On March 8, 1904, Seattle voters elect Republican Richard A. Ballinger (1858-1922) mayor of Seattle. Though Ballinger is remembered as a "reform mayor" for cleaning up the city's vice, many of his reforms come at the end of his single, two-year term. It's more accurate to describe him as an upright, staid mayor who governed with a steady hand after the colorful mayoral terms of Thomas Humes (1849-1904).
Richard Achilles Ballinger was born July 9, 1858, in Boonesboro, Iowa, to Richard Henry Ballinger (1833-1906) and Mary Elizabeth Norton (1838-1912). He had a childhood that included sheep herding, setting type for his father's newspaper, and ranching, but most of his adult life was dedicated to the law and, to a lesser degree, politics. He was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1886, and married Julia Albertson Bradley (1864-1961) that same year. They had two sons, Edward B. (1889-1966) and Richard T. (1898-1971).
By the late 1880s the Ballingers were living in Alabama, but the family moved to Port Townsend shortly after their first son was born in late 1889. Ballinger was elected judge for the Superior Court of Jefferson County in 1894, and though he served just four years, he was known as Judge Ballinger for the rest of his life. The family moved to Seattle in the late 1890s, and Ballinger partnered with a law firm (Ballinger, Ronald & Battle) that included James T. Ronald, mayor of Seattle from 1892 to 1894, and who later served as a judge on the King County Superior Court for 40 years.
On March 8, 1904, Ballinger was elected mayor of Seattle over three other candidates, winning with less than 51 percent of the total votes cast. Voters also narrowly approved an amendment which took the city's parks system out of control of the Seattle City Council and made the Parks Department a separate entity. The department had authority over not just the city's parks but also its playgrounds, parkways, and boulevards, which made it easier for the city to improve and expand its parks and roadways.
Ballinger was sworn in on March 21. He made some efforts to clean up the city's gambling houses and saloons but did not move aggressively against them for most of his term, tacitly following the Republican playbook that such establishments (provided they were discreet) were good for business. But during the final two weeks of his term -- after the 1906 mayoral election -- he suddenly cracked down on these enterprises. Some viewed this as either retaliation for their lack of support for Republicans in the election, or as an attempt to embarrass incoming Democratic mayor William Moore (1861-1946).
During Ballinger's term Seattle's economy, population, and area all were growing rapidly. The city's population nearly tripled between 1900 and 1910, and its area nearly doubled just between 1905 and late 1910, when the city annexed eight neighboring municipalities. Steady and straightforward, Ballinger was a sound mayor for the times. He supported the city's business interests and opposed labor. He struggled with an aging, too-small city hall building, arguing for a replacement in both his 1905 and 1906 annual messages. And he opposed the city's growing municipal ownership movement. Ballinger was an effective mayor, but he was not a progressive.
Pursuant to Seattle's Freeholder's Charter of 1890, Ballinger was ineligible for reelection in 1906. He was replaced by Democrat William Moore, who defeated his Republican challenger by 15 votes out of nearly 17,000 cast. In his closing remarks at the end of his term on March 19, Ballinger philosophized: "The individual public officer is only an incident in the great march of progress. He may impress his character upon the government either for good or for bad, but no matter what may be the effect of his conduct, the people will still govern" ("Public Officials ...").
Secretary of Interior
In 1907, Ballinger was appointed to a one-year term as Commissioner of the General Land Office (now the Bureau of Land Management). Afterward he briefly returned to his law practice, but in March 1909 he was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President William Howard Taft (1857-1930). Neither Ballinger nor Taft agreed with the conservation policies which had been the hallmark of the prior administration of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919); in fact, Ballinger thought some of the methods used to transfer private lands to public control were illegal. However, there were holdovers from the Roosevelt administration in the Taft administration who were determined to fight any threat to these policies. In an attempt to discredit Ballinger, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), accused him of trying to interfere with an investigation of allegedly fraudulent, private purchases made on public lands in Alaska.
Ballinger was exonerated by a congressional investigation, and Taft openly supported him. Public opinion was less understanding, not only for Ballinger but for the Republican party as a whole; some historians have written that the controversy was at least partly responsible for splitting the Republican party and allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) to win the presidency in 1912. Ballinger did not remain at his post that long. Feeling that his credibility had been irreparably weakened, he resigned as Secretary of Interior in March 1911 and returned to private practice in Seattle. He died from heart failure at his home in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood on the evening of June 6, 1922, hours after visiting Seattle's brand-new mayor, Edwin Brown (1864-1941), in his office.
A century later Ballinger's name lives on in myriad ways in Seattle's northern suburbs. The best-known is 103-acre Lake Ballinger, located along the southern edge of Snohomish County in the cities of Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. In 1902 Ballinger purchased what was then known as Lake McAleer and renamed it Lake Ballinger in honor of his father, who lived in a house on a three-acre island in the lake until his death in 1906. Later, Ballinger later made it his summer home. He also owned more than 400 acres of the surrounding land. Ballinger Way, a major thoroughfare in Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, carries the Ballinger name, as do parks and various apartment buildings and businesses in Edmonds, Lake Forest Park, Mountlake Terrace, and Shoreline.