Seattle voters approve new city charter and re-elect Mayor William F. Devin on March 12, 1946.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 3/05/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3560

On March 12, 1946, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approve a new city charter, which increases the terms of both the mayor and city councilmembers. The 1946 charter will be amended over the years but will remain in effect in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Voters also re-elect Mayor William Devin (1898-1982), who defeats Washington Lieutenant Governor Vic Meyers (1898-1991) to win another two-year term. Two years later he will win the first four-year mayoral term under the new charter.

Previous City Charters 

The charter -- essentially a constitution for the city, establishing the basic framework of city government -- that voters approved in 1946 was the fourth in city history. Seattle's first charter was created by the Washington Territorial Legislature when it incorporated Seattle as a city in 1869. (Seattle was first incorporated, as a town, in 1865, but the legislature dissolved that corporate entity two years later at the request of many prominent Seattleites.)

The three succeeding city charters (and some proposed charters that were not adopted) were written by panels of citizens, known as freeholders, who were elected for that purpose at special elections, and the resulting documents were called Freeholders Charters. Seattle voters approved a Freeholders Charter in 1890, and another in 1896. The 1896 Freeholders Charter, the city's third charter, remained in effect for 50 years. Freeholders were elected and prepared a new charter for submission to the voters in 1914, but that charter failed to win approval.

The original charter approved by the legislature set municipal elections on the second Monday in July. It provided for seven councilmembers, elected at large, and a mayor, all with one-year terms in office. An 1883 amendment to that first charter increased the council to nine members, each elected from one of three wards and serving two-year terms; then an 1886 amendment reduced the number of councilmembers to eight and added a fourth ward. The 1890 charter charter moved city elections to the first Monday in March and increased the mayor's term to two years, but allowed only one consecutive term (a former mayor could run again after at least two years out of office). It also established a two-chamber city council with a total of 27 members: nine members of a Board of Aldermen elected at large and 16 members of a House of Delegates, two from each of the eight wards that the new charter created.

The 27-member bicameral City Council did not last long. The Freeholders Charter adopted six years later in 1896 restored a single-chamber council with 13 members; one from each of the now nine wards in the city, and four elected at large. That charter also removed the mayor's term limit and moved elections to the Tuesday following the first Monday in March. Election day was moved slightly later in the month, to the second Tuesday in March, in 1923.

Partisan or Non-Partisan; Ward System or At-large 

The 1896 charter was amended, according to its provisions for doing so, a number of times during its 50 years of existence. One of the most significant amendments, approved on March 8, 1910, made all city elections non-partisan and replaced the city council ward system with nine councilmembers all elected at large for three-year terms. Until then, candidates were identified on the ballot by political-party affiliation. With the new non-partisan election no party affiliations were listed on the ballot; candidates were still free to claim affiliation with one party or another, and some did while others claimed non-partisanship. The change to non-partisan elections and an at-large council was supported by Progressives, then near the height of their political influence, and other reformers; both labor unions and business groups; and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Star; and opposed by The Seattle Times and most incumbent officeholders.

Both non-partisan elections and a nine-member, all-at-large council were retained in the Freeholders Charter that voters approved in 1946. Not until more than a century after reformers eliminated the ward system did Seattle return to a similar method of electing councilmembers -- though the divisions into which the city was divided were now called "districts" rather than "wards" -- after an amendment to the 1946 charter was approved by voters on November 5, 2013. Charter Amendment 19 divided the city into seven districts, with one councilmember to be elected from each district. The remaining two councilmembers were to be elected at large. As of 2014, the non-partisan city-election ballot established in 1910 remained in place.

1946 Freeholders Charter 

Fifteen freeholders wrote the charter that voters approved on March 12, 1946. They circulated drafts of the charter as widely as possible and invited citizen input. The resulting charter was supported by good-government groups like the League of Women Voters and the Municipal League, as well as labor leaders, community councils, and city leaders including Mayor Devin. It won by a wide margin, winning by 60,251 votes to 25,065 in results published the day after the election.

The new charter doubled the mayor's term of office to four years, and increased city councilmembers' terms from three to four years. And although the governmental structure was generally what is characterized as a "strong council-weak mayor" system, in which the council retained primary responsibility for preparing and administering the city budget, the 1946 charter did grant some additional powers to the mayor. One power that Devin flexed right away was the ability to appoint a new police chief at any time (previously chiefs were appointed to fixed terms): As soon as the results were in he announced that "he would immediately convene an examining board to select a new chief of police for a modernization of the Seattle Police Department," using his authority under the new charter to replace Chief Herbert D. Kimsey (Cunningham).

The four-year mayoral term did not go into effect until the 1948 election, so Devin won only a two-year term in the election that approved the charter. However, adoption of the new charter did extend the terms of six councilmembers, four of whom were on the March 1946 ballot. Incumbents James Scavotto, William Norton, and Bob Jones were re-elected to what would have been three-year terms but became four years under the new charter, and the 15 months of an unexpired term to which Robert H. Harlin was elected became more than two years. Mildred Powell and Alfred Rochester, who had been elected in 1944, also had their terms extended from three to four years.

In 1975, freeholders were once again elected to prepare a proposed new charter for Seattle but, as in 1914, their proposal was rejected by voters. The 1946 city charter was amended both before and after the 1975 attempt but by 2007 it surpassed the 1896 charter's 50 years and became the longest-lived charter in city history; it remained in effect in 2014. Not all changes to city elections came through charter amendments. In 1963, a new state law moved city elections, in Seattle and around the state, from the spring to November of odd-numbered years, with the winners taking office on the following January 1.

William Devin 

Mayor William F. Devin had led Seattle since shortly after the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. He was first elected in March 1942, ousting incumbent Earl Millikin a year after losing to Millikin in a race to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966), who had been elected governor in 1940. Two years later in 1944 Devin trounced councilman James Scavotto to win a second two-year term.

Devin was a lawyer who, after graduating from the University of Washington Law School in 1923, had worked in the law firm of Alfred H. Lundin (1886-1963), a prominent criminal defense attorney, former King County Prosecuting Attorney, Seattle-King County Bar Association president, and later president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Langlie appointed Devin as a judge in police court, but he was a political newcomer when he made his first race for mayor in 1941.

Devin took office with America at war, and won support for how he guided the city during the war years. Devin took a leadership role in addressing race relations and racial tensions that developed during the war, resulting both from the internment of Japanese Americans and their treatment by some fellow citizens who saw them (wrongly) as agents of the Japanese government, and from the movement of many African Americans from the south to the Seattle area to work in war industries, and the not-always-warm welcome with which some white residents greeted them. In 1944 Devin established a Civic Unity Committee of civic leaders sensitive to racial tensions and the discrimination faced by some groups. Devin's position won him lasting support from many Japanese Americans. He was also supported by business leaders and the Republican Party, but also some labor leaders, though usually opposed by the powerful Teamsters and by the liberal-left Washington Commonwealth Federation.

Victor Meyers 

As the February 1946 primary approached Devin was at the height of his popularity, having successfully led the city through the war years and with the economy then humming with the postwar boom. Nonetheless, the primary drew seven hopefuls, although most of the candidates aimed their fire not at Devin but at the best-known of the challengers: the flamboyant and controversial lieutenant governor, Victor Aloysius Meyers.

Meyers was a popular Depression-era bandleader who first ran for mayor in 1932 as a publicity stunt, when some Seattle Times editors and reporters convinced him to join the crowded primary field. He did not make the final that time, but found he liked politics and ran somewhat more seriously for lieutenant governor that fall. This time his name recognition helped him win the primary and Meyers, running as a Democrat, won easily along with the rest of the Democratic ticket in the landslide headed by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).

Meyers took his new job seriously, presiding skillfully over the state Senate (the lieutenant governor's main responsibility other than acting as governor if the governor left the state -- which governors tried to avoid doing during Meyers's tenure -- or became incapacitated) and advocating for an array of progressive causes. Evidently however he still like the idea of becoming Seattle's mayor, and he entered the mayoral primary again in 1938. This time he made the final, running ahead of gravely ill incumbent Mayor John F. Dore (1881-1938) but behind city councilmember Arthur Langlie, who easily defeated Meyers in that year's general election.

Devin Prevails 

Eight years later Meyers tried again, but this time, in Devin, he faced a vigorous and popular incumbent. While city elections were nonpartisan, Meyers ran as a Democrat and enjoyed somewhat more support from the party establishment than he had in 1938. Devin initially stressed his non-partisan support and indeed he won endorsements from some labor unions (traditionally allied with the Democrats), and the neutrality of the powerful Teamsters, who opposed Devin in other races. But the Republican Party strongly endorsed Devin and "[t]he race became strictly partisan" (Berner, 114). Devin, touting his wartime record, won easily, with 70,542 votes to 54,249 for Meyers.

Although the term he won by defeating Meyers was only two years, Devin eventually benefitted from the charter's change to four-year terms. In 1948 he narrowly defeated Assistant United States Attorney Allan Pomeroy (ca. 1907-1966) to win the first four-year mayoral term under the 1946 charter. Four years later, Pomeroy turned the tables and ousted Devin.


Sources:

Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, v. 3, Seattle Transformed: World War II to Cold War (Seattle: Charles Press, 1999), 11-12, 15, 108-09, 112-14; "Mayors of the City of Seattle," Seattle City Clerk website accessed March 4, 2014 (http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/facts/mayors.htm); "Seattle City Council Members, 1869-Present: Chronological Listing," Seattle City Clerk website accessed March 4, 2014; "Quick Information: City Charters," website accessed March 4, 2014 (http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/facts/info.htm#charters); "Seattle Voters Guide: 2014 Seattle Election: Seattle City Council -- District Elections," Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission website accessed March 4, 2014 (http://www2.seattle.gov/ethics/votersguide.asp); Ross Cunningham, "Devin, Under New Charter, to Replace Police Chief," The Seattle Times, March 13, 1946, pp. 1, 3; "6 On Council Get Extra Year," Ibid., p. 3; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Meyers, Victor A. (1897-1991)" by (Michael Hood), "Seattle voters elect Hiram Gill as mayor and choose non-partisan city council elected at large on March 8, 1910.," (by David Wilma), and "Lundin, Alfred H. (1886-1963)" (by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 4, 2014).
Note: This essay replaces two previous essays on aspects of this election.


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