Gov. Spellman puts his signature on legislation in his office in 1981. (Washington State Archives)

Gov. Spellman puts his signature on legislation in his office in 1981. (Washington State Archives)

John Spellman was last GOP governor of Washingon

He had spent recent weeks “being very disappointed with the Cougs and the Huskies,” his son said.

OLYMPIA — John Spellman, a mild-mannered political moderate who was the state’s last Republican governor, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Spellman, who served as King County executive before winning the 1980 gubernatorial election, was remembered as quiet, kind and smart, and committed to bridging the chasm of partisan politics to develop the best policies for the state.

For him it meant raising taxes in a recession, fighting oil shipments through the Puget Sound and reorganizing many of the bureaucratic appendages of state government.

“He believed in moderate consensus building, which is obviously something we could use,” said his son, David Spellman.

Gov. John Spellman at the Seattle Kingdome. (Washington Secretary of State archives)

Gov. John Spellman at the Seattle Kingdome. (Washington Secretary of State archives)

In a 2013 biography, John Spellman suggested his approach might have been better suited for the Democratic Party.

“I was concerned about pollution, urban sprawl, vice and civil rights. I probably should have been a Democrat. I have a soft heart. I really do,” he said. “But the Republicans I knew—the Pritchards, Dan Evans, Jim Ellis, Slade Gorton— were change agents.”

Spellman had been in Virginia Mason hospital since Dec. 27 after breaking his hip and eventually succumbed to pneumonia, according to his son.

David Spellman said that in the past weeks his father, who sang “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at his inauguration in 1981, was singing Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby songs. He said he also passed the time watching White House press conferences and “being very disappointed with the Cougs and the Huskies.”

Born Dec. 29, 1926, in Seattle, Spellman attended public schools, graduating from Seattle Prep High School. He served in the U.S. Navy in the last years of World War II.

After serving in the military, he enrolled at Seattle University where he earned degrees in political science and history and was valedictorian. He would go on to get a law degree at Georgetown University and begin private practice.

He won a seat on the King County Commission in 1966 and three years later he was elected the county’s first executive under a new form of government. His tenure included a transformation of government and a number of high-profile undertakings, including the building of the Kingdome.

King County Council Vice Chair Reagan Dunn, a Republican, called Spellman “a trailblazer.”

“John Spellman’s legacy begins in the King County Courthouse, but can be felt throughout all of Washington,” Dunn said in a written statement. “Our state is a better place because of his service.”

Spellman ran for governor in 1976 and lost to Democrat Dixy Lee Ray, the state’s first woman governor.

“We didn’t see her coming on and it was kind of a shock,” he said in a 2013 television interview. “We didn’t know how to lay a glove on her.”

Four years later Spellman ran again, expecting a rematch. Instead he faced, and beat, Democrat Jim McDermott.

Then the man who “took a broad broom to the old patronage system in King County” set about stabilizing a state government rocked by Ray’s tumultuous reign, said John Hughes, the state’s chief historian and former journalist. He interviewed Spellman extensively for the biography produced by the state Legacy Project

On the environmental front, a hallmark of Spellman’s term came with his decision to block a proposal to run an oil pipeline through the waters of the Puget Sound. He had been pushed by Republican lawmakers, some labor unions and even Republican President Ronald Reagan to allow construction of the Northern Tier Pipeline.

In the Hughes biography, Spellman said the potential for catastrophe made the pipeline a “very real threat to Puget Sound, which in my mind is a national treasure.”

“He was an amazing guy,” said Steve Excell, who spent three years as Spellman’s chief of staff. “He was energetic. He had a sense of vision. He left an incredible track record.”

He followed the template of a predecessor, Dan Evans, a moderate Republican who served three terms as governor.

Excell said there were Evans Republicans and Spellman Republicans who “all really believed in working across the aisle and getting things done.”

That attitude likely contributed to his failing to win a second term.

Spellman had promised in the 1980 campaign to not raise taxes. Then the economy turned sour and a deep recession occurred. Spellman ordered across-the-board cuts in all areas of government. Facing the prospect of slashing spending even more, he broke his campaign pledge.

He signed legislation increasing the statewide sales tax and temporarily imposing it on food — which had been exempt. The sales tax would actually climb twice in his tenure, according to Department of Revenue records.

“It had to be done,” Spellman said in 2013. “It didn’t help me politically.”

Excell said Spellman “tried to hold the line. He wasn’t going to let the quality of education in Washington sink. He never once thought about his re-election. He was always worried about getting stuff done.”

In 1984, Democrat Booth Gardner unseated Spellman. No Republican has won the office since, a frustrating fact of history for the Grand Old Party and one that Spellman’s friends hope does not overshadow his legacy.

“I would just really regret John Spellman being just a footnote as Washington’s last Republican governor,” Hughes said. “He was an extraordinary public servant.”

Spellman himself never had regrets.

“I never let politics break my heart,” he said in the biography. “Politics is politics. Sometimes it’s the best salesman who wins, but I have no regrets. I’m proud of what I did as governor. I did a lot before that, too.”

Spellman is survived by Lois, his wife of 63 years, six children — Margo, Bart, David, Jeffrey, Teresa and Kat — and six grandchildren.

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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