John Spellman

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John D. Spellman
18th Governor of Washington
In office
January 14, 1981 – January 16, 1985
Lieutenant John Cherberg
Preceded by Dixy Lee Ray
Succeeded by Booth Gardner
1st King County Executive
In office
May 1, 1969 – January 14, 1981
Preceded by Office established
Succeeded by Ron Dunlap
Personal details
Born (1926-12-29) December 29, 1926 (age 90)
Seattle, Washington
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Lois Spellman
Children Six
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Navy
Battles/wars World War II

John Dennis Spellman (born December 29, 1926) was the 18th Governor of Washington between 1981 and 1985 and the first King County Executive from 1969 to 1981. He was elected governor in 1980 amid large gains for Republicans across the country. During his tenure, the Washington State economy suffered due to the early 1980s recession. Spellman was defeated in his reelection campaign in 1984. He is to date the last Republican to hold the office of Governor of Washington.


Spellman graduated from Seattle Preparatory School for high school. He was a 1949 graduate of Seattle University and a 1953 graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center.

Spellman began his political career on the three-member King County Commission in 1967. Following plans to implement a new Home Rule Charter in 1968, the office of County Executive was established and Spellman was elected the county's first chief executive over former Governor Albert Rosellini in 1969. Spellman played the lead role in establishing the county's new governmental structure under the Charter. He consolidated previously independent departments and replaced the old patronage system with a merit system. Spellman supervised the controversial process of siting and building the Kingdome, the domed stadium that provided the first home for the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners, and initiated early efforts to deal with uncontrolled growth. He was twice re-elected to the office in 1973 and 1977.

Spellman first ran for Governor in 1976 and was the top Republican in the state's blanket primary, but lost the general election to Democrat Dixy Lee Ray. Spellman again ran for Governor in 1980. Ray was bested by then-state Senator Jim McDermott among the Democratic candidates, but Spellman defeated McDermott by a lopsided margin in the general election in a year Republicans made big political gains across the country, including the victory of Ronald Reagan over incumbent Jimmy Carter in that year's presidential election. When Governor Spellman addressed the legislature at the outset of the 1981 legislative session, upon request he sang "Danny Boy" to the legislators assembled there in joint session in the House chamber.[1]

During Spellman's four-year term of office, Washington's economy suffered a serious recession marked by rising unemployment and disappointing tax revenues. The State Legislature was deeply divided over how to address an alarming revenue shortfall, but did agree to an increase in Washington's statewide sales tax rate from 5.5% to 6.5%.

One of Spellman's memorable policy stands was his strong commitment to environmental protection. Against enormous pressure from business groups and many legislators, he ultimately used his authority to prevent permitting for an environmentally-risky development project by Chicago Bridge & Iron in a sensitive shoreline area of Whatcom County.

At the mid-term elections, the Democratic Party captured a major increase of seats in the House and Senate.

In September 1983, upon the unexpected death of U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson, Spellman used his authority to appoint former Republican governor Daniel J. Evans to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat. While the Democratic party protested the appointment of a Republican to fill the seat vacated by a Democrat, Spellman's appointment was considered lawful under the then-current statutes. As state law required an immediate primary and general election for the remaining U.S. Senate seat term, a primary election was held just three weeks after Evans' interim appointment. At the general election in November 1983, appointed Senator Evans defeated a vigorous challenge by Democratic Congressman Mike Lowry.

In 1984, Spellman ran for a second term of office, facing voter anxiety about the weak economy. After a vigorous Democratic primary between then-State Senator Jim McDermott, former state Representative John Jovanovich, and then-Pierce County Executive Booth Gardner, Spellman faced a difficult battle in the general election against Democratic nominee Gardner. In the November 1984 general election, voters decisively replaced Spellman with Gardner. Spellman is the last Republican to serve as governor of Washington.

Leaving office in January 1985, Spellman returned to private law practice. In 1990 he ran for election as a justice of the Washington Supreme Court against Richard P. Guy, but was not elected.[2] Spellman is currently a partner at the Seattle-based law firm, Carney Badley Spellman.

Spellman was awarded the James R. Ellis Regional Leadership Award from the Municipal League of King County on June 8, 2006. in 2013 John C. Hughes wrote a book on Spellman: Politics Never Broke His Heart. [1] With Kentucky in 2003 electing its first Republican governor since 1967, Washington now has the nation's longest streak of not having elected a GOP chief executive.


  1. ^ Personal recollection of Gary A. Preble, who was present as session staff.
  2. ^ Connelly, Joel (August 8, 2012). "Washington voters: No retreads, Seattle mayors". Seattle Post Intelligencer. Retrieved June 7, 2017. 
Political offices
Preceded by
New office
King County Executive
1969 – 1981
Succeeded by
Ron Dunlap (politician)
Preceded by
Dixy Lee Ray
Governor of Washington
January 14, 1981 – January 16, 1985
Succeeded by
Booth Gardner