Hill, Tim Henry (b. 1936)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 5/07/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7755

Tim Hill's political career in Washington state spanned 27 years, from 1966 to 1993, including two terms as King County executive. He served one term as a state representative for the 44th district, three terms on the Seattle City Council, and also was the Seattle city comptroller from 1979 to 1985. Hill also lost races for Seattle mayor in 1973 and for the U.S. Senate in 1992. He was a liberal-to-moderate Republican, an ardent environmentalist who bicycled to and from work, and his style was low-key. During his years with the City of Seattle, he was an earnest budget watchdog and often aroused the ire of other city politicians. The usually nonpartisan Municipal League in 1984 named Hill the year's outstanding public official for his stewardship of the city's purse strings. As county executive, he was burdened with an overcrowded jail, testy relations with the Seattle Mariners, and growth-management issues. He ran for re-election in 1993, but was defeated by Gary Locke. He and his wife, Margot, have remained active in a range of educational, civic, and political activities.

Peripatetic Childhood

Tim Hill was born on August 23, 1936, in Patterson, New Jersey, the second of four children, to Henry C. Hill and Eleanor Sanford Hill. Henry Hill was an engineer with Curtiss-Wright Corp., one of the country's pioneer aeronautical firms, and he helped design the engine for the Boeing B-17, the bomber that became one of icons of World War II. Henry Hill was born in Schenectady, New York, and Eleanor was born in Danville, Kentucky. Henry's work took the family to Pasadena, Ca., for two years, before they alighted in Seattle in 1948. Tim was 13. He says, "Seattle is a much better place now than it was then."

Of Hill's siblings, Nancy would become the wife of architect Bill Bain Jr.; Don would become a contractor in Kirkland, and Hunter a psychologist in Ashland, Oregon.

Tim attended West Seattle High School, where he played tennis, and graduated from Whitman College, majoring in political science. His choice of a major was somewhat influenced by his roommate, who was majoring in political science and "a strong Democrat. My family was Republican," Hill said.

He enrolled in the University of Washington School of Law in 1958 but did not graduate until 1963. He dropped out briefly and worked at the Boeing Airplane Co. for six months, but decided that "that was a mistake." In January 1960, he dropped out further, taking off on a nine-month sojourn. He bought a two-cylinder Fiat for $700 in Milan, Italy, and meandered to Egypt, Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordan, across Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan to India. Reminded of an old auto mechanic's joke -- that "Fiat" was an acronym for "fix it again, Tony" -- Hill chuckled and said, "It was a simple car, no synchromesh, and there were dealers all over the world, except India. And wherever the British happened to be (which was much of the Middle East at the time), there were good roads."

Early Career

Hill returned to the UW Law School and on a blind date in 1961 met Margot David, a recent graduate of the University of Washington's School of Nursing and a nurse at Doctor's Hospital. They married in 1962 and would have three children: Margaret and twins Robert and John. Hill became president of the student bar association and graduated in 1963. He became a deputy prosecutor in the office of King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll (1906-2003), "arguably the most powerful man in Seattle and King County" (Wilma). "He was Mr. Republican," Hill said, and his deputies were expected to attend the "Italian dinners" and other political events.

In 1966, when a seat in the state House of Representatives became vacant in his district, the 44th, he told Carroll he wanted to run. According to Hill, Carroll said, " 'Hill, be out of this office by 12." I was in the middle of a trial. I was told that when you signed up for the prosecutor's office, you worked through his election."

Hill won the seat and served one term. He said, "There was a group of us who were tagged [Dan] Evans Republicans, and I was proud of that. I would like to think of myself as a progressive Republican" (Wilson).

Seattle City Council

Following the legislative session, he was recruited to run for a seat on the Seattle City Council by Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC), a group of young reformers, mostly liberal Republicans and mostly graduates of Harvard University. "[W]ith newborn twins and a struggling sole-practice in law, he jumped at the chance of a full-time job in politics" (Wilson).

Ironically, the reforms championed by the "Evans Republicans," CHECC, and others helped trigger the end of Charles Carroll's career, when he was caught up in a Seattle Police payoff scandal in the early 1970s.

Hill defeated the incumbent, Clarence Massart. Along with Phyllis Lamphere, another CHECC-anointed newcomer, and Sam Smith (1926-1995), the Seattle City Council's first African American member, Hill helped give the council a solid reformist majority. He championed Seattle's neighborhoods and was an environmentalist whose penchant for bicycling to work 18 miles a day was duly noted by the media. An interest in government finance, spawned first by his work as a deputy prosecutor, led to chairmanship the council's powerful Finance and Budget Committee and he emerged as the council's dissident voice on city expenditures.

Takes On City Light

He questioned the city's lease of Sicks' Stadium to the Seattle Pilots baseball club.

He also irked fellow council members by taking on "that municipal holy-of-holies, City Light," suggesting that more of the utility's revenues should go into the general fund, rather than subsidizing electrical appliances (Robinson). That City Light program was later cancelled. It was neither the first nor the last time Hill would take on this "holy of holies," or any other. "When I was first on the council, I created a real stir by asking City Light for a list of its properties in the city, which they didn't have." Hill said. "It was a huge job, but they later thanked me for it."

Hill was re-elected in 1971, defeating Seattle pharmacist George Benson (1919-2004), who would go on to enjoy a 20-year career (1974-1994) on the City Council. Hill held the seat again in 1973, defeating state Representative Bob Perry.

Hill also ran for mayor in 1973, but was defeated in the primary by Liem Tuai (1925-2003), who, in turn, was defeated by the incumbent, Wes Uhlman (b. 1935).

Curbing Growth

Over the years, Hill's anti-establishment positions became more liberal. He wanted to curb growth, became "Public Enemy No. 1 in West Seattle" for opposing the West Seattle Freeway (Brewster), but promoted projects with "a positive payback," such as Pike Place Market, the Westlake Mall, and Pioneer Square areas (The Seattle Times).

Hill ran for the office of city comptroller in 1979, "in part frustrated by the lack of understandable data about the city's financial condition," he said. The usually low-profile office manages the city's books and payroll and is the budget watchdog. Hill, who promised to "wake up" the department, said, "I decided it would be a challenge and more stimulating to be comptroller, than a city councilman ... . I consider it the best job of all the political jobs I had."

The incumbent, Edward Kidd, had retired and Hill easily defeated Robert T. Daly, a 51-year-old, unemployed school counselor and perennial candidate for a range of public offices.

While he was comptroller, his wife, Margot, worked four days a week in the cancer ward of Virginia Mason Hospital.

Hill was variously described as "an aloof and soft-spoken moralist" (Brewster), "low-key" (Sweeney), "quiet, unassuming" (Merritt), and "bookish, mild-mannered" (Wilson), but his often-contrarian positions irked other city politicians, especially the administration of Charles Royer (b. 1939), Seattle's mayor from 1978 to 1989.

Hill as "Pariah"

"[H]e sometimes seems the pariah of Seattle City Hall ... When there's a split among the city's financial leaders, Hill frequently finds himself in the minority" (Wilson). An investment by his old bugbear, Seattle City Light, in Idaho's Lucky Peak Dam project sparked another round of political outrage. He said the purchase of a 38-megawatt generator at the dam cost $11 million too much, though one City Light official was quoted as saying that Lucky Peak was "one of the coups of the century" (Wilson). The generator, which went online in 1988, now represents only 4 percent of Seattle City Light's energy-generation portfolio.

To further shred Hill's energy credentials, City Council Energy Committee Chairman Michael Hildt dredged up Hill's support in 1976 for buying into the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), a nuclear-power project that degenerated into the biggest municipal-bond default in history.

No Regrets

Hill had no regrets about any of it. As for WPPSS, he said, "Some day we may be back there. At the time, I had mixed emotions about it. The alternative was to emphasize conservation and I think that was the proper decision."

The Municipal League of Seattle (now King County) in 1984 named Hill the year's outstanding public official, despite charges that the choice might be viewed as partisan. In 1985, Hill ran for the office of King County Executive, a seat held by Democrat Randy Revelle. In the primary, he easily defeated Port Commissioner Jim Wright, a conservative "self-styled populist given to inflammatory remarks" (Modie).

Help from Ruckelshaus and Revelle

For his campaign chairman, Hill landed William Ruckelshaus, "some big-name credibility" (Boren). Ruckelshaus (b. 1932) was the first director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and one of heroes of the "Saturday Night Massacre" on October 20, 1973. U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson (1920-1999) and Ruckelshaus, then Deputy Attorney General, had resigned rather than obey an order from President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) to fire Archibald Cox (1912-2004), the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

Hill also benefited from Revelle's troubled incumbency, saddled by controversies over the Seattle Mariners, the county jail, and other issues. "[O]ne joke currently making the rounds holds that 'Randy Revelle has shot himself in both feet. Now he's working on his kneecaps' " (Boren).

Despite these advantages, Hill's campaign plan "looked more and more like a road map to a dead end" and cost Hill "the endorsement of every newspaper in King County." But Hill's campaign had focused on wooing absentee voters, a strategy that gave him "a whisker of a victory" (Boren).

A Contentious Four Years

Hill's four-year term as King County Executive was as contentious as Revelle's. The county jail, overcrowded with prisoners sleeping on the floor when Hill took office, prompted a class-action lawsuit against the county. The jail, and the continuing dispute with the Seattle Mariners' absentee owner, California developer George Argyros, dominated political conversation. Other issues compounded his problems: growth management, his relations with developers, and his leadership or lack of it, including "snafus in the day-to-day running of county government" (Merritt).

Hill won re-election in 1989, defeating Bruce Hilyer -- again by a thin margin and again with the help of absentee votes. The strategy was engineered in both races by campaign manager Rollin Fatland, who had served Hill as assistant city comptroller and deputy county executive. "It was pretty straightforward political calculus at that time," Fatland said, "an off-year election, nothing much going on in the suburbs, but Seattle mayor is on the ballot, so Seattle kind of dominates ... . so we went after what I referred to as "lazy Republicans," encouraging them to register absentee and vote Republican." Just enough of them did.

A First-Rate Manager

Hill again was criticized "for his low-key leadership and ... his belligerent approach to negotiating with the Seattle Mariners" (Boren). Hill's views on growth also had changed and he became a champion of regional economic development. In an op-ed piece for the Puget Sound Business Journal on September 8, 1986, he touted his plan to "streamline the permit processing bureaucracy of King County."

Fatland said, "Tim's strength was that he was a first-rate manager. His weakness was that he was a first-rate manager, who sometimes lost sight of the fact that he was operating in a very political environment ... . His accomplishments are pretty significant. He put a lot of emphasis on human services, focused on families and children ... . He did a lot of good in the environmental arena, with open space initiatives."

In January 1992, Hill entered the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Brock Adams (1927-2004), who had been dogged by allegations of sexual harassment and rape. Hill tried to "ride a moderate, pro-family vehicle" to Congress (Boren), but lost the Republican primary to U.S. Representative Rod Chandler (b. 1942) who, in turn, lost to Patty Murray (b. 1950) after Adams dropped out of the contest.

Hill ran again for King County executive in 1993, but was defeated by Gary Locke (b. 1950), the first Asian American elected to that office.

Life After Office

After leaving office, Hill taught courses in local government and government accounting at community colleges in the Seattle area "for a couple of years," and was president of Childhaven also "for a couple of years."

Hill served on the board of Intiman Theater, Harbor Light shelter, and (St. Mark's) Cathedral Associates, which sponsors musical events and discussion groups. He "remains involved" in politics as a member of the Bishop's Committee on Justice and Peace for Israel/Palestine in the Episcopal Church's Olympia diocese. Its goal: "to influence elected officials to take a more balanced view." As for the Republican Party in 2006: "It's far too conservative."

Hill lives with his wife, Margot, in Seattle.


Sources:

HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Grand jury indicts public officials in police payoff scandal on July 27, 1971" (by David Wilma) http://www.historlink.org/ (accessed May 6, 2006); Herb Robinson, "Tim Hill Deserves To Be Heard," The Seattle Times, October 27, 1968; Duff Wilson, "Tim Hill's Mountain of Enemies at City Hall," Ibid., September 18, 1985; David Brewster, "Tim Hill: The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Liberal," Argus, September 14, 1973; "Hill Will Seek Re-election to City Council," The Seattle Times, July 25, 1975; Michael Sweeney, "Comptroller's Race an Easy Ride for Hill," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1979; Mike Merritt, "Hill Dogged by Leadership Questions," Ibid.,," July 24, 1989; Neil Modie, "Hill Brushes Wright Aside,' Ibid., September 18, 1985; Rebecca Boren, "Can Bill Ruckelshaus Beat Randy Revelle?" Seattle Weekly, August 7, 1985; Rebecca Boren, "How Hill Beat Revelle (Hint: Randy helped)," Ibid.,, November 13, 1985; Rebecca Boren, "Hill Takes Wraps Off Senate Bid," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 6. 1992; Frank Chesley interview with Tim Hill, April 4, 2006; Frank Chesley interview with Rollin Fatland, April 27, 2006.


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