Jerry Grinstein, a former top aide to the late U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson, a longtime Spellman ally, views the progressive Seattle Republican as "our state’s most underrated public official." Former governor Chris Gregoire, who headed the State Department of Ecology earlier in her career, says Spellman’s 1982 decision to reject the Northern Tier Pipeline Co.’s application to install an oil pipeline with the capacity of a million barrels a day beneath Puget Sound was a profile in courage in the face of a full court press by the Reagan administration. When the economy went south during Gregoire’s second term, Spellman was among the first to offer bipartisan support for balancing taxes and cuts and protecting school funding and social services.
"I thought, going in, that this would be an easier story to tell because I had already written Booth Gardner’s biography," says Hughes. The former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher is now chief historian for The Legacy Project. "I had known Spellman since 1976 when he lost his first bid for governor to the inimitable Dixy Lee Ray. But as I started digging deeper, I quickly realized that Spellman’s life story—86 years at this writing—is also the story of King County’s bumpy road to maturity, if that’s the right word. And many of the issues Spellman faced as governor—notably the ‘paramount’ duty to fund public schools and our regressive tax structure—remain with us today. John Spellman is a paradoxical politician, yet a renaissance man with a compelling life story that includes heartbreak, courage, missteps and other cautionary tales."
If timing is everything, Spellman’s was bad. When he sang "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" at his inauguration in 1981, it dispelled the frowns for about 24 hours. He took office during the worst economic downturn the state had seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s—a recession since surpassed only by the travails that began in 2008. Spellman’s decision to break a no-new-taxes pledge, coupled with internecine warfare that fractured both political parties, crippled his bid for a second term even though the economy was on the rebound. His father had warned him early on that politics would break his heart, but Spellman is philosophical: "Politics is politics. Sometimes it’s the best salesman who wins, but I have no regrets. I’m proud of what I did as governor. I did a lot before that too. I’ve never stopped trying to contribute."
Born in Seattle in 1926, Spellman is the descendant of Irish and Puritan immigrants—one forefather chartered the Mayflower; another fled the potato famine—a uniquely American admixture. Spellman’s Irish grandfather arrived in Seattle just before the great fire of 1889 and became a successful plumbing contractor. The governor’s father, Bart Spellman, was a standout guard for the University of Oregon in its 1917 Rose Bowl victory over the heavily favored University of Pennsylvania, a win that elevated West Coast football to national prominence. Bart went on to coach at the University of Washington. One of the tenacious walk-ons was Warren Magnuson—dubbed "Gritty Maggie."
At Seattle Prep, John Spellman excelled at debate, sang in the choir, became a jazz aficionado and was a better boxer than football player. His ski-jump nose is a souvenir of one bout. John left high school midway through his senior year to enroll in the Merchant Marine cadet program during World War II. War’s end found him in the Navy. He returned home with new self-confidence and a ticket to college, thanks to the GI Bill. He was eager to make his mark, perhaps as a professor or lawyer. He’d been giving some thought to the priesthood, too. He went on to become valedictorian for the Class of 1949 at Seattle University, then spent nine months at a Jesuit seminary before deciding to attend law school at Georgetown University. He was a member of Georgetown’s national-champion moot court team in 1952.
Spellman practiced maritime and labor law in Seattle for the next decade. He also became one of the nation’s leading Roman Catholic laymen, and a political reformer, allied with progressive Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton, Joel and Frank Pritchard, Jim Ellis, Dan Evans and Slade Gorton. They stood for civil rights, campaigned for "Forward Thrust" programs to clean up Lake Washington and modernize government and decried the city’s longstanding "tolerance" policy on vice.
Elected a King County commissioner in 1966, Spellman defeated former governor Al Rosellini in 1969 to become the first county executive in the state. During 14 eventful years at the King County Courthouse, Spellman swept out a rat’s nest of patronage and palm-greasing to create a modern government. "John was the George Washington of King County" after the voters approved the home-rule charter in 1968, says County Executive Dow Constantine. Spellman promoted racial equality, criminal justice reforms, land-use planning and farmlands preservation. He persevered at every turn to build a landmark domed stadium, the Kingdome, and helped secure the sports franchises that made Seattle a big-league town.
In 2013, at 86, Spellman is still active in several community-service programs, notably as chairman of the Evergreen Safety Council. He can be found at his downtown law office several days a week.