CHECC: Its role in the transformation of Seattle, 1967-1978, Part 1

  • By Peter LeSourd
  • Posted 4/30/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8139

A broad-based citizen-activist movement spearheaded the numerous political and social changes that took place in Seattle during the 1960s and 1970s. Although many organizations participated, this account (updated in February 2009) focuses on the role played by one of them -- Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC). It was written by CHECC participant Peter LeSourd. This is Part 1 of a two-part essay.

Choose An Effective City Council -- CHECC, Part 1 

In the middle of the 1960s Seattle was still a regional business center whose economy was primarily dependent on airplane production and forest products. It was a city of “dull” politics not yet significantly shaken by the social upheaval of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. In 1967 the average age of the nine Seattle City Council members was mid-60s, and cheeky Seattle Magazine’s May 1965 headline characterized them as “Our Musty, Crusty City Council.” City government operated under a “weak-mayor, strong council” form in which the council had the budget-making power and no single elected official was clearly in charge.

By the end of 1971, events completely overturned this status. The turmoil of the civil rights and anti-war movements had come to town. All nine council members were new since 1967, and the city’s mayor was the youngest in its history, with much greater powers than before. In the subsequent decades, the Seattle area developed from a regional center into an internationally significant metropolis.

Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) was one of the organizations that worked this transformation. In the context of our current intensely divisive politics, it was remarkable, an ad hoc, youthful, bipartisan political action group operating by consensus. It became the campaign vehicle for injecting new blood into the City Council, which opened the door for other reforms and successfully dealt with the great changes afoot. 

The formation of CHECC began in December 1966. Richard Bushnell approached David Wood at a social event to discuss what action might be taken to reform city government. Bushnell was the immediate past-President of the Young Republicans of King County (YR), and Wood was Treasurer of the Metropolitan Democratic Club (MDC). They agreed to explore whether members of the YR and the MDC were interested in creating a reformist political action organization.

A group of officials from these two organizations discussed this idea in January 1967, but a parallel development involving the Seattle Junior Chamber of Commerce (JC) caused a major expansion of the concept. Unaware of the YR/MDC initiative, the leadership of the JC had decided to seek election of new council members. The senior Chamber of Commerce threatened to expel the JC from its offices in the Chamber’s building if the JC carried out that project. Once the JC learned of the MDC/YR leaders’ plans, its leaders therefore joined forces with them to form an independent organization. 

A series of exploratory meetings were held in February and March. The participants grew to include George Akers, Tom Alberg, Christopher Bayley, Duncan Bronson, Bushnell, Bruce Chapman, Camden Hall, Lem Howell, Peter LeSourd, Gary Little, Linda McDonald, James O’Connor, John Watson, and Wood, with Hall acting as informal chair by consensus. By May, Robert Keene, Allan Munro, and Llewelyn Pritchard joined the group. Almost all of its leaders were under 30 year of age, and 13 of them were attorneys. Bushnell proposed a “perceived amalgamation” of the YR, MDC and JC, fearing that the YR membership would not agree to lend the club’s name to a bipartisan political effort, and the JC could not afford to contravene the senior Chamber’s demands.

On April 7 the final key decisions were made. By unanimous consensus, the group chose Democratic attorney LeSourd as chair and Republican attorney Hall as vice-chair. This decision to have the organization led by someone who had a clear identification as either a Democrat or Republican demonstrated the collegial, consensus-based approach of this group of partisan political activists. 

At a press conference announcing the formation of CHECC on April 24, reporters were present from both daily newspapers, all the local network TV stations, and a number of radio stations and weekly newspapers. LeSourd and Hall sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a podium with officers of the JC, MDC and YR standing behind them. A list of CHECC’s “Sponsors” that was distributed clearly demonstrates the core public relations strategy that Bushnell had originally proposed. It named 26 people, not in alphabetic order or with its officers first, but seemingly at random. In fact, the sequence was carefully constructed. It alternated among persons with JC, MDC, and YR membership. The “perceived amalgamation” was achieved, without any of those organizations taking a formal vote on whether to participate. 

Local TV newscasts and both daily newspapers favorably reported on CHECC’s formation. In a period of only about two months, a bipartisan group of young experienced political activists had created a reform organization and successfully announced it to the public. 

Media reports have often asserted that CHECC was founded and controlled by Harvard University graduates and Republicans, and that many of its leaders were newcomers to Seattle. The fact is, however, that more of the people who were leaders in its founding and operation as of June 1967 were graduates of Puget Sound-area universities than were graduates of any “national” universities. At least 13 of those leaders were Seattle-area natives, and two others had lived there since starting their undergraduate studies in local universities some 10 years earlier. The leadership was split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

CHECC decided to endorse and provide campaign support to candidates in two of five City Council positions to be contested in the primary election, which were officially nonpartisan offices. In recognition of the bipartisan nature of the group, one of the candidates was to have an identifiable Democratic background, and the other a Republican one. The credible contenders were Republicans Robert Dunn and 31-year-old Tim Hill, and Democrats Robert Block, George Cooley, Phyllis Lamphere, and Sam Smith. At a public meeting on July 6, CHECC’s Executive Board recommended to the membership the endorsement of Lamphere and Hill for positions No. 3 and No. 5. Although Block, Cooley, and Smith received significant consideration, the members chose Hill and Lamphere by substantial majorities. 

Now CHECC had to devote its full attention to becoming a successful political campaign organization. However, racial unrest across the country upstaged the election campaign in the month ahead. Violent rioting in Newark, N.J., and Detroit killed more than 60 people. Rumors spread in Seattle that violent acts might be planned there, and Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans held meetings with young black activists on August 2 to help defuse the tension. 

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a long opinion piece on July 16 openly challenging CHECC to endorse Smith, an African American, for council position No. 2. Suddenly the candidacy of the only credible candidate of minority race in the Seattle election became of special significance. Would the racial tensions work for or against Smith, and how would CHECC respond? Lamphere was running a powerful campaign against George Cooley and incumbent Edward Riley. However, Hill was much less known than Lamphere and was running against incumbent Clarence Massart and another apparently strong opponent, Eddie Black, an experienced business executive who had substantial business support. CHECC’s membership had barely reached 100, and its leaders were concerned about potentially diluting the value of its endorsement and support of Hill. In addition, there was the fundamental assumption that CHECC’s endorsements should be balanced between Republicans and Democrats. 

In August, Allan Munro formally requested that CHECC endorse Smith. The board had imposed on itself a rule that any endorsements proposed to the membership would have to be by a favorable two-thirds vote of the board. Neither Democrat Smith nor either of his opponents, Democrat Block and Republican Dunn, was able to get this super-majority. At a public general membership meeting on September 7, a motion was made not to endorse in their race. A simple majority would decide the issue. After a passionate and lengthy debate, a vote was called for. The result was a tie. The combined votes of Block and Dunn’s supporters had equaled those of Smith’s supporters.  

LeSourd stood before the group. He made an instant decision. Exercising his prerogative as chair of the meeting, he cast a “yes” vote and the motion not to endorse was passed. CHECC’s candidates in the primary election would be only Hill and Lamphere. 

Besides raising money, which was either passed on to candidates or spent in their support, CHECC researched and published four position papers on major issues. One of them charged the City Council with “neglect and indifference” towards Seattle’s park system, and claimed “the mismanagement and inadequate funding of the zoo make that facility a microcosm of almost all that is wrong” with the system. The Post-Intelligencer reported that the statement also criticized the city for allowing “large piles of freeway dirt” from the construction of the Interstate 5 highway two years before to remain in Montlake Park, despite pleas from neighborhood residents. The dirt was removed within a few days. CHECC clearly had the attention of City Hall, and this attack set in motion a long-term overhaul of the Parks Department, beginning with management reorganization in 1968. 

When the September 19 primary election ballots were counted, not only were both Hill and Lamphere nominated by huge margins but also the incumbents in their races were eliminated. In the race for position No. 2, Dunn and Smith finished in a virtual tie, with Block losing by only 4,000 out of 60,000 votes cast. CHECC had succeeded in getting across its basic message that these times required new leadership in city government. However, only 19 percent of Seattle’s registered voters had voted, the lowest ever in the city’s history up to that time. If a much larger number were to vote in the general election, whom would they support? Black had outspent Hill by 3.5 to 1 in the primary, and was raising more money for the general election. In addition, by October only about 180 persons had joined CHECC. 

More than twice as many voters turned out for the November 7 general election. Nevertheless, more than a two-to-one margin elected Lamphere over Cooley, and Hill out-polled Black three-to-two. The closest race was between Dunn and Smith, with Smith winning by 6,682 votes out of almost 106,000 votes cast. The results had exceeded CHECC’s goal of electing two reformist council members. Now there were three new faces, the beginning of a complete transformation of Seattle city government. 

During the 1967 campaign, the Seattle press paid great attention to CHECC, giving the impression that it was a much larger organization than one of only 180 members. This misimpression might imply that CHECC’s only significant contribution was to serve as a campaign public relations vehicle for its candidates. However, CHECC did raise about 24 percent of Hill’s and 14 percent of Lamphere’s campaign funds, and its issues statements bolstered the credibility of its campaign and candidates. 

After the 1967 elections, Hill, Lamphere, and Smith from time to time were able to persuade Council Members Ted Best, Charles Carroll, and Myrtle Edwards to take a more forward-looking approach to city affairs. Their consistent support could not be counted on to create a majority, however, and the other holdover council members continued to represent the old way of doing business. To achieve the CHECC reformers’ goals, more new blood was needed. 

Early in 1969, Hall became CHECC’s chair and young Democratic attorney John Hempelmann became vice-chair. In the 1969 council elections, no incumbent ran who had first been elected prior to 1967. CHECC endorsed the candidacies of newly appointed incumbents Don Wright, a Democrat, and Liem Eng Tuai, a Republican, and of 1967 candidate George Cooley. Wright’s principal opponent was Wayne D. Larkin, a former Seattle firefighter and police officer. Democrat Joan Thomas (1931-2011) and Republican Robert Castrodale were running for an open seat against Jeanette Williams, the longtime chair of the King County Democratic Central Committee. CHECC had made a major policy change by adopting a requirement of a two-thirds favorable vote of the membership present to endorse. No candidate in the latter race was able to achieve this majority before the primary election, in which Thomas and Williams won the nominations. 

As the campaign progressed, it became apparent that Cooley and Tuai would likely win easily, but that the campaigns of Thomas and Wright were in trouble. After the primary election, CHECC decided also to endorse Thomas against Williams, and to throw all of its organizational support into her and Wright’s races. But Larkin and Williams won, along with Cooley and Tuai. 

Hempelmann moved up to CHECC’s chair in 1970. In the 1971 municipal elections CHECC successfully supported the election to the council of Republican John Miller and the re-election of Hill, Lamphere, and Smith. In addition, one of its founding members, Bruce Chapman, won election. (However, contrary to the history told in all recent public accounts, CHECC did not endorse him. Neither Republican Chapman nor Democrat Jim Kimbrough, his opponent, was able to gain a two-thirds membership endorsement vote.) Due to these changes, all council members sitting in January 1967 had been replaced. 

In August 1972, another young Democratic lawyer, Randy Revelle, became CHECC’s chair, and in 1973 successfully ran for election to the council with CHECC’s backing. Ironically, his defeated opponent was Cooley, whom CHECC had endorsed four years earlier. Now there were five council members originally endorsed by or closely associated with CHECC (Chapman, Hill, Lamphere, Miller, and Revelle), and in addition, CHECC had endorsed Smith for re-election. A CHECC-related council majority continued in office until the fall of 1978. The structure of city government had also been completely transformed through charter amendment and legislative action. 

In the 1967 election, Lamphere would probably have won even without CHECC’s presence. However, but for CHECC, Hill would not have run for election, and he gives substantial credit to it for his success. In 1971, Chapman benefited greatly from his image as a CHECC founder, and says that he probably would not have considered running but for his involvement with CHECC. It created a campaign climate that gave credibility to young candidates such as Hill, and also favored change. This new political climate likely also helped Smith’s election as the city’s first African American council member. In addition, 34-year-old Wes Uhlman’s successful mayoralty campaign in 1969 took full advantage of the positive image of CHECC’s youthful reformers to convince the voters to elect the youngest mayor in Seattle’s history.

Through CHECC, a group of young middle-class Democratic and Republican political activists found a common ground and vision, overcame controversies that could have blown the organization apart, and successfully contributed to a new direction in city government. They did not fear change, but instead embraced it and dealt with it in a constructive way, seeking to preserve the unique aspects of Seattle without limiting its future development.

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Related Topics:   Government & Politics | People's Histories

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