Braman, James d'Orma (Dorm), (1901-1980)

  • By Jim Braman
  • Posted 9/10/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3919
This biography of James d'Orma "Dorm" Braman, Seattle City Council member beginning in 1954, and Seattle mayor from 1964 to 1969, was written by his son, Jim Braman.

Dorm Braman: Kitsap County Years

James d'Orma "Dorm" Braman was born in Lorimor, Iowa, on December 23, 1901. He moved with his family first to Oklahoma and then to the Pend Oreille valley of Eastern Washington circa 1908. His family moved to Bremerton in 1910, where his father, Jacob Wesley Braman, managed first a lumber mill and later a lumber retail store for the Port Blakely Mill Company.

Dorm attended Union High School from 1916 to 1918, dropping out of school late in his sophmore year to deliver lumber for new housing being build as a result of the World War I boom in Bremerton, site of the Puget Sound Navy Yard. With a neighbor chum, Dorm opened a small millwork plant in leased quarters on the Bremerton waterfront in 1919. After he became sole owner of the business, known as Braman Mill and Manufacturing Company, he moved it to larger quarters on 4th Street and in 1930 into a facility built for him at the corner of Pacific Avenue and 7th Street.

The new plant was large enough to accomodate up to 25 workers but unfortunately opened just as the slump of the Great Depression was being felt in Bremerton. Within several years, he was the sole employee. However, his reputation for high quality millwork permitted a build-up of employment as economic conditions eased. Ultimately, the Braman Mill provided millwork such as door and window frames, cabinets, and store fixtures for public and private buildings as far way as Bothell, north of Seattle.

Braman had married a Manette girl, Margaret Veroka Young, in 1902, and had two sons, James d'Orma, Jr. (b. 1925) and Robert Clifford (b. 1927). Although he had no training or experience as an architect, in 1936 he designed and built, with help of several sub-contractors, a large Norman-style home, one of the grandest in Bremerton. This home was registered as an historic landmark in 2000.

Braman served one term as Bremerton Port Commissioner and was instrumental in the approval of construction of the first ferry terminal in downtown Bremerton designed to handle automobiles. He was active in the Masonic Lodge and the Lions Club. The latter activity led him to Boy Scout work and he became scoutmaster of Troop 511 in 1937. During his six years of service, this troop became one of the most prestigious in the region. Fifty of the Troop 511 Scouts attained the rank of Eagle and the troop won most scouting competitions for several years. It once took first place in nine of 10 events at a county-wide field meet.

Braman again turned to his drawing board in designing Sundown Lodge, built by boys of his troop near the headwaters of the Tahuya River. This large and handsome facility served first the troop and eventually all the Kitsap District of the Boy Scouts of America for more than 40 years before vandalism dictated its demolition. Troop 511 also traveled widely in an old Fageol bus owned by the troop, ranging as far as Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in 1939.

In 1943 Braman sought and obtained a commission as Lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve. He handled lumber procurement for the Navy from an office in Portland and traveled extensively to lumber producers throughout the West. In 1945, after being promoted to the rank of Commander, he was assigned to the national headquarters of naval lumber procurement in Washington D.C. Braman was instrumental in revising the Navy Manual and in other actions required to carry out President Truman's mandate that lumber procurement for all armed forces be coordinated. He headed the new office responsible for such joint procurement until he resigned to return to the Pacific Northwest in 1946.

Seattle Years

After a brief stay in Bremerton, he moved to Seattle in 1946, where he purchased a lumber and building materials store in suburban Lake City. Braman Lumber and Hardware became an early example of a full-service home builder store, with sales of lumber, window glass, paint, appliances, housewares, and gifts. A cabinet shop was added in 1950. Dorm was active in the Lake City Kiwanis Club and was one of the founders of Shoreline Savings and Loan Association, which eventually opened branches in many Western Washington communities.

After a broad North End area, including Lake City, was annexed to Seattle in 1954, civic leaders in the area chose Braman to run for Seattle City Council. He ran a non-typical campaign, during which he praised Seattle's clean and business-like government. Dorm was elected with a greater number of votes than any of the four incumbents who were re-elected at the same election. During most of the ensuing ten years with Seattle City Council he was chairman of the powerful Finance Committee.

He was a hard-nosed, plain spoken legislator, tight-fisted in budgetary matters. He promoted use of the cumulative reserve fund, into which were deposited savings when City expenditures were less than revenues. This allowed building of some needed facilities without requiring voter approval of bond issues, a procedure that won praise from conservatives but was criticized by some others as a way to avoid seeking public approval of civic projects.

Braman ultimately became the City's representative on the World's Fair Commission responsible for constructing and operating the Century 21 Exposition in 1962. He served as a watchdog in the immediate post-fair period to assure that long-range plans developed before the fair were followed as the fairgrounds were transformed into Seattle Center. His use of the cumulative reserve fund to help in this effort received general support, but use of the same fund to build a new municipal building was controversial, especially since local architects criticized what they called the "Holiday Inn" look of the building.

Braman won two re-election races handily, but during the middle of his third four-year term on city council he was persuaded by backers to run for the office of mayor, since the incumbent had announced he would not seek a third term. He placed first among a large slate of contenders in the primary election of 1964, and defeated Lieutenant Governor John Cherberg in the final by a margin of nearly 12,000 votes. Because of a change in State law, his term was to run five and one-half years, and Braman announced upon election that he intended not to run for a second term. He said this would free him to make decisions based on what he considered best for the city, and not just on what would please the electorate.

There was some bitterness in the local minority community about Braman's election, because he had indicated his opposition to an open housing initiative, which was rejected by the voters at the same time as the mayoral election. Braman stated that his opposition was not based on the principle involved, but on specific provisions of the ordinance that he felt were too destructive of individual property owners' rights. He attempted, with partial success, to gain support of dissenters by appointing minority persons to several important positions, by strengthening the Human Rights Commission, and by establishing a Job Corps in which city departments hired minority youths during summers.

Braman, a life-long Republican, surprised many people, including some supporters, when he appointed several Democrats to key positions on his personal staff. This was followed by a change in attitude about seeking federal funds for local projects and activities. Whereas he had been skeptical about such funding as a councilman, he declared that as mayor he would do his best to get as much as possible of federal taxes paid by Seattleites back to the community. His words were followed by action, with Seattle being the first U.S. city to obtain a federal Model Cities grant. Federal funding for other projects also flowed into the city.

During the summer of 1968, when Seattle began to feel the urban unrest spreading through American cities, fueled at least in part by the Vietnam War, Braman visited African-American neighborhoods several times during periods when acts of violence were occurring, to the dismay of the police chief. One night during the height of the unrest he ordered that demonstrators threatening violence be arrested. He appeared at a local police station in the middle of that night to thank police for their resultant actions, which appeared to head off a potential riot.

Other significant progress was made during his five-year term. He threw City support behind the citizen-led Forward Thrust bond program, organized to gain support for facilities to serve the expected growth in metropolitan area population. The end result was voter approval of six major bond issues in 1968, constituting the largest bond program ever approved at a local level in the U.S.. Braman, however, was deeply disappointed that the rapid transit issue failed to gain the required 60 percent positive vote, although a majority of voters supported it.

Braman also worked to obtain from the federal government title to Fort Lawton and to assure that its site would be used park purposes. With support from the Washington State congressional delegation, particularly Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, this was accomplished, and the great majority of the area became Discovery Park, Seattle's largest park in acreage.

Braman had become increasingly convinced that comprehensive transit systems, including rail transit, integrated with land use planning was necessary to avoid future congestion in Seattle and other American cities. He became a national leader in the effort to obtain reliable federal support for transit, working closely with the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to this end. Ultimately, this work led to his appointment by President Nixon early in 1969 to a newly created federal position, Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Urban Systems and Environment.

Working for Mass Transit in Washington D.C.

Braman had gained a reputation for straight talk, even blunt talk at times, and this and his many accomplishments during his short period in office resulted in widespread praise from the press and from civic and political leaders of both parties when he left Seattle for Washington, D.C. Local papers referred to him as the best mayor Seattle had ever had.

Braman went to Washington for two reasons. The foremost was to obtain a more stable source of federal funding for transit projects in general, and specifically for Seattle's proposed rapid transit system. Failure at the polls of the 1968 transit issue stemmed at least partly from lack of certainty of federal funding for the project. A secondary objective was to assure that environmental consequences of federally-supported transportation projects be considered more carefully in the decision-making process.

Braman had always been a pragmatic environmentalist. His experience with the Boy Scouts, followed by a lifetime love of skiing and hiking in his beloved Pacific Northwest mountains, gave him an appreciation of the natural environment. However, his experience in business and government lent a tempering influence on environmental controls so that they not be harsh enough to completely stop reasonable development. These factors influenced his performance in D.C.

Braman carried out his assignment there with the type of determination (some called it bull-headedness) that characterized his work in city government. Twice when he felt that important principles were being compromised for political reasons he told the Secretary of Transportation that he was going to resign and return to Seattle. Since he had the support of many local governmental and environmental groups, his resignation would have been political dynamite, and he ultimately prevailed both times.

Freeway projects in New Orleans and San Antonio that were potentially harmful to the urban environment were stopped, and ones in Memphis and New Hampshire substantially modified. Even more important in the long term, he succeeded in obtaining passage of legislation securing continuing federal funding for urban transit projects, even though the highway lobby and initially President Nixon himself opposed such legislation.

With 80 percent federal funding for Seattle's rapid transit assured, the matter was submitted to a new public vote. The timing was unfortunate, since the big "Boeing bust" of late 1969 was in full sway, and voters once again failed to approve the system, even though local taxpayers would cover only 20 percent of the total cost of the project. Funds earmarked for Seattle went to build Atlanta's rail system instead. Braman was discouraged by the result, and shortly later resigned his federal position and returned to Seattle in 1970. He received unusual praise from the Washington Post and other papers around the country for the great accomplishments during his 18 months in the position.

In Seattle, Braman resumed service on the Board of Directors of Shoreline Savings, served as President of the Chief Seattle Council of the Boy Scouts, and for a short time was member of a national transportation advisory board. However, he never again was active in civic or political affairs. He remained physically vigorous, skiing and hiking until he died quietly in his sleep at home in 1980, at age 79.


Sources: Jim Braman is the son of James d'Orma "Dorm" Braman.

Related Topics:   Biographies | Government & Politics

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