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Gubernatorial Gaffes and Glory

By J. Kingston Pierce

While most of the political air this year will be sucked up by the U.S. presidential competition, 2008 also brings with it the latest Washington state gubernatorial election. As voters consider who is best prepared to steer the state through the next four years, it seems like a good time to look rearward at some of the highs and lows of Gov. Christine Gregoire’s predecessors. Of Washington’s 14 territorial chief execs and 21 elected governors (15 Democrats, 20 Republicans), some are definitely more memorable than others—and sometimes in ways we’d prefer to forget.

Not exactly the poster child for race relations

It’s said that the short, bearded and scruffy Isaac Stevens (1818–1862) was so unremarkable that, when he reached Olympia in late November 1853—a day ahead of his scheduled swearing-in as the first governor of Washington Territory—celebrants preparing for his formal reception failed to recognize him. Yet it would not take long for Gov. Stevens to make himself known.

A Massachusetts-born engineer and West Point graduate, Stevens was appointed to his new post by President Franklin Pierce. After officially designating Olympia as the capital of his new government and calling for the election of a legislature, Stevens embarked on the controversial task of convincing—or else coercing—Native Americans to relinquish their homelands to his authority. Wielding threats of force, he struck up treaties with tribal bands throughout the territory, in which they agreed to forfeit their traditional domains and move onto U.S. government-selected reservations.

Only a few tribal leaders refused to play along, including Nisqually Chief Leschi, who, after complaining that his people had been relegated to poor terrain, reportedly led an attack in 1856 on the village of Seattle. Stevens rebuffed Leschi’s subsequent peace overtures and ordered the jailing of white farmers in Pierce County he claimed were cooperating with the chief. After those accusations were questioned, Stevens declared martial law over the county and had a federal court judge arrested for trying to win the farmers’ release. (Stevens later pardoned himself for his actions.)

Leschi was captured and hanged in 1858, on charges of murder and rebellion, prompting calls for Pierce to remove Stevens from his post. But the president refused to act, and Stevens was popular enough with Washingtonians to be elected twice thereafter as their territory’s representative in Congress. When the Civil War broke out, he returned to military service and was killed in Virginia’s 1862 Battle of Chantilly. However, some historians say that Stevens’ legacy was more enduring, setting a pattern for Native American conflicts in the region.

Of course, this was before people believed religion had anything to do with politics

Did you know that Washington has had only one Jewish governor in its history, and he served way back in the 1870s? His name was Edward S. Salomon (1836–1913). Born in Prussia, he immigrated to Illinois as a youth, was elected as the youngest alderman in Chicago in 1861 and became a brigadier general with the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1869, President Ulysses Grant appointed Salomon as the ninth governor of Washington Territory, but he was unfortunate enough to get caught up in the multiple Grant administration scandals and resigned in 1872. He moved to San Francisco to practice law, and in 1888 won a seat in the California State Assembly.

We always thought it was named after commuter boats

With the exception of Stevens, Elisha P. Ferry (1825–1895) “is remembered among the pioneers as the greatest of all governors,” wrote Georgiana Blankenship in her 1914 Early History of Thurston County, Washington. (The dubious claim of preeminence rests principally in his having been the first one to serve after statehood, though Ferry also challenged adventurers to explore this state’s “great unknown land[s],” including the Olympic Mountains.) A Republican lawyer from Illinois, Ferry served as the first mayor of Waukegan before moving to Washington in 1869 to take up an appointment as surveyor general. Three years later, his friend President Grant tapped him to replace Salomon as governor of the territory, a post he held for eight years before moving to Seattle to practice law again. But when Washington was admitted to the Union in 1889 as the 42nd state, Ferry was summoned back to Olympia by popular demand as the first elected governor and remained for four years. Today, he’s remembered as one of only two Evergreen State chief execs to have his name on a county (in Washington’s northeastern corner). The other—you guessed it—is Stevens.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

As if to prove the difficulty of third-party bids for high office, this state can boast but one governor who was elected as neither a Democrat nor a Republican: John R. Rogers (1838–1901). A New Englander, onetime Kansas newspaper editor and author of a utopian novel (Looking Forward: Or The Story of an American Farm), Rogers scored a seat in the Washington Legislature in 1894, representing Puyallup. In 1895, he gained attention by passing the “Barefoot Boy School Law,” which essentially created the state’s educational system by guaranteeing government funding for public schools.

A year later, amid voter disgust with both parties for failing to put Washington back on a strong economic footing after the Panic of 1893 (Seattle’s first major depression), Rogers was elected as the state’s first (and only) Populist Party governor, with a new legislature dominated by a fusion of Populists and Democrats. However, wrote Richard C. Berner in Seattle 1900–1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration, “little of their reformist platform was passed into law. They were unable to create a state railroad commission even though such action occupied the highest place on the Populist agenda. … In the next decade, Republicans regained control of the state legislature and were able to frustrate Gov. John Rogers’ feeble efforts to establish a railroad commission.” When Rogers was reelected in 1900, it was as a Democrat. He died in office early in his second term.

My way and the highway

Washington chief execs are hard-pressed to rival Roland H. Hartley (1864–1952) when it comes to making public spectacles of themselves. New Brunswick-born but Minnesota-reared, Hartley worked through a series of lumber-industry jobs before taking business courses, going to work for Minnesota Gov. David Marston Clough, then marrying Clough’s daughter. After retiring from politics, Clough relocated to Everett in 1900 to scout out lumber-milling prospects. His son-in-law brought his own family west, and Hartley took on supervision of their joint mill operations.

But in 1909, railing against what he called government extravagance, he was victorious in his run for the Everett mayor’s position. Five years later, despite having pissed off many Everettites with his draconian budget-slashing (he not only laid off police but extinguished municipal lighting), Republican Hartley was elected to the state Legislature, where he battled labor unions. Following two unsuccessful bids for the governor’s office, in 1924 he finally triumphed and promptly set about slowing highway development, loosening child-labor laws and reducing public education funds. This last effort put him at odds with University of Washington president Henry Suzzallo, as did the educator’s fervent support of an eight-hour workday. Retaliating, Hartley stacked the university’s board of regents with his own men and forced Suzzallo’s departure, a tactic that incited a recall petition against the governor—the first in the state. (It failed, however, to glean enough signatures to reach the ballot.)

Hartley’s strong-arming split the GOP and placed his reelection in jeopardy, but he knew he could fall back on his tried-and-true approach of attacking government waste. In 1928, Hartley trained his sights on the new $7 million Capitol Building in Olympia. On March 27, the day before state executives were to move into that elegant edifice, Hartley proclaimed that it should “be a deterrent, rather than an incentive, to future extravagance on the part of those in whose hands the business affairs of the state are entrusted.”

To build up support for his candidacy in the coming election, the guv loaded some of what he derided as the capitol’s “sumptuous furnishings”—including one of many cuspidors, for which the Legislature had paid an astonishing $47.50 apiece—into an automobile and paraded them about the state as proof that others in Olympia recognized no restraint in spending the taxpayers’ hard-earned money. That the posturing governor had made sure his own office in the Legislative Building would be the most elegantly appointed of all was not a subject touched on in his speeches. Hartley won his second and last term.

Don’t get any ideas, Greg Nickels

Seattle mayors often dream of moving up the political food chain, but more often than not the job is a career ender. The notable exception was Arthur B. Langlie (1900–1966)—the only Seattle mayor so far to have been elected governor of the state.

The son of a Norwegian immigrant and a Dutch mother, Langlie left the Midwest for Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula in the early 20th century. By 1925, he had a law degree and a job with the prestigious Seattle firm of Shank, Belt, and Rode. But 10 years later, he was convinced by “good-government” reformers to run for the Seattle City Council, and prevailed.

Just a year after that, Republican Langlie campaigned for the mayor’s seat against Democratic incumbent John F. Dore and lost; however, he turned that around in his 1938 rematch against a then-ailing Dore. Benefiting from defense-spending increases and money made available for public works projects by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and championed by a predominantly conservative local press, Mayor Langlie made a reputation for himself as a fiscally responsible Depression-era leader. It was enough to help him eke out a narrow victory against Clarence C. Dill, a Democratic former U.S. senator, in the 1940 Washington governor’s race. Langlie, who at age 40 became the state’s youngest chief executive up to that point (only Dan Evans, elected at age 39 in 1964, has since beaten that record), wasted much of his term arm-wrestling with majority Democrats in Olympia.

More of his attention, following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, was focused on ridding the state of supposedly dangerous Japanese Americans (“The people feel this is no time to worry about hurting feelings,” he declared). Although voters should have given Langlie credit for overseeing statewide industrial development, they weren’t happy with his efforts in 1943 to capture new wartime “emergency powers” that would have let him set aside or unilaterally modify laws.

They also remembered his office’s frenzied behavior after the Hawaii attack, when, as Robert E. Ficken and Charles P. LeWarne recall in their 1988 book Washington: A Centennial History, it announced that “fifth columnists on the Olympic Peninsula had ignited ‘flaming arrows’ to guide attacking pilots toward Seattle. The story made headlines, but the subsequent revelation that the beacons were merely slash burns set by loggers was buried on a back page.” Langlie and his partisans thought he was a shoo-in for re-election in 1944; instead, he went down to defeat against former U.S. Sen. Monrad Wallgren, who had cast the guv as an opponent of FDR’s popular New Deal.

Again, however, Langlie rose from his loss, and in 1948 replaced Wallgren, who had proven to be a weak administrator. As before, Langlie stalemated with the Legislature over multiple bills, yet won an unprecedented third term, largely because so many Washingtonians turned out to elect his fellow Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, to the White House. The teetotaling Langlie ended his political career by trying to unseat the more flamboyant, two-term U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson in 1956. The race wasn’t even close.

PETA would not be happy

Dixy Lee Ray (1914–1994) was the Democrat that even Democrats love to hate. A marine biologist, onetime director of Seattle’s Pacific Science Center and ex-chair (appointed by Richard M. Nixon) of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Ray was elected in 1976 as the first woman governor of Washington. Her supporters liked the image that Tacoma-born Ray presented—the same one Jimmy Carter offered in 1976, that of the “outsider”—but they quickly became disillusioned with her strongly conservative viewpoints. The online encyclopedia HistoryLink perhaps explains the situation best: “In her single term as governor, Ray generated more controversy than accomplishments by reducing welfare, advocating reductions in environmental protections and supporting nuclear power. She also feuded with the media. In 1978, she named after reporters each of the 11 piglets born at her home. A year later, she treated the press to sausage made from the pigs.” Then-state Sen. Jim McDermott challenged Gov. Ray in the 1980 Democratic primary election and won by a large margin, but ultimately lost the job to Republican King County Executive John Spellman.

At least he wasn’t toe-tapping in an airport men’s room

Democrat Mike Lowry (b. 1939) had been in public service for 18 years by the time he was elected to the governor’s office in 1992. He’d been a member of the King County Council and subsequently attained a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he stayed for more than a decade.

Lowry was the darling of the liberal 7th District (Seattle and Vashon Island); some said he could have held up a liquor store and won the 7th. He made a name for himself in Congress by defending poor and homeless people, denouncing defense-spending increases and deriding the Reagan-era rise of conservatism.

After losing two bids for a U.S. Senate seat, in ’92 Lowry rode a tide of Democratic victories (not since 1936 had his party captured so many state offices) to soundly defeat GOP Attorney General Ken Eikenberry for the governor’s seat. Within a month, however, as Lowry sought to head off a $1 billion-plus deficit, Republicans began attacking the guv as a tax-happy liberal. And though he racked up plaudits for boosting child-care assistance programs and vetoing an anti-pornography law that he equated with censorship, Lowry didn’t always work well with others—even his fellow Dems.

He lost considerable voter support when, after passing progressive health-care reforms (something even his savvier fellow Democrat, President Bill Clinton, had been unable to do on a national level), he turned around two years later and helped Republicans dismantle most of what he’d accomplished. What drove the final nail into Lowry’s political coffin was a 1995 sexual-harassment scandal involving his former deputy press secretary, Susanne Albright. She laid out a series of misbehaviors, ranging from inappropriate remarks to fondling. Lowry professed his innocence, saying he was simply a friendly guy prone to greeting female staffers with hugs, gentle slaps and even kisses. But, as other women who’d worked with Lowry voiced similar complaints, Washington lawmakers and women’s advocacy groups turned on him.

One moralizing Republican state senator even tried to impeach him: That was Jim West, who would go on to become the mayor of Spokane and be brought down by his own sex scandal, involving young gay men. Lowry paid Albright $97,500 and chose not to run for reelection in 1996, becoming the first governor in almost 90 years not to seek a second term. L&P

J. Kingston Pierce, a frequent WL&P contributor, is also the senior editor of January Magazine (; editor of “The Rap Sheet” (, a crime-fiction blog; and author of Eccentric Seattle (WSU Press), a collection of essays about the city’s colorful past.

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