JOHN DENNIS SPELLMAN was born in Seattle, Washington. He graduated class valedictorian from Seattle University and earned a law degree from Georgetown University School of Law. Spellman served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He went on to practice law in Seattle for 13 years before beginning his career in public service. He was King County Commissioner from 1967 to 1969 and King County Executive from 1969 to 1981. While county executive, he served as vice president of the National Association of Counties. Spellman took office as governor in the midst of the most severe recession in the State of Washington since the Great Depression. Although he had campaigned on a platform of no new taxes, the erosion of state finances brought on by the recession forced him to seek new taxes, resulting in the state legislature’s approval of a one-cent increase in the sales tax along with deep cuts in the state budget. As a result, the budget went from a $1.1 billion shortfall when Spellman took office to a $97 million surplus one year later. At the same time, Washington was dealing with the aftermath of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, overcrowding in the state prisons, and a strike by State Ferry workers. Spellman found funding for a new prison, negotiated for the acquisition of McNeil Island Penitentiary from the federal government, and created a new Department of Corrections. He also negotiated a settlement of the ferry worker strike and began a process to provide for additional modern ferries.
Addressing the economic crisis faced by the state, Spellman sought and won voter approval for tax-free industrial revenue bonds to help industrial development and provide jobs. A Housing Finance Commission was created to help low-income families buy homes with the help of federal funds. The resulting boon to housing led to the investment of millions of dollars in the depressed timber and construction industries.
Spellman was a tireless promoter of tourism and trade. He opened a trade promotion office in Tokyo and established formal relations with Sichuan Province in China. He also promoted foreign trade at the national level, serving as chairman of the National Governors Association’s Committee on International Trade and Foreign Relations. He was founding co-chair of the Coalition for Employment through Export and a member of the board of the Export-import Bank and the Intergovernmental Advisory Committee to the U.S. Trade Representative. The Washington World Trade Council named him World Trader of the Year.
The Governor balanced business promotion with environmental protection, securing federal Superfund support for cleanup of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, and he signed the first Interstate Nuclear Waste Compact. He also opposed the construction of an oil pipeline under Puget Sound and over the Cascade Mountains. He served as vice-chair of the National Governors Association’s Committee on Energy and the Environment and was chosen Elected Official of the Year by the Washington Environmental Council.
Defeated for reelection, Spellman returned to Seattle, where he went into private practice with the law firm of Carney, Badley, Smith and Spellman, P.S. He ran unsuccessfully for a position on the State Supreme Court. He currently serves as an adjunct professor in Administrative Law at Seattle University, chairs the Evergreen Safety Council, and is a member of the Seattle Community Round Table and the Sierra Club of Seattle.
Official Records at Washington State Archives, 1981-1985, 531 cubic feet.
Also in Washington State Archives, Patrick Dunn Collection, pre-gubernatorial papers.
List of finding aids available at the Division of Archives and Records Management, Office of the Secretary of State. Available in hard copy: Guide to the Papers of the Governors of Washington, Volume 7: 1981-1985—Governor Spellman.
Governors of the American States, Territories, and Commonwealths, National Governors' Conference, 1983.