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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

John Spellman, Washington’s last Republican governor, dies

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 16, 2018

John Spellman, an affable pipe-smoking lawyer who was Washington’s last Republican governor, died Monday at age 91.

Spellman, who served 12 years as King County’s first county executive, was elected governor in 1980 as Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory gave Republicans control of the Legislature and the executive mansion.

He took the reins of state government shortly before a recession hit Washington, which led to high unemployment and declining tax revenues. Spellman and other Republicans had campaigned against tax increases, but after a heated fight they did raise the sales tax.

After running unsuccessfully for re-election in 1984, he returned to private law practice. But his successors often sought his advice in how to deal with controversial issues in the Legislature.

“Gov. John Spellman was one of the nicest people in public life I ever met,” Democrat Jay Inslee, the current occupant of the office, said Tuesday. “He was a great example of an office holder unafraid to do the right thing, leaving a legacy of bipartisanship and civility in politics, despite the electoral consequences.”

Spellman laid the groundwork for protecting Puget Sound from oil spills and preserving the state’s natural beauty, Inslee said. As King County executive, he was instrumental in bringing major league baseball and football to Seattle.

Chris Gregoire, who served as governor from 2005-13, called Spellman a mentor with whom she could compare experiences when the state hit a recession in 2009. “I asked John for his insights and he generously shared them,” Gregoire said in a press release.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman, one of only two statewide elected Republicans, called Spellman a true statesman who was deeply spiritual and promoted racial equality and environmentalism.

“Personally, I greatly admired Gov. Spellman for his integrity, his vision and his tireless dedication to the people of Washington,” Wyman said.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, was elected to the state House the same year Spellman won the governor’s race. He’s the only member of the current Legislature to serve when Spellman was governor.

“The economy went south in 1982,” Padden recalled. “It was a tough time.”

House Republicans proposed a budget with deep cuts in programs and services. Spellman said it looked like a bunch of troglodytes got together to write that budget, a name Padden and other Spokane-area Republicans relished.

Spokane Rep. Dick Bond, the leader out of that faction, had lapel buttons printed up. He eventually gave Spellman a button making him an honorary troglodyte.

There were no hard feelings, Spellman said in a 2014 interview with The Spokesman-Review. He didn’t intend to be as negative as the comment seemed, he said, “but I used it and I shouldn’t have.”

Eventually the Legislature passed, and Spellman signed, a bill that temporarily restored the sales tax on food. It was unpopular with voters, who had taken the sales tax off food several years earlier; Republicans lost control of the Legislature in the next election.

Spellman lost to Democrat Booth Gardner in 1984. Washington has gone longer than any other state without electing a Republican governor, Padden said.

Born and raised in Seattle, Spellman graduated from Seattle University and received his law degree from Georgetown University. He was on the three-member King County Board of Commissioners in 1968 when the county adopted a home rule charter that included the office of county executive. He beat former Democratic Gov. Al Rosellini for that job, which he held for 12 years.

He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1976, losing to Dixy Lee Ray, but survived a bruising primary in 1980 and beat state Sen. Jim McDermott for the job in 1980.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Lois, and six children. Services are pending.

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