John Spellman: King County Politics in the Sixties, Seventies and Beyond

  • By Heather MacIntosh
  • Posted 3/08/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2200

The long career of John Spellman (b. 1926) in local and state politics began in 1967 when he was elected a King County Commissioner. His term overlapped the controversial Forward Thrust capital improvements package, the overarching bond initiative that funded the Kingdome (the domed stadium imploded in March 2000). In addition, as the first King County Executive Officer elected during the institution of the Home Rule Charter of 1968, Spellman was instrumental in constructing King County's first highly centralized, streamlined, and professional governmental system. More than 30 years later, he discusses his role in local politics and in the Kingdome's history and fate. This interview was conducted by Heather MacIntosh for HistoryLink.org in March 2000, Seattle, Washington.

Public Debut?

"I was elected in '67 as the last of the county commissioners. I served in 1968 as one of three commissioners. During that time there was a discussion of changing county government, which was one of the reasons I came in in the first place. Late in 1968, a new charter was passed. They had a special election in May (1969), and I was elected the first County Executive. The Kingdome was part of the Forward Thrust package and passed before I was the executive and maybe simultaneously with my becoming the commissioner.

Big Issues, Late Sixties?

"Depending on all those time links, (the most important issue was) building a new government. The charter just provided the outline. I was charged with the unique job of building a new government and establishing all the new departments and naming who would run them. The new government was to be more efficient, to get things done and so forth. It hasn't always turned out that way. We had to take care of regional planning and many other issues. We didn't have a medical examiner. There was a lot that had to be done.

How important was the Kingdome in all that?

"Well it was a part of the Forward Thrust package that passed, but there were a lot of other things. We had for example, x million dollars, 5 or 10 million, to build a few swimming pools. Well, we built 30 swimming pools. All over the county. They weren't deluxe, but they're all over the place. Capital projects, the Kingdome, the swimming pools, the acquisition of park lands... we got Luther Burbank Park over at Mercer Island, which had been a juvenile rehabilitation facility. We got it with Forward Thrust bonds. There was some question of whether or not we could use them, but it was a golden opportunity, so of course we did.

"There was a whole schmear of capital projects, the Kingdome being one of them, but certainly as time went by, it was the most visible.

What precipitated Forward Thrust?

"Forward Thrust was principally a Jim Ellis effort. Instead of having all these (separate projects), as we have in these days, he sought to coordinate them and make a big package. You know, something for the sports fans, something for the art fan, something for the zoo, and the aquarium, and something for transportation. Jim brought it together. There were committees, and through those committees there were compromises and the agenda was worked out. The Kingdome was one of them. Through committee, the Kingdome then became the King-County-Multipurpose-Domed-Stadium. [He can't help but laugh at the stadium's official name. The public would soon shorten this to "Kingdome."]

World's Fair = New Civic Identity?

"Probably. It and the passage of Metro [Metro Council, 1958]. Cleaning up Lake Washington showed it could be done. That was another Ellis project. It showed that we could get these things pulled together and worked out.

Forward Thrust, A Child of the Sixties?

"I don't think so. There was just a lot of capacity to bond, and of course, Jim's an expert at bonding.

"I don't think the mindset has changed since then, it's just that we've used up a heck of a lot of that bonding capacity. Nowadays, it should be planned even more carefully, but it isn't. It was a many-year bond. It was a well thought out plan. I don't think the public psychology has changed. Some of those bond proposals passed in Forward Thrust; they were all individual actually. I'm not sure if people are any less skeptical than they were then.

The Boeing Bust and its Impact on Local Government

"My first year as County Executive, Boeing went bust. The impact was profound. We had friends and neighbors and people all over the county who were out of work. Boeing had almost 100,000 people who lost their jobs. We had kids in the Bellevue school district who were bringing jugs to school to get water. It was dire.

"We had food stamps and surplus food. With Senator Magnuson's help, we started what would later be the CETA (Comprehensive Training and Employment Act) program, where we would hire Boeing engineers who would go to either nonprofits or governments, and many of them stayed there. Some of them went back out to work in other industries. [CETA was a federal program instated during the Nixon Administration. King County received this federal money to assist the unemployed during the Boeing Bust].

"The Secretary of Agriculture, he was considered a pretty mean old man. But he had a sister who was a nun in Yakima. We got him to cooperate like mad, we really did. But times were terrible. There was repossession of housing, we had to try to get them not to, and that kind of thing. It was not statewide unemployment, it was King County unemployment. And it was big. Not quite as big as statewide as my first year as governor [1981].

"The local mentality changed then as it did in the early eighties, but then unemployment was state wide. There were areas of 14, 15 percent unemployment in the early eighties. The Boeing impact was very localized and very deep.

"Thank God for the food stamp program. I hear people who think it's for loafers, but at that time, former Boeing employees and their families lived on food stamps.

The Kingdome, Built to Last?

"Well, the engineers, people like Jack Christiansen and John Skilling and all talked about it lasting more than centuries. There were people who were saying 'Oh, it will last 1000 years.' But certainly, there was no timeframe that anybody thought about. It would be paid off during the period of the Forward Thrust bond issue, but it would probably last forever.

"It was built with special care because of the earthquake situation. It's not only the biggest roof of the world of its kind, but it's in Seattle, in an area of fill. It is exceedingly strong and meets all specification of every kind. May the others do the same. It's very important.

"It's ironic. You can only look at the irony of it, and think 'gee, they're letting them close down the highways for a project. We couldn't even get a tax break. They got tax break on this, they don't pay any sales taxes on these things. But I mean they're getting extraordinarily favored treatment. We couldn't put up a sign up saying what event was going on. The difference is, somebody's got a lot of money

"It's discouraging because Ted Bowsfield who ran the Kingdome was always trying to get a sign up telling people what was going on ... like the Tacoma Dome. Couldn't do it. These were city rules, mostly.

The Kingdome, Everything to Everyone?

"You've got to start with the fact that the bond issue was a multicompromise. You know, it was billed as a multipurpose domed stadium, it was not just for sports. It was for evangelical things, it was for concerts, it was potentially for political conventions, the pitch was all those things. There was something for everybody. If you never went there, if you never went to a single event, it was still helping you by providing jobs and economic activity and increasing the tax base. That was the pitch. I defended it many times. Whether you cared about what went on or not, it was very important to the town of Seattle.

"Because it was "the multipurpose domed stadium," it passed. And it was multipurpose. Everything about it was to please the most people. One of the compromises was that, in the legislation, they didn't pick a site. And I would question whether they could have picked a site, whether they could have passed it if they would have picked a site.

"This was very wise legislation. The preliminary Forward Thrust package said 'there shall be a commission in King County to decide whether to build a stadium and it shall set the procedure for selecting the site.' That allowed it, in my opinion to pass. I think, had you said Riverton, or Bellevue, or King Street Station or whatever, x number of people would have disapproved. So it was a really ingenious approach.

"The controversy started as people had ideas of where it would be. We had lots of input, more than you could possibly hope for. And the first time the committee selected a close-to-the-Seattle-Center-site, that was put on the ballot and the people voted that down. I think it was a very good thing. The Seattle Center is bottlenecked as it is.

The Kingdome location was controversial because Tony Ferruci wanted the Ferruci Farms down in South Seattle. Frank Ruano wanted at various times different things. Other people wanted Bellevue or Tacoma. There were many many suggested sites. And there were law suits. There was discussion of waiting for private financing. Someone was advocating it. I was quoted as saying, well I haven't seen any money.' Well we didn't see any money, and we had all these diversions.

In the end, I think it was looked on as something that got done. There were a lot of projects that didn't get done. We have all these rules and suits and all these new environmental laws. Things were being held up and the cost went up and some of them abandoned. The Kingdome was something that got done and in general people were okay about it.

The Home Rule Charter's Impact on the Kingdome?

"Home Rule was a reform thing, you know, the League of Women Voters, etc. Some of the political people didn't like it, but it allowed for something important. It allowed for one person who had the power to get something done, someone who was also the focus of the controversy. I think that was good. I do not believe in committees. I do not believe in public districts that build things and nobody knows who the hell is responsible. Yes, the Charter certainly was demonstrated during the Kingdome process and it affected the ability to get the job done.

"Without it, the controversy would have gone on a very long time. You've got to remember that first of all there were other commissioners and elected officials who didn't want the charter at all. And there were also people who didn't want Forward Thrust at all. You know. Yeah, I think the Kingdome validated it.

Home Rule Charter, Before and After?

King County government went from a plethora of elected officials to 1) a county executive, 2) the assessor and 3) the prosecutor, period. The County Executive appointed everybody else. It was a wonderful job. We changed the departments, we went from 22 departments to something like 7. So we had the department of public works and public safety. That was important, getting law enforcement under control. There had been a scandal. So being able to establish a new department with a new name "the County Police Department" was very good. There was a real concentration of potential power. Council could step in, but they weren't supposed to. The charter specifically says they cannot give orders or directions to a county employee. So they can't meddle.

The Kingdome, Worth the Fuss?

"A very prominent black minister was an opponent of the Kingdome, because he thought it was circuses for the masses instead of bread for the people. When it was completed, I went to a breakfast and he was there. He said, 'you were right and I was wrong. It's provided jobs for our people and all kinds of economic values.'

"For many reasons it was worth it. It economically provided all the things it promised. There were a lot of people who thought we had a secret deal to get a baseball team, or a football team, but we had nothing except a lot of faith.

"We had real major league soccer, we haven't had anything like it since, we had Pele playing in the Kingdome. We had that first Billy Graham revival, I attended a couple of those. Johnny Cash performed there, Ethyl Waters the old actress/singer, really important personalities. You had Paul McCartney, and when he played 'Hey Jude,' and we all held up lighters and sang along.

"The Kingdome was too busy. The year the Sonics won the championship, they were in the Kingdome but they couldn't play their final games in the playoffs because the Kingdome was too busy. The Mariners were in, something else was in, and we couldn't guarantee the dates. Too bad. We set all-time records. All these people had jobs, and the city had teams. None of these things would have happened without the Kingdome. None of them. They already tried the alternatives and the alternatives all failed. So yeah, no doubt in my mind, they'd be lucky if they can do as well again.

Backlash?

"A group came in and trashed my office. My secretary Barbara tried to stop this group that thrust their way in and trashed my office. This was a group of International District kids, some of whom have grown up and are okay. But they were wild. They were told this was going to kill the International District, actually, again it's helped it, in my opinion.

"It has changed that part of town, I think for the better. It's hard to measure. It's helped in so many ways. The downside, well, I can't think of any, but I'm prejudiced. I know people say we haven't paid off the bonds. Well they were paying them off well in advance. And I think there was a lot of bad management in later years, you know. That tile was a disgrace, but they did away with the revolving fund for maintenance, gave it to the tenants, now we're giving everything away to the tenants, it's become a trend, it shouldn't happen. The project should not give away so much that it can't be maintained. I think that's what happened to the Kingdome.

"The implosion, I'm not going to watch it. I'm not happy about it at all, but I did vote for the baseball stadium. I am still a civic booster. They could have used the building, of course. They could have used it for football. But they didn't want the competition."


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