Rosellini, Albert Dean (1910-2011)

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 1/30/2003
  • Essay 5156
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Albert D. Rosellini, governor of Washington state from 1956 to 1965, was born to Italian American immigrants in Tacoma on January 21, 1910. The family relocated to Seattle's Rainier Valley in 1916. Despite the relative poverty of his upbringing, Al Rosellini was able to study the law at the University of Washington, and established a highly visible practice as a Seattle attorney. He won election to the State Senate in 1938, and became a leading champion of working people, juvenile justice reform, transportation improvements, and other liberal causes. Rosellini was elected governor of Washington state in 1956 and re-elected in 1960. He lost a bid for a third term to Daniel Evans (b. 1925) in 1964. Subsequent campaigns for King County executive (1969) and governor (1972) also fell short of victory. But he remained active in business and public life. Al Rosellini died in Seattle from complications of pneumonia on October 10, 2011. He was 101 years old.

The Son of Immigrants

Albert Rosellini's father, Giovanni, emigrated from Tuscany in 1901 and settled in Tacoma in 1905. He met and married Annunziata Pagni, the sister of a fellow immigrant, that same year and they raised three daughters and one son, Albert.

Giovanni established a thriving liquor business in Tacoma with his two brothers and other relatives. One brother, Vittorio, married Fine Gasperetti and sired famed Seattle restaurateur Victor Rosellini (1915-2003) and surgeon Leo Rosellini. After Prohibition forced the closure of Giovanni's businesses in Tacoma in 1916, he relocated his family to Seattle's Rainier Valley -- dubbed "Garlic Gulch" for its growing Italian American community.

Prohibition and the Depression dealt a one-two punch to the Rosellini family, and Giovanni was briefly imprisoned on drug smuggling charges in 1927. The incident inspired his son to pursue a career in the law. Albert Rosellini gained a powerful mentor at the University of Washington School of Law in the person of crusading attorney Harold Shefelman. He also impressed Democratic Party leader Hugh Rosellini (no direct relation) and writer Angelo Pellegrini with his political passion and skills.

Passing the Bar

Albert Rosellini hung out his lawyer's shingle in 1933. He immediately made headlines by defending an African American with whom he had once sparred as an amateur boxer. The Seattle Times trumpeted "Lawyer's First Client is Negro He Whipped in Prize Fight." Although he lost the case, Rosellini made his mark in his first year of practice, and he also met his future wife, Ethel.

His next major case established a life-long career of service to the beverage and hospitality industries. In 1934, Rosellini led a successful challenge to King County's capricious enforcement of post-Prohibition "Blue Laws" by demanding closure of all public amusements -- not just bars and taverns -- on Sundays. The ploy worked temporarily to relax restrictions on Sunday liquor sales, until new rules were adopted by the State Liquor Control Board.

The Rose Blooms

In 1934, Rosellini challenged powerful State Senator "Tiger Jim" Murphy in Southeast Seattle's 33rd district, and lost by a scant 80 votes. He then took a job in the office of King County's new prosecutor, Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989). After Murphy's death, Rosellini easily beat his appointed successor to win the Senate seat in 1938.

His early politics were staunchly pro-New Deal, and he enjoyed the support of leftists in the Washington Commonwealth Federation. As the son of an immigrant, he valued government's role in building and holding the ladder by which the poor could ascend socially and economically.

Although never an idealogue (he later broke with the left), Rosellini once summed up his view that "Our American society has become truly democratic only in that social mobility from one economic class to another has been provided by the opportunities open to all through our [public] education system." Without conscious political symbolism, Rosellini would later adopt a bright red rose for his political emblem.

Rosellini sided with liberals in promoting social programs and reforms to address the Depression, but the left was often thwarted by more conservative Democrats from Eastern Washington, including Governor Clarence Martin (1887-1955). The stalemate continued when Republican and former Seattle mayor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) won the governorship in 1940.

Rosellini worked behind the scenes to strip Langlie of the governor's traditional right to name the Majority Leader of the Senate, regardless of party affiliation. A grateful Democratic Senate Caucus named Rosellini as its leader in 1941, but the triumph sealed a lifetime political enmity between him and Langlie.

Roses Are Red and So Are You

The position of Rosellini and other urban liberals did not improve significantly when Democrat Mon Wallgren (1891-1961) defeated Langlie in 1944. Anticommunist agitation began early in Washington state under the leadership of State Representative Albert Canwell (1907-2002), and conservatives in both parties frustrated many left-of-center reforms and initiatives by associating them with Moscow. Among the casualties was Rosellini's personal crusade to create a separate juvenile justice system and get minors out of adult prisons. Rosellini was personally "red-baited" by critics such as Ross Cunningham, powerful editorialist for The Seattle Times.

Langlie returned to the governor's mansion in 1949, and Rosellini bedeviled his administration with public hearings on conditions in state prisons and the tolerance of gambling in Seattle and other major cities. Rosellini joined a crowded Democratic primary field in 1952 for a shot at challenging Langlie's re-election. In a paradoxical twist, he labeled Hugh Mitchell (1907-1996), Democratic Congressman from Seattle and primary front-runner, as "left wing." Mitchell ended up losing to Langlie, and many Democrats blamed Rosellini for giving Republicans ammunition.

Rosellini had to rely chiefly on his own funds when he again ran for the Democratic nomination in 1956. He emerged from a weak field of contenders and easily defeated the Republican nominee, Lt. Governor Emmett Anderson. Governor-elect Rosellini tapped University of Washington professor Warren Bishop to organize his administration.

A Garden of Progress

Rosellini's first term was one of the most progressive and productive in state history. He created a separate justice and prison system for juveniles, modernized the mental health system, increased aid to universities and colleges, accelerated road construction, set up a merit system for state employees, and established the Department of Commerce and Economic Development. Under his leadership, the legislature passed enabling legislation for the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro, now part of King County) and Seattle's "Century 21" World's Fair.

Despite this record, Rosellini faced an uphill fight for re-election in 1960 against State Supt. of Public Instruction Lloyd Andrews. Rosellini made effective use of the state's first televised debates between gubernatorial candidates and eked out a narrow victory, while John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) lost the state to Richard Nixon (1913-1994).

The Rose Fades

Partisan divisions and miscellaneous "scandals" stymied much of Rosellini's program during his second term. Despite Lyndon Johnson's national landslide in 1964, Rosellini lost his bid for a third term to engineer and Republican State House Leader Daniel J. Evans, who offered a new "Blueprint for Progress."

Rosellini attempted to re-enter political life in 1969 by running against John Spellman for the newly created position of King County Executive. His final bid for office came in 1972, when he challenged Dan Evans's bid for an unprecedented third consecutive term. Rosellini led in the polls until a last-minute attack by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer insinuated links to organized crime. These -- and all other charges of corruption that dogged his career -- were never proved, but they effectively scuttled Rosellini's campaign and ended his role in electoral politics.

Albert D. Rosellini led an active "retirement" as an attorney and consultant specializing in the affairs of the liquor and entertainment industries that launched his career back in 1933. In 2003 his name came into the headlines once again due to his association with Frank Colacurcio Sr. Rosellini personally delivered campaign contributions connected with Colacurcio to two Seattle City Council members, contributions later determined to be illegal. Colacurcio had been pushing for a rezoning of property next to his establishment, Rick’s, a Lake City strip club, for a parking lot.

Rosellini and his wife, Ethel Rosellini (1912-2002), raised five children: John (b. 1939), Janey (b. 1941), Sue Ann (b. 1945), Lynn (b. 1947), and Albert Jr. (b. 1951). Ethel Rosellini died on March 31, 2002, with her husband at her side. 

In 1988, the state renamed the Evergreen Floating Bridge for the governor who pushed its construction. Al Rosellini died in Seattle of pneumonia on October 10, 2011. He was 101 years old.


Payton Smith, Rosellini: Immigrants' Son and Progressive Governor (Seattle: University of Washington, 1997); Sherry Grindeland, "Ethel Rosellini, A Homemaker and First Lady of Washington," The Seattle Times, April 2, 2002 (; Jim Bruner, "Former Governor Al Rosellini Dies at 101," The Seattle Times, October 10, 2011 (
Note: This essay was updated on October 10, 2011, and again on October 11, 2011.

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