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  Uhlman, Wes
<-  1974-01-01  
NameWes Uhlman
Seattle, Washington , United States
Website [Link]
Born March 13, 1935 (87 years)
Last ModifedRBH
May 08, 2017 04:00am
Tags Caucasian - Divorced - Married - Freemason - Methodist -
InfoState House 1959-1967
State Senate 1967-1969
Seattle Mayor 1969-1978

Wesley Carl Uhlman was born in the tiny town of Cashmere, Washington, on March 13, 1935. His parents, both Pentecostal preachers, encouraged their four children to use the lessons their faith taught them to better the secular world. This evangelical upbringing would help shape Uhlman’s reformist political sensibility.

Uhlman began his political career while an undergraduate at the University of Washington, where he served as president of the notoriously upright, politically centrist Young Democrats. After he graduated, he stayed in Seattle with his wife (the former Leila Hammond, one of his college classmates) and returned to the UW for law school. In 1958, as a 23-year-old, third-year student there, he ran a Young-Democrat–sponsored campaign for the state House of Representatives. His platform -- more money for schools, workers’ rights, and tax reform for the elderly -- had something for everyone in his district -- but few thought he had a chance against incumbent Hartney Oakes in the traditionally Republican district (then the 32nd, now the solidly Democratic 43rd). He even "lost" a bet with other Young Democrats to stand in the election, but he astonished skeptics with a solid victory that made him the youngest member of the State Legislature when he took office in 1959, two months before his 24th birthday.

When he got to Olympia, Uhlman (dubbed “the kid from the U”) continued to develop this passionate but middle-of-the-road brand of liberalism as the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. An astute and skilled politician, he kept his distance from the state’s two major Democratic factions, even after he joined the state Senate in 1966. This apparent independence from machine politics-as-usual endeared him to reform-minded voters who were tired of old-fashioned back-room dealmaking and patronage.

The 1969 mayoral primary put Uhlman in a field crowded with "progressives" such as Lud Kramer, and he was not favored to win. Again, his eclectic platform of civic goodies and a strategic outreach to core constituencies such as the elderly and neighborhood activists buoyed his candidacy. The general election pitted Uhlman against Mort Frayn, a printing executive and standard bearer for the Central Association and downtown business establishment.

Uhlman’s approach reflected the practical political sensibility that had made him such a popular state legislator: He talked about many concerns that liberals shared, including neighborhood preservation, white flight to the suburbs, and mass transit, and yet he also emphasized crime and public safety, the need to support the city’s police department, and “citizen alienation” from municipal politics and politicians. This part of his rhetoric echoed the complaints of many working- and middle-class voters who were, according to one local newspaper, “sick to death of hippies, pampering of the Blacks, [and] paying taxes for welfare.” It was a delicate balance of Great Society and Law & Order rhetoric.

Both liberals and “backlash” voters turned out in droves in neighborhoods like Ballard, Phinney Ridge, and West Seattle, and they won the election for Uhlman. He was 34 years old, the youngest mayor in Seattle’s history, and the city’s first Democratic mayor in nearly 30 years.

Mayor Uhlman took office in December 1969, replacing acting Mayor Floyd Miller -- the elected incumbent, Dorm Braman, had accepted an appointment by President Richard Nixon to the new federal Department of Transportation. He immediately confronted with a host of unpleasant problems. The City Council thumbed its nose at his first proposal, to subsidize public transit by raising the cost of parking downtown. The city lost its baseball team, the Pilots, to Milwaukee. The police chief resigned amid an expanding police payoff scandal. Demonstrators repeatedly shut down buildings at the UW, clogged downtown streets, packed the courthouse lawn, and (every day for one memorable week in May 1970) occupied the Interstate 5 freeway. Police officers shot an African American Vietnam veteran who had put a bomb in a Central Area real-estate office, and it seemed that Seattle’s most populous black neighborhood might finally come apart at the seams. These concerns led Uhlman to personally block a planned federal raid on the Seattle offices of the Black Panther Party, an action that earned national headlines in February 1970 along with the permanent enmity of the Nixon White House.

Worst of all, Boeing went bust after Congress cancelled its supersonic transport contract. Uhlman recalled that Boeing president T. A. Wilson called him to alert him that "significant layoffs" were planned. In fact, nearly 60,000 of that company’s employees -- 60 percent of its local payroll -- and countless others in related industries lost their jobs in 1970. Laid-off workers flooded the classifieds with house-for-sale ads, and real estate prices plummeted. By the end of the year, the unemployment rate in Seattle was the highest in the United States -- 10.5 percent, more than double the national average -- and experts predicted that soon one-quarter of Seattle’s population would be out of work.

At the end of that first frustrating year, Wes Uhlman virtually disappeared, hunkering in the political bunker. He proposed no new initiatives and held no news conferences. In fact, he rarely left his office. Then, when the mayor resurfaced, he had a new plan: He would save the city by streamlining it and turning the welter of city agencies into an efficient bureaucracy.

First, he set about creating a number of new departments -- he called them “superagencies” -- that would give as much authority as possible to Uhlman and his appointees, mostly enthusiastic young professionals without much civil service experience. He tapped federal funds to create offices of Human Resources and Community Development that consolidated a number of older city agencies into more efficient and assertive bureaucracies with strong social constituencies such as the elderly and neighborhoods. At the same time, these new departments challenged the inefficient, self-interested "hydra-headed monsters" that he said the old city departments had become.

Uhlman was also an active regionalist. He supported strong growth management and transportation planning for the metropolitan area through the Puget Sound Council of Governments. As ultimate head of a city bus service headed for bankruptcy, he teamed with County Executive John Spellman to persuade the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, or "Metro," a water quality utility, to try again to win authority for a county-wide bus system. Voters approved Metro Transit in September 1972, and Mayor Uhlman personally persuaded the managers of the new system to establish a "ride-free zone" in downtown Seattle.

These sweeping changes earned Uhlman plenty of enemies. Even after he’d barely survived a strong challenge from City Councilman Liem Tuai in the 1973 re-election campaign, he kept on trying to remake the city, adding an Office of Policy Planning to the roster of municipal superagencies and reorganizing the city’s job-classification system so that it would be even more accessible to women and minority workers. Still, all the bad blood in the civil service corps was bound to come to a boil, and in 1974 it did.

That year, city workers who believed his efficiency drive had come at their expense launched a campaign to recall the mayor from office. In the end, on July 1, 1975, the initiative was defeated by a wide margin, mostly because the downtown establishment -- not exactly Uhlman’s base -- finally found it easier to support the mayor than to ally with his union antagonists.

In 1976, Uhlman decided to run for governor of Washington, but he ran afoul of the powerful Washington Education Association (WEA), the state teachers union, when he withdrew support of its proposed corporate income tax plan and curried favor with business interests. The WEA fielded environmentalist Martin Durning, creating a three-way primary fight with popular, if quirky, Pacific Science Director Dixy Lee Ray. He lost by a whisker to Ray, who went on to defeat King County Executive John Spellman and win the election. When he left the mayor’s office the next year, Uhlman publicly closed his political career.



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Importance? 6.66670 Average


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