (Camden, "Polek Lead").
Both sides sweated for another week. After all of the absentee ballots were counted, Moyer had overcome Polek's lead and surged ahead by 56 votes. "It just puts my heart in my mouth," said Moyer (Camden, "Moyer Wins by 56"). After a recount, Moyer's margin grew to 86 votes, with a final total of 14,102 for Moyer to 14,016 for Polek.
Moyer kept a fairly low profile during his first term in the legislature. It was "harder than medical school" as a learning experience, he said (Rosenwald). Yet he still "carved a niche for himself as an expert on medical issues" (Rosenwald). He made friends on both sides of the aisle and became an important part of the Eastern Washington Caucus. State Senator Lois Stratton (b. 1927), a Spokane Democrat, said that "everybody liked him" and that Moyer was so enthusiastic about his job that "he’s almost taken the caucus over" (Rosenwald). He strongly supported a law making motorcycle helmets mandatory. Occasionally, he helped out at the capitol building’s first-aid station.
Meanwhile, a new chapter was beginning in his personal life. For many years, certified registered nurse Joanne Halstead had been working for Moyer and his partner Larry Brewer at Gynob Northwest. "I just loved the way they worked and the way they took care of people," she said. "They were such true gentlemen" (Joanne Moyer interview). In 1986, she joined Moyer in his Group Health project. She was a widow and Moyer was a widower. "We worked together, got along well, and had a lot of the same interests," she said. "He was a delightful man and a joy to work with. And we both were on the same track of how to take care of people -- the dignity and the way they should be treated, either rich or poor" (Interview).
Their relationship went from professional to personal. They were married in a small ceremony in Spokane on January 10, 1988, and immediately went out to brunch. "And before we were finished eating, he's leaving to go to Olympia!" said Joanne Halstead Moyer. "I mean, I really had to laugh" (Interview).
To Fix Health Care
Moyer was heading out to the 1988 legislative session. He was on the Human Services Committee, and for him it would be a session dominated by the issue of AIDS. He was appointed by Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) to a task force on AIDS and he helped to produce an information booklet on the disease. He estimated that about 60 different bills on the subject of AIDS were introduced or proposed in the 1988 session, and the legislature eventually passed a bill that Moyer had helped craft and that helped tamp down the hysteria surrounding the issue.
"It was always medicine," said Joanne Halstead Moyer. "That was his plan from the beginning, to go over there and fix health care. That was always his stated reason for running when he campaigned. But you have to serve on other committees" (Interview). During the 1988 session, Moyer was also on the Judiciary Committee, the Trade and Economic Development Committee, and the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
He had also come to believe that the economic disparity between struggling Eastern Washington and thriving Western Washington was too wide. When he announced his candidacy for a second term in May 1988, he said he wanted to "pull down the Cascade Curtain" (Windishar). He also wanted a tougher drug law, partly because he believed that to get a handle on the AIDS epidemic, which could be spread through shared needles, it was necessary to decrease drug abuse. He also believed in better funding for "the absolutely vital needs of women in the state," especially health care, childcare, and education. (Windishar). He distinguished himself from some of his Republican colleagues by saying that higher taxes for some social programs would be an "investment in the future" (Windishar).
"He was a very moderate Republican," said Joanne Halstead Moyer. "I don’t mean he wasn’t a good Republican, but he was very moderate" (Interview).
Life in the Legislature
He faced no 1988 primary challenge from the Republican side, and only a cursory challenge from the Democratic side. His opponent was a political newcomer, James McAuley, an Eastern Washington University poetry professor who raised barely a tenth of the money raised by Moyer. The Irish-born McAuley was sharing a campaign office -- and even campaign signs -- with another Democratic newcomer who was running for the other Sixth District seat. The Spokesman-Review endorsed Moyer and said that he had "impressed Democrats and Republicans alike with his intelligence, compassion and enthusiasm" ("Two GOP Lawmakers").
Moyer won both the primary and general election in 1988 with nearly 66 percent of the vote. "How do you run against a fellow who has delivered half the population of the district?" joked McAuley on election night (Sher and Bonino).
Moyer got off to an auspicious start in the 1989 legislative session when he was unanimously elected to chair the legislature’s Eastern Washington Caucus. The caucus was an attempt to counteract, in a bipartisan united front, the numerical clout enjoyed by the western half of the state. Moyer's selection came after Stratton, a Spokane Democrat, resigned after four years as the chair.
In the 1989 session, Moyer achieved what he considered to be his most significant legislative success. He was one of the key proponents of the Maternity Care Access Act, which established what became known as the First Steps program, providing vastly improved access to affordable maternity health care. Public health nurses paid visits to mothers while they were expecting and also during the first crucial weeks after delivery. The First Steps program paid off in a sharp decrease in infant mortality throughout the state.
But his position as Eastern Washington Caucus chair was proving to be a trial. Some Democrats were not happy that the chairmanship had gone to the minority party in the House. Some rural caucus members complained that the caucus focused too much on Spokane issues. Not all of the complaints within the caucus were about policy; one was about the caucus's meeting time, too early at 7:15 a.m. By the 1990 session, Moyer was simply trying to keep the caucus from fracturing.
"It’s vital that we have an Eastern Washington Caucus, although it's not the easiest thing in the world to hold together," said Moyer (Rosenwald, "Eastern Washington Caucus"). The caucus would continue to exist, but Moyer resigned from the chairmanship in 1991.
Meanwhile, Moyer had distinguished himself in the 1990 session by convincing 20 of his fellow House Republicans to vote for a Democratic-backed increase in welfare payments. When asked why he championed the bill, he said he remembered times when he visited a newborn in a dresser drawer in an unheated apartment. These children, he said, "should have the same opportunities as any other child," he said (Rosenwald, "Local Legislators in Surprise Moves"). When asked about charges of welfare fraud, he said, "Name an occupation for me that doesn’t have some cheats and frauds. Even evangelists"(Rosenwald, "Local Legislators in Surprise Moves"). Moyer's efforts helped get the bill passed in the House, but it never had a chance in the Senate.
Running for the Senate
Moyer's 1990 re-election bid proved even easier than in 1988. No candidate, Democrat or Republican, filed against him. He cruised to a win in what would prove to be his final House term. That’s because legislative redistricting switched Moyer's historic home on Spokane’s South Hill from the Sixth District to the Democratic-leaning Third District. Moyer looked around at the political field and chose to make the leap to the state Senate and run against Democrat Bill Day Jr. for the open Senate seat.
This was risky, since Day had won his most recent legislative races by three-to-one margins. In the September 1992 primary, Day trounced Moyer by more than 3,000 votes. Yet Moyer considered Day vulnerable, and it turned out Moyer was right. Day was entangled in a scandal involving the use of campaign funds for personal items such as haircuts, new suits, and cruises, which caused many prominent Democrats to bolt and back Moyer. One Moyer campaign ad said, "Join (Democratic) senators Lois Stratton and Margaret Hurley” in Democrats for Moyer, because “sometimes you have to vote the person, not the party" (Ad).
Election night in 1992 was tense as Moyer held only a 269-vote margin over Day. Over the next few days, absentee ballots pushed Moyer's winning margin to more than 1,000. It was the first time a Republican had won the seat in 60 years. Moyer vowed to work with Democrats on what was shaping up to be the big issue in the 1993 session, health-care reform.
Moyer was a key player in this health-care reform drama. The Democrats' sweeping health-care reform bill needed some Republican votes in the state senate, and Moyer was heavily courted. After requesting some changes in the bill, Moyer said, "I’m going to vote yes. I want to be able to say I’m from Washington state, where they take care of people" (Mapes). The bill passed and was signed into law, but it turned out to be controversial and short-lived. Most of its provisions were repealed two years later and other provisions were modified. Moyer himself was one of the legislators who had gone through a change of heart, especially about the part of the law known as the employer mandate.
"When I voted for it, I said I felt we would need to make changes, and that I would want to be in on them," he said in 1994. "Well, the time has come" ("Lawmaker Wants to Cut Back Health Reform"). He played a key role in refashioning the law into 1995's downsized version, which would become known as Washington's Basic Health Plan.
Moyer had another relatively modest, but important, legislative victory in 1993. He sponsored a bill, which became law, to establish a public outreach program on the dangers of shaken baby syndrome. "It's illegal to shake a baby, and you shouldn't have to tell people that, but apparently you do," said Joanne Halstead Moyer (Interview).
Moyer had not totally abandoned his medical work. In fact, he had found a surprising new outlet for it. One day, the director of the Columbia Basin Health Clinic in rural Othello came to Moyer's office to do some lobbying. She told him he didn’t know much about rural health care and she invited him down to her clinic to see for himself.
"So he did -- and she hired him," said Joanne Halstead Moyer. "He'd come home on Friday night, get up on Saturday morning, go to Othello, be back Sunday night and go back on the plane to Olympia!" (Interview).
The Last Election
Health care and welfare reform would become the key issues as he launched his 1996 re-election campaign against a formidable opponent, Democratic state representative Lisa Brown (b. 1956). Moyer's wife urged him not to run. She said he was too old at 74 and the Third District was too Democratic. Yet Moyer believed he still had work to do in Olympia. His campaign slogan was "For Our Children" (Lynch, "Moyer Launches").
Moyer learned he had an uphill fight on his hands after saw the results of the September 1996 primary. Brown outpolled him by a 57-to-43 percent margin. Moyer's campaign, in desperation, began attacking Brown. One of his planned radio ads implied that Brown had communist leanings. The spot was so incendiary that a radio announcer hired to read it said, "I'm not going to read this" (Lynch, "Campaign Tactics"). Another ad suggested that Brown coddled sex offenders. Brown’s supporters picketed Moyer's campaign offices with signs saying "Dr. Moyer and Mr. Hyde!" (Lynch, "Brown Denounces"). In the end, Moyer's desperation tactics failed. Moyer was voted out of office on November 5, 1996, by a 56-to-44 percent margin.
"It was a great wound to him to lose," said Joanne Halstead Moyer. "He'd never lost anything his whole life, that I can think of. ... He was very depressed for about a year"(Interview).
He shook himself out of his funk and began to get deeply involved in a number of Spokane civic issues. He served on the boards of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Interplayers Ensemble theater, and Allegro: Baroque and Beyond. He played a key role in the successful civic effort to save the historic Davenport Hotel from demolition.
He also played a crucial role in the citizen group Friends of the Falls, dedicated to protecting the Spokane Falls, a series of massive cascades in the middle of downtown Spokane. One headline referred to Moyer as "Deliverer of Babies and Defender of the Spokane River" (Herold). When Spokane developed a new plaza near the Spokane Falls, the name John Moyer Plaza was one of three finalists for the name, although the plaza was eventually named The Spokane Tribal Gathering Place, rendered in both Salish and English.
"The Friends of the Falls was like a second campaign," said Joanne Halstead Moyer (Interview).
John Moyer's civic involvement came to an end in 2001, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. One day, he found himself parked by his church and had no idea how he had gotten there. He quit driving. Then, in 2009, after a hip replacement operation, he had a stroke. From then on, his judgment and decision-making abilities went into a steep decline. He could not be left alone and needed almost constant care.
He died on August 27, 2014, at age 92. Tributes poured in from around the state, including one from U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (b. 1958), who said there was no kinder soul than John Moyer.