Washington was reshaped by the 1980 election

Nov 16, 2016, 6:20 AM | Updated: 8:44 am
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Governor John Spellman greets President Ronald Reagan as (L-R) U.S. Senator Slade Gorton and Seattle Mayor Charles Royer look on. (Courtesy of Washington State Archives)
(Courtesy of Washington State Archives)

Former Washington governor John Spellman says he wasn’t too engaged in this year’s presidential election. And he kept quiet about his feelings before Election Day.

“I avoided commenting on that subject,” Spellman said. “It was perplexing, and I voted, but I even had a hard time figuring that out.”

Spellman is the last Republican elected to the governor’s office in Washington. He served one term, then was defeated by Booth Gardner and left office in 1985.

And he’s still keeping fairly quiet about the 2016 presidential race.

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“I’m not gonna say anything bad about it,” said Spellman, who turns 90 next month. “It’s over.”

But the former governor and former King County Executive is paying attention to the anti-Trump protests in the aftermath of last Tuesday, and encouraging restraint.

“I urge people to not go off half-cocked,” Spellman said. “We’ve had a lot of elections, many controversial elections, and we survived.”

The year that Spellman was elected governor of the Evergreen State was also pretty tumultuous.

It was 1980, and the U.S. was in the depths of a huge recession. Interests rates on mortgages were well into the double digits. American hostages were being held at the US Embassy in Tehran. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, so the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics that summer.

In the presidential race, the difference between the two candidates, incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, was famously described by humorist Mark Russell as the choice between “the evil of two lessers.”

Closer to home, Mount St. Helens erupted with deadly consequences in May. In statewide politics, Governor Dixy Lee Ray lost a Democratic primary challenge to Jim McDermott.

Spellman says Governor Ray’s defeat came as a surprise to him and his campaign team.

“We had spent the primary going after her,” Spellman said. “We’d spent our money on advertising [targeting Governor Ray], and it ended being not who we were facing.”

Four years earlier, in 1976, Spellman had lost to Ray in his bid to succeed three-term Governor Dan Evans.

“Dixy, during her term in office, offended just about everybody, and so it ended up with Jim [McDermott] beating her [in the primary],” Spellman said.

Washington state’s political landscape had a volcano of its own to contend with earlier in 1980, when Democratic Speaker of the State House John Bagnariol, Democratic State Senate Majority Leader Gordon Walgren and a lobbyist named Pat Gallagher were charged and then convicted of conspiring to push through gambling legislation in exchange for a cut of the future casino profits.

Peter Jackson, longtime local journalist, and pundit, and son of Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson says that in 1980, the Washington Democratic Party establishment was “thrown on its head” by the scandal that stemmed from a controversial FBI sting operation that came to be known as “Gamscam.” Jackson says that Bagnariol had been planning a run for governor, and Walgren was going to run for Attorney General. Instead of running for higher office, both were convicted just weeks before the election in October 1980.

When Election Night that year finally rolled around on Nov. 4, former California governor and retired movie star Ronald Reagan won Washington and a whopping 43 other states.

In an editorial the next day, The Seattle Times said, “vast numbers of Americans are past the point of patience with problems of the economy and with the sense of being humiliated and powerless in many parts of the world arena. There is no guarantee, of course, that Ronald Reagan, et al, can do much about these problems. The vote may have been less a celebration of Republicanism than a renunciation of the status quo.”

Not unlike 2016, national pollsters were blamed for getting their predictions wrong. They’d been saying the election was “too close to call,” right up until people voted. In the final tally, Reagan took 50.7 percent of the popular vote nationwide, and 489 electoral votes, to Carter’s 41 percent of the vote and 49 electoral votes. Independent candidate John Anderson received 6.6 percent of the popular vote.

In Washington state, Reagan got just shy of 50 percent of the vote to Carter’s 37 percent (Anderson got nearly 11 percent). Republicans here gained a majority in the State House, and later gained a one-person majority in the State Senate when Pete von Reichbauer switched party affiliation in February 1981.

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During Election Night coverage and in the days that followed, some complained that President Carter’s concession speech came too early and potentially harmed Democrats in the Pacific Time Zone. Carter addressed supporters and a national TV audience more than an hour before polls closed on the West Coast.

This was long before Washingtonians voted by mail. In those years, most people voted at neighborhood polling places, and many did so in the evening after getting off work. While western states wouldn’t have been much help in the final presidential electoral tally, there was talk that down-ballot Democratic candidates in the West suffered because Democrats here gave up voting at all once Carter had conceded.

David Ammons at the Secretary of State’s office in Olympia says that there’s no evidence that voter turnout was suppressed in November 1980. Turnout in Washington that year was higher than in 1976 and 1972 (percentage-wise), and right around where it had been since at least the 1950s.

John Spellman says that Carter’s early concession didn’t have much effect on his race against Jim McDermott. Spellman won with more than 56 percent of the vote.

In addition to the governor’s race, the results of another statewide contest in Washington in 1980 also came as a shock.

Washington state’s longtime Democratic US Senator Warren Magnuson, who had served six terms in the Senate, was beaten by Slade Gorton. Prior to running against Magnuson, Gorton had served three terms as Washington Attorney General.

Spellman believed it was a good time for Senator Magnuson, then 75 years old, to retire.

A lot of people felt the same way. Including Slade Gorton, who beat Magnuson in 1980.

Gorton, now 88, is the last Republican elected to the US Senate from Washington. His final victory came against Ron Sims in 1994; Maria Cantwell defeated him in 2000.

In 1980, Gorton says, Warren Magnuson wasn’t unelectable, but he was vulnerable in a year that saw so many other long-serving Democrats defeated.

“Our campaign [strategy], as my campaign consultant described it, was to present Senator Magnuson with a gold watch,” Gorton said. “And my slogan was ‘Washington’s Next Great Senator,’ admitting that Magnuson had been a great senator, but now we needed a new one.”

That same Seattle Times day-after-the-election editorial said that “Gorton’s intellect and energy were seen by most voters as bigger assets than the now-passé politics of Warren Magnuson.”

Before he could take on Magnuson, however, Gorton had faced a primary challenge from broadcasting executive Lloyd Cooney, who’d stepped down as head of KIRO Radio and Television (when both were owned by Bonneville; KIRO TV is now owned by Cox). Gorton says a big clue that he might be able to beat Magnuson was that the total of his and Cooney’s votes exceeded what Magnuson received in the primary.

On Election Night 1980, Gorton says that Washington’s remaining Democratic senior senator, Scoop Jackson, reached out to him as soon as Gorton’s victory was clear.

“Scoop Jackson called me at 10 o’clock on election night when my election was assured and said, ‘The election’s over we’ve got to get together for lunch next week.’ And we did. And we never exchanged a harsh word in the two-and-a-half years we were there together,” Gorton said.

Jackson unexpectedly died in office in 1983; John Spellman appointed former governor and fellow Republican Dan Evans to be Jackson’s successor.

A few days after the 1980 election, Scoop Jackson was mentioned in the Seattle Times as a possibility for Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. Peter Jackson says that job wasn’t something his father was interested in. “He actually wanted and would have accepted being Secretary of State,” Peter Jackson said. “He’d been offered [Secretary of] Defense in the Nixon administration, and he did turn it down. It was part of Nixon trying to look bipartisan.”

Meanwhile, Magnuson’s 1980 defeat was one of a dozen Democratic lawmakers that created a Republican majority in the US Senate.

In the days that followed, the 1980 election results were met with apprehension by some, and in at least one American city, with a major anti-Reagan demonstration.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said that Reagan’s victory signaled a “very dangerous climate” in the United States, because Jackson said, Reagan “appeals to the base racist instincts of white America.”

Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) said that Reagan’s election and the Republican senatorial victories were a “disaster” for feminists. Despite his stated opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, Reagan carried 47 percent of women voters to Carter’s 42 percent.

The largest anti-Reagan protest took place in Berkeley, California (a place known for its frequent and vociferous protests) just after the election. An estimated 3,000 people marched through the city, and 52 were arrested for occupying the administration building at the University of California campus.

Following this year’s election, John Spellman says he doesn’t disapprove of peaceful anti-Trump protesters, but he does object to violence. He also seems somewhat critical of the demonstrators in general.

“I don’t want to criticize people unduly, but I find the reaction to the election rather juvenile,” Spellman said, as if the demonstrators are saying, “‘If I can’t have my way, I’m gonna go home.’”

“They’re not going to change anything except for the worse by having mass meetings and riots and so forth, but I find that a very childish reaction,” Spellman said.

Slade Gorton isn’t shy about saying that he didn’t vote for Donald Trump.

“I was a ‘Never Trump, Never Hillary’ person. I wrote in the name Evan McMullin for president,” Gorton said. “And, in fact, I was on his list of electors here and filed with the Secretary of State. I didn’t want either one of them [Trump or Clinton].”

But now, Gorton says, echoing John Spellman, the election is over.

“We’ve got to try to see to it that the country moves forward and hope that [Trump] uses good judgment and picks good people,” Gorton said.

Former governor Spellman, like so many old-school politicians, has studied history and has actually lived through much of it, too.

“Each one of [the presidents] had big problems,” Spellman said. “We always hope that [our president] is going to make progress on those problems, and I certainly hoped and prayed Reagan did.”

Spellman has never met Donald Trump, and he doesn’t see much, if any, in the way of parallels between the new president-elect and Ronald Reagan. But Spellman strikes an optimistic, if somewhat wary, tone.

“[Ronald Reagan] was a very extraordinary and well-balanced nice guy. He was not a genius, but he knew how to bring together a team, and he brought together a really good team of advisers,” said Spellman.

“And I think, with any good fortune,” Spellman said, “that’s what will happen with the president-elect.”

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Washington was reshaped by the 1980 election