Tuesday, November 29, 2022
Nov. 29, 2022

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Former Washington Gov. John Spellman dies at 91


OLYMPIA — John Spellman, the last Republican governor elected in Washington, has died at 91.

Spellman’s son, Seattle attorney David Spellman, confirmed the death Tuesday.

John Spellman served one four-year term as governor following his 1980 election. He previously served as King County’s first county executive, and before that had served on the King County Commission. He lost his bid for a second term to Democrat Booth Gardner in November 1984.

David Spellman said his father, who died Tuesday, had been in the Virginia Mason hospital since Dec. 27 after breaking his hip and eventually succumbed to pneumonia.

“He was very peaceful at the end,” he said.

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 in the hospital until Saturday.

He said he also passed the time watching White House press conferences and “being very disappointed with the Cougs and the Huskies.”

David Spellman said his father will best be remembered for “listening and working toward solutions” on issues ranging from housing and affirmative action to championing farmlands and Puget Sound.

“He believed in moderate consensus building, which is obviously something we could use,” he said.

Spellman was a valedictorian at Seattle University, and briefly a Jesuit seminarian before going on to graduate from Georgetown Law School. He entered politics after 13 years in private law practice in Seattle, winning a 1966 election to the King County Commission.

From 1969 until January 1981, he was the county’s first county executive under a new form of government.

When Republican Gov. Dan Evans decided not to seek re-election in 1976, Spellman successfully won the GOP nomination, only to lose to Democrat Dixy Lee Ray in the general election.

Spellman tried again in 1980, narrowly beating Duane Berentson in the GOP primary, but solidly beating Democrat Jim McDermott in the general election.

He drew kudos for producing a budget on his first day in office, for defusing prison overcrowding, and for his open-door policy and friendly relations with the Legislature.

King County Council Vice Chair Reagan Dunn 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 had campaigned on a no-new-taxes platform, but the bottom fell out of the state economy and he presided over record tax increases and record budget cuts. He never recovered, and lost his bid for a second term to Democrat Booth Gardner in November 1984.

Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday that Spellman “was one of the nicest people in public life I’ve ever met.”

“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,” Inslee said in a written statement.

In an interview with the state Legacy Project at the Secretary of State’s office, John Spellman was previously quoted as saying he had “no regrets.”

“I’m proud of what I did as governor,” he told John Hughes, chief historian for The Legacy Project. “I did a lot before that too. I’ve never stopped trying to contribute.”

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


AP writer Phuong Le in Seattle contributed. Archive material from former AP writer David Ammons is included.

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