Washington voters reject state Women's Commission and Seattle voters elect Charles Royer as mayor and oust incumbent city attorney John P. Harris on November 8, 1977.

  • By Priscilla Long, Peter LeSourd, and HistoryLink Staff
  • Posted 2/23/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5281

On November 8, 1977, Washington voters defeat Referendum 40, which would have established a statutory state Women's Commission, while approving initiatives that prohibit theaters showing obscene films and exempt food products from the sales tax. Seattle voters elect Charles Royer (b. 1939) as mayor and oust John P. Harris, the incumbent Corporation Counsel (city attorney) in favor of challenger Douglas N. Jewett (b. 1947).

State Ballot Measures 

Referendum 40 asked, "Shall a state Women's Commission be established by statute?" It was placed on the ballot after opponents of a law authorizing and providing a budget for a Washington State Women's Commission collected sufficient signatures to submit the law to a referendum vote. The law had been passed by the Washington State Legislature and signed, in June 1977, by Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994).

The Women's Commission (also called the Washington State Women's Council) had previously served at the pleasure of the governor. Opposition to it came from the various sources, including those who opposed the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), the rights of homosexuals, affirmative action, and the availability of abortion; voters opposed to bigger government and presumably more taxes; and voters who believed that there was no problem, that women in the state already had equality. Some 240,000 voters voted for the commission, whereas more than 600,000 voters opposed it.

Governor Ray reconsidered her pledge to restore the predecessor Washington State Women's Council with support from her emergency fund. She spent six months considering the issue and hearing testimony, and announced in April 1978 that the council would be phased out by September. The body issued its last report in August 1978.

State voters approved three ballot initiatives in the November 1977 election: Initiative 345, which eliminated state and local sales taxes on most food products; Initiative 335, which asked " Shall places where obscene films are publicly and regularly shown or obscene publications a principal stock in trade be prohibited?" and Initiative 59, which limited new appropriations of water for irrigation to farms of less than 2,000 acres.

New Mayor and City Attorney 

In the race to succeed Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), who as stepping down after two terms, as Mayor Seattle, Charles Royer defeated Paul Schell (1937-2014) by 100,615 votes to 75,649. Schell was a civic activist, past president of Allied Arts of Seattle, and director of the City of Seattle Department of Community Development, but his name was far from a household word. On the other hand, Royer was widely known as a former reporter and commentator with KING-5 television news. The two had survived a crowded primary field, including several sitting City Council members, and Royer triumphed in the final election.

Royer easily defeated the largely symbolic candidacy of City Council member Sam Smith (1922-1995) in 1981 and a more serious challenge from councilmember Norm Rice (b. 1943) to win a third term in 1985. Rice succeeded Royer in 1989, and Paul Schell won the mayor's office in 1997 -- with the support of his former opponent.

Doug Jewett's defeat of incumbent city attorney John Harris marked the first time in a half-century that the sitting head of the city's law department had lost an election. For more than 50 years before 1977, when each city attorney (officially called the Corporation Counsel until a reorganization of the office following Jewett's election) decided to retire, his assistant successfully ran for or was appointed to the office. That elected office had virtually no public visibility. In seven elections during that period, the incumbent ran unopposed. However, "outsiders" John F. Dore, in the 1964 election, and Peter LeSourd (b. 1938), in the 1973 election, fell less than 1.4 percent of the total vote short of defeating the incumbent. Four years later, "outsider" Jewett handily beat Harris by 31,890 votes.

Jewett served three terms as Seattle's City Attorney, from 1978 through 1989. He believed that his predecessors had improperly exercised independent and unduly conservative policy, as differentiated from legal judgment, when asked for legal opinions by city officials. In his view, this created a tremendous impediment to finding creative solutions to problems generated in a modern city. Jewett attempted to be as supportive as possible of city policy makers, within a reasonable interpretation of governing law. When there was conflict between the policy goals of the mayor and the city council, he sought to mediate between them.

In 1982, Jewett ran an unsuccessful campaign against incumbent Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) for the U. S. Senate. In 1989, he ran for Seattle mayor, making it into the general election, but lost to Norm Rice. Jewett then moved on into international business ventures.

Jewett's election in 1977 represented another step in bringing newcomers into city elective offices, a process that began in 1967 with the election of Sam Smith as Seattle's first African American city councilmember and the successful backing by Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) of the council candidacies of Tim Hill (b. 1936) and Phyllis Lamphere (b. 1922). In 1969, Uhlman became the youngest mayor in Seattle's history when he won his first term. By the end of the 1971 election, the voters had replaced all city council members sitting in 1967.


"Elections Search Results: November 1977 General," Washington Secretary of State website accessed November 7, 2014 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/results_report.aspx?e=36&c=&c2=&t=&t2=&p=&p2=&y=); Janine A. Parry, "Putting Feminism to a Vote: The Washington State Women's Council, 1963-78," Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 91, No. 4 (Fall 2000), p. 171-182; "Mayors of the City of Seattle," Seattle City Clerk website accessed November 7, 2014 (http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/facts/mayors.htm); "Seattle Municipal Archives Guide, ID: 4400-00, Record Group: Law Department," Seattle City Clerk website accessed November 7, 2014 (http://clerk.seattle.gov/~scripts/nph-brs.exe?s1=4400-00.ID.&Sect6=HITOFF&d=GRUP&l=20&p=1&u=%2F~public%2FARCH1.htm&r=1&f=G).
Note: This essay was substantially expanded on November 7, 2014, and incorporates material from two other essays, no longer extant, about the same election.

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