Women in a Local Election

The State of Washington held a primary election a week ago and, although the results are not finalized, there are some things we do know about an unusual race in Seattle. Although we live across the lake from Seattle and cannot vote in Seattle, we follow their news and are encouraged by this past election. It is a harbinger of changing times, an optimistic demonstration of the power of women.

The Seattle election was a bit of a mishmash as the current mayor announced he would not run for re-election very late in the race. As a result, there were 21 entries in the race, including another former mayor. Six were women and four of those women were the top four vote-getters. The woman in the lead, Jenny Durkan, won over 30% of the vote, in spite of the large field, and the top four women combined received 73% of the vote.

Since the top two in the primary go forward for the general election, we know that the next mayor of Seattle will be a woman. She will not be the First Woman mayor of Seattle, however. The last, and first, was in 1926, almost a century ago.

The best word to describe Bertha Landes, the First Woman mayor of a major city in the United States, is “colorful.” Seattle still had the feel of a frontier town when Bertha Landes’ impressive success in hosting a conference for Washington manufacturers led to praise from the president of the Chamber of Commerce and appointment by the mayor to a commission to study unemployment. The only woman on the commission, she received enough notice to win election to the City Council. During two of her four years, she was Council President. When Seattle’s mayor traveled to the Democratic National Convention, Landes became acting mayor. She immediately fired the police chief for corruption in his department, insubordination to her, and failure to enforce prohibition. Notified by telegram, the elected mayor returned early and reinstated the police chief.

Encouraged by those in the community who wanted to clean up the town, Landes was persuaded to run for Mayor of Seattle. She promised “municipal housekeeping,” her term for cleaning up city government, and she beat the incumbent. During her term, she worked to eliminate bootlegging and widespread corruption in the city. She ran a scandal-free administration, appointed professionals to head city departments, and made appointments based on merit. She improved public transportation, parks, and traffic safety. She converted the street railway system to a profitable enterprise and straightened out the finances of the city.

When she ran for re-election, a dark horse candidate beat her, largely by campaigning that a frontier town needed male leadership. Seattle is no longer a frontier town but one of the fastest-growing and technologically-sophisticated cities in the country. The two leading candidates for mayor this year are an attorney and an urban planner, both with a better sense of what is possible and reasonable than Mayor Landes. Hopefully though, Landes’ ability to accomplish her agenda will inspire the winner to push through the complications of democratic governance in Seattle and, with visionary leadership, accomplish great things. Bertha Landes will be a good model.