On March 13, 1956, the voters of Seattle elect Gordon S. Clinton (1920-2011) as mayor. In the non-partisan race, Clinton bests one-term incumbent Allan Pomeroy. Clinton, who had overcome childhood poverty to become a successful Seattle attorney, will go on to serve two terms as the City's mayor. He will preside over eight years of rapid change and growth that sees the establishment of Metro, the triumph of the Century 21 World's Fair, and the birth of Seattle's Sister City Program, which he will consider to be one of his greatest accomplishments.
Preparing for a Life of Public Service
Gordon Stanley Clinton was born on April 13, 1920, in Medicine Hat, Alberta, one of five children of an American father and Canadian mother. His father was working temporarily as an employee of the Canadian Pacific Railroad when he met Clinton's mother while she was singing in a church choir in Lethbridge, Alberta. Despite being born across the border, Gordon Clinton's American roots ran deep -- he was a direct lineal descendant of DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), the sixth governor of New York and widely credited as the builder of the Erie Canal.
The Clinton family moved to Seattle around 1921, but things did not go well. Clinton's father had problems with alcoholism and died in the early 1930s, leaving his mother to raise the children alone. She and four of the siblings lived for a time in the Theodora Home, a charitable housing facility run by the Volunteers of America. But Clinton graduated from Roosevelt High School and then attended the University of Washington, graduating with honors in Political Science and earning a law degree.
After a short stint as an FBI agent, Clinton volunteered for the Navy and was commissioned as an ensign. In 1942 he married Florence H. Vaghinger. The navy permitted him to continue his education at Harvard's business school, and then, in the closing months of the war, he served on an attack transport in the Pacific.
After mustering out of the navy, Clinton returned to Seattle and went to work for the King County prosecutor's office as he studied for the bar. After passing the exam, he served as a deputy prosecutor for two years before going into private practice in 1949. It was during this time that he got his first taste of public service by serving as a police court judge pro tem.
Building a Base
In 1953 the Seattle City Council launched an investigation of issues related to favoritism in the issuance of plumbing permits and management of the Cedar River watershed, and was also considering a controversial proposal to limit anonymous smear advertisements in local political races. On June 7, 1954, Clinton, then 34 years of age, was appointed special legal counsel for the city council as it moved to hold hearings on these controversies. One of the results of the investigation was a requirement that political advertisements carry the name of the person or organization sponsoring them. Another was to put Gordon Clinton's name before the public as an advocate of good government.
The exposure provided by the hearings brought Clinton to the attention of the Municipal League, and his work with the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and the Seattle Council of Churches helped broaden his nascent political base. Despite his relative youth and inexperience, Clinton was clearly following a career path that could lead to a run for public office.
The 1956 Election
Until state law was changed in 1963, elections for city official were held in the spring, and on Christmas Eve, 1955, Gordon S. Clinton announced his candidacy for mayor of Seattle in an election to be held in March 1956. From the start, he tried to make his relatively young age an asset rather than a liability. A group of early supporters was named "A Hundred Young Men for Clinton," and included Joel Pritchard, a future Republican member of the U. S. House of Representatives and his brother Frank Pritchard, who would go on to become founding director of the Cascade Land Conservancy.
In announcing his candidacy, Clinton, then 35, further emphasized his youth and his dedication to public service:
"Seattle's best government has been given by men in their early maturity who have been willing to forego their own private careers for unselfish public service. As a citizen active in community affairs and after carefully observing the present administration, I have the conviction that the incumbent does not represent that type of unselfish leadership" (The Seattle Sunday Times, December 25, 1955).
The incumbent who was the target of Clinton's pointed remarks was Allan Pomeroy, serving his first (and only) term as mayor after barely edging out his opponent in 1952. But before Clinton could take on Pomeroy, he had to make it through a primary election. Here he faced two opponents, each with considerable political baggage. One, Bob Odman, was the owner of a service station and a perennial candidate, having previously run as a Republican candidate for county auditor and in three earlier city council races. Clinton's second primary opponent, William Goodloe, was nominally a Republican, but during his service in the state House of Representatives he had made speeches and cast votes that had earned him the enmity of the state's Republican establishment. Although the mayoral race was non-partisan, Clinton's political leanings were with the Republican party, and he was viewed by its leaders as a far more palatable candidate than Goodloe.
Clinton did prevail in the primary, and as the campaign headed for the March 13th general election, he sharpened his attack on the incumbent. He pulled no punches in going after Pomeroy's record as mayor, while promising the city's voters that he would be a different type of leader. He charged that Pomeroy when running four years earlier had carried out "a carefully contrived and deceptive campaign ... designed to catch votes and curry favor regardless of consequences." Clinton went on:
"In the period since [his election] Pomeroy has shown a cynical disregard for his promises, a lack of knowledge of his responsibilities and an indisposition to tackle important, day-by-day problems of city government" (The Seattle Times, January 13, 1956, p. 3).
Seeking to draw a clear contrast, Clinton continued:
"It is my fundamental belief that voters have a right to expect a follow-through on statements made during political campaigns. I will account to the people for what I say in this campaign" (The Seattle Times, January 13, 1956, p. 3).
As Clinton went after Pomeroy, he also was drawing support from a growing number of well-respected and experienced local politicians, many of the Republican persuasion. One of these, Mrs. F. F. Powell, had served on the city council for 20 years, and just two days before voters went to the polls she spoke highly of the first-time candidate:
"I feel very strongly that Gordon Clinton would make a wonderful mayor. I have known him since he was a boy, the son of a widowed mother who worked his way through high school and the University of Washington. He is a man of fine character and integrity who could give Seattle the leadership which it needs" (The Seattle Sunday Times, March 11, 1956, p. 1).
When the votes were counted, Seattle had a new mayor. Clinton's margin of victory, although not huge, was decisive. He garnered 89,111 votes (52.5 percent) to Pomeroy's 80,608 (47.5 percent). He would go on to serve a second term, winning by a large margin, and during his eight-year tenure presided over an exciting and productive period of the city's history.
Among the initiatives and programs that Mayor Clinton had a major hand in were the appointment of the City's first Human Rights Commission, the establishment of Metro to clean up the polluted waters of Lake Washington, the Century 21 Exposition, the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study, and, dearest to his heart, the international Sister Cities Program. In 2006 Clinton would receive the first annual Thomas S. Foley Award, recognizing him for proposing that Seattle become a sister city with Kobe, Japan, in 1957. It was the first of more than 30 such relationships between cities in Washington and Japan, and the program spread to other cities throughout the nation.
Gordon Clinton left office in early 1965 and, still popular, returned to the private practice of law. He died on November 19, 2011, survived by Florence (Vayhinger) Clinton (1919-2012), his wife of 69 years; three children; three grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.