by William Stimson
Any list of "Top Ten Elections in Spokane History" might well have to make room for this fall's referendum on the strong mayor system. That election, as a judgment on the events of the last five years, could conceivably nudge out such great electoral moments as the 1960 ballot that initially brought in the city manager system, or even the 1997 election that put in office an anti-establishment mayor for the first time in 80 years.
But no matter what happens, the strong mayor referendum is not likely to claim the top spot on the list. The most important election in Spokane's history was, and will remain, the 1910 ballot that adopted the commissioner form of government. That election helped change Spokane's politics from a populist, neighborhood-dominated system to a bureaucratic, business-led system. This in turn undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the development of the balky "naysayer" electorate that is charged with being behind so many of Spokane's recent political reverses.
The events of 1910 would be a nostalgic favorite even without this significance. Who could forget an election that featured hundreds of prostitutes, a committee of 50 angry ministers, free speech demonstrations that filled Spokane jails for months and a standoff between a newspaper publisher, William Cowles, and a saloonkeeper, "Dutch Jake" Goetz?
"Vendors of Damnation" -- Spokane's change to the commissioner form was the climax of a long campaign to end vice in Spokane. At the turn of the 19th century, Spokane was home to around 200 saloons and 500 prostitutes. The latter paraded Riverside and shouted invitations from upper stories of buildings along Howard Street. The highest class of prostitutes occupied a row of sumptuous houses on what is now the entrance of Riverfront Park at Howard. The lowest class worked in tiny huts lined up in ramshackle alleys behind Spokane's major buildings. These insults to Victorian principle were rationalized by such upstanding Spokane citizens as city founder James Glover and Crescent Store owner and Mayor James Comstock as the inescapable necessities of a modern Western city.
But as Spokane began to transform itself from an enlarged mining town to a middle class city, many citizens began to demand that the vice be ended, or at least better hidden. The major drive to bring this about began exactly one century ago.
The city's mayor in 1903, Dr. P.F. Byrne, gave the same justification as all his predecessors for not clamping down on vice. Spokane was host to a huge "floating population" of laborers. "This class of population demands cheap amusement, and is entitled to it," said Byrne. If they were treated as "toughs and hobos" for just seeking a little entertainment, "they will take the hint to go elsewhere to spend their season of vacation and the money they have accumulated for that purpose." In this opinion Byrne had the solid backing of most of the business community and a majority of the city council.
When Mayor Byrne left town for an extended visit to Idaho in February of that year, however, the local clergy preached that the commissioner of police should do his duty and enforce laws against prostitution that were on the books (for appearances' sake). These challenges to do the righteous thing were carried at length in the Spokesman-Review. The poor commissioner could think of no way out of the public spotlight except to conduct an inspection -- accompanied by a Spokesman-Review reporter -- and enforce laws that clearly were on the books but which had always been bent by tradition.
When Mayor Byrne got wind of this, he was furious. He wrote a letter to the Spokesman- Review saying the commissioner did not have the authority for this enforcement campaign. He accused the ministers of trying to run the city from their pulpits. "While no man has a greater respect for the church than myself," Byrne wrote, "at the same time there are members of the cloth whose opinion and judgment is only of use so as to know what to avoid." He added, unfortunately, "Looking backward over my mayoralty, it gives me great satisfaction to know that at no time have I had the dishonor of having the approval of the cranks and bigots of the clerical cult."
That did it. Byrne was denounced from pulpits all over the city. The Rev. A.N. Smith of Centenary Presbyterian Church said Spokane was the scene of "such a stream of vice, iniquity, dishonest, low morals, open crime and lawlessness that has made decent men to shudder and hang their heads in shame." Rev. A.R. Lambert of the First Methodist Church said mayors of Spokane "bear a large burden of the responsibility for the holdups, foul murders, stealing away of that most sacred possession, virtue, from our young womanhood, the transformation of our leading thoroughfares after nightfall into highways where harlots may ply their wares, and the transformation of some of our leading blocks into temporary homes for these vendors of damnation."
And so on in churches all over the city. Fifty ministers banded together and formed the Municipal Party, inviting other political parties to join in the citywide effort to end vice.
Democrat Byrne declined to run again, probably wisely. His successor, a Republican, took steps to rein in the more obnoxious signs of prostitution, but in the end was a temporizer like all of his predecessors. He asked the ministers whether it made more sense to keep prostitution where it could be regulated, or "do you want it next door to your wife and daughters?"
Squashing the Rebellion -- So in 1905, the new political coalition ran its own candidate, a local mill owner by the name of W.H. Acuff. In this campaign, the ministers and other reformers had the formidable support of the Spokesman-Review, which had been campaigning against prostitution since the late 1890s. Its publisher, William H. Cowles, was singular among local business leaders in his refusal to accept rationalizations about the vice that brought so much money to Spokane. Cowles' own newspaper recorded day in and day out the other side of the story -- the beatings, the knifings, the hopelessness of teenage girls, which not infrequently led to suicide. There is no doubt that for Cowles it was a campaign of principle. An editor who worked with him recalled that, "when talking about some injustice or iniquitous act, the lines of his face would tighten and his eyes would seem to flash a blue flame."
Cowles swung the newspaper's resources behind Acuff. It dropped its previous strategy of exposing the problem in hopes of embarrassing city officials to action and launched an unabashed campaign to elect the reform candidate. Editorials and news reports became indistinguishable. A story just before the election reported: "With unstinted praise the leading business men, professional men and representative citizens continue unhesitatingly to indorse [sic] the candidacy of W.H. Acuff for mayor. These friends of Mr. Acuff are on every hand and every class, and their praises of him as their candidate are uttered on the streets, in the stores, in the offices and in the factories."
The paper suggested Acuff's opponent, Floyd Daggett, had no support except the "dive element" -- the saloons. The newspaper ran cartoons depicting Daggett jumping to the orders of "Dutch Jake" Goetz, owner of the Coeur d'Alene Hotel and gambling casino. A Review reporter was assigned to follow Dutch Jake's campaigning for Daggett, but even the paper's antagonism couldn't hide the saloonkeeper's charms for a certain class of voter. "Dutch Jake is a diplomat and a vote-getter only second to Floyd Daggett," the Review reported. "He gives the glad hand and the glad smile, and makes friends down the line." In quoting Jake, the reporter parodied his German accent: "In dese political campaigns, der ting I like der most ver dose pictures in der Spokesman-Review. I don't always look like der pictures, but der fellers guess it's me." Dutch Jake was asked about his plans to bring in boxing champion John L. Sullivan in for an exhibition at his saloon. "I bropose to pox him fer der championship off Spokane," Dutch Jake answered. "If he vins he is ter pe der next mayoralty candidate, und if I vin I am to be der candidate."
The Review took polls at the local post office and among Acuff's own employees and reported that voters at those places preferred Acuff by large margins. After doing a random sampling of people on the streets, the paper reported, "All Classes Indorse Acuff."
It must have come as a surprise to Review readers when Acuff lost in a Democratic sweep. "Apparently," the Review editorialized about the result, "a large number of voters prefer the glad hand and the coaxing voice to the more rugged qualities that make for safe and prudent leaders." It was an acute observation but one never really appreciated by the reformers. In future decades, because of the reforms to come, Spokane's politics gained more "safe and prudent" leaders, but suffered from the loss of the glad hand and the coaxing voice.
Men of the People -- Dutch Jake campaigned for Daggett and other friendly candidates to protect his rackets. But he didn't buy all the votes. Operators of saloons like Dutch Jake were a part of American political tradition because their occupation brought them into contact with people who were down and out. The profits from booze gave them the means and contacts to help some of the less fortunate. Reprobate barkeeps like Dutch Jake and his contemporary Jimmy Durkin are better known and are more fondly remembered than most city government officials because they were more likely to touch people directly. When the anti-union Spokesman-Review ran articles castigating the union movement, Durkin bought space and ran his own pro-union ads. Of course Durkin took care to mention his bar's location. But his emotion was sincere and stories of his kindly acts on behalf of the powerless abound. A young boy who sold Jimmy Durkin his newspaper every day recalled one such act in an article published by the Spokesman-Review. The boy told Durkin that he would be quitting the newspaper-selling business soon to take a full-time job because his mother was sick and needed the money. The next day Durkin gave him an envelope to take to his mother. When the boy's mother opened it she found $50 and a note that said, "You raised a fine boy."
Both Dutch Jake's and Durkin's establishments had free lunch counters -- intended, of course, for patrons who bought drinks. But it was well known that neither bar turned away a hungry man just because he was broke. In that assumption is much of the explanation of the political power of the operators of the Howard Street dives. Their attitude contrasts sharply with that typical of reformers, who saw the victims of the boom-and-bust Western economy only as violators of vice laws. One of the most persistent campaigners to clean up the saloons, city councilman Nelson Pratt, introduced an ordinance in 1907 that would forbid saloons from providing free food. He explained his reasoning: "In all lines of industry in the Northwest men are scarce, and yet there isn't a day but you can find scores of idle men, a majority of them practically destitute, hanging around the cheap saloons in the lower part of the city. If the food were stopped these men might go to work."
As a matter of fact, the economy had entered the recession of 1907, and tens of thousands of men were out of work in the West. This was dramatically illustrated just 18 months later when Billy Sunday, the famous evangelist, brought his traveling troop to Spokane. Noticing there were many men sleeping on the streets of Spokane in bitterly cold January weather, Sunday offered anyone who needed it the chance to spend nights in the large hall where he gave his revival. To everyone's amazement, hundreds of men, "gaunt and emaciated, staring straight ahead and never saying a word," according to a newspaper reporter, lined up and waited for a warm place to spend the night. They filled the auditorium and an embarrassed city found itself offering to allow the men to escape the cold nights in city hall. Citizens of Spokane took up collections to feed them as well. Ultimately some 1,200 men were housed and fed for a month. The city was relieved when warm weather came again and the men could be turned out.
A Secret Society Exposed -- This episode in January 1909 became the first of a whole series of shocks that set the stage for Spokane's change in government in 1910. The election of 1909 promised to be a replay of all the elections of that decade. The ministers and the Spokesman-Review backed Charles Fassett, a reform Republican. Again the Review painted his opponent, James T. Omo, as a minion of vice lords: "Omo has become a subject of criticism and scorn by all classes of home owners who have no interests in dives or profit for contractors." In the Republican primary, Omo defeated Fassett.
Another reform candidate, however, Nelson Pratt, won the Democratic nomination, and the Review switched its support to him. With his own Democratic supporters, plus the support of the Republican newspaper, plus the fact that Spokane's population was finally tipping in favor of the swiftly arriving middle class, Pratt edged Omo. For the first time an anti-saloon man held the mayor's office.
Pratt immediately ordered the commissioner of police to commence enforcing all the anti-vice laws on the books. The old council ordered Commissioner Carl Tuerke not to do so. When Tuerke proceeded to clamp down on the taverns, the council fired him (police commissioners were appointed by the council). This precipitated a new crisis.
With nothing left to lose, Tuerke astonished the citizens of Spokane by announcing that he was a member of a secret political organization that included four city council members, two county commissioners, three judges and assorted other public officials, to a total of about 75 members. This group called itself the "Pan Tans" and met in secret to discuss city policy.
Members of the Pan Tans maintained they only met to sound out political strategies. Pratt and the Spokesman-Review scoffed and pointed out, reasonably, that any secret organization could only be assumed to be a conspiracy against the public. An official investigation concluded there was no evidence of graft or other illegal cooperation, but on the other hand it seemed likely such deals would eventually come from such a secret arrangement.
The Spokesman-Review used the Pan Tan scandal against all who had resisted closing saloons to that time. It editorialized against Jacob Schiller, a longtime, respected member of the city council who was also a brewer: "Jacob Schiller has been in many ways a valuable member of the city council, and he possesses in a high degree qualities that fit him to serve as a public official... But when he tries to do his share in rendering the service that he knows the taxpayers ought to have, he finds that he must come into collision with his own private interests and with the interests of others with whom he is associated in the liquor business."
Schiller was outraged at this attack. At a meeting of his constituents and supporters, held in a barn at Fourth and Oak, he declared: "If you go through my record of six years in the council you will find that I have moved for the revocation of more licenses of unworthy saloons than any other three councilmen in that time. I court your investigation of my councilmanic record. In that talk I asked Mr. Cowles how I had done wrong and he said I had voted for the removal of Mr. Tuerke. He said I should be with the mayor. I want to say to you and to repeat it that all of the turmoil down at city hall has been because of the Spokesman-Review... From this time I am going to take up the cudgels against the Spokesman-Review." It was a harbinger of the "Cowles conspiracy theories" that William Cowles' great grandson, Stacey Cowles, would complain of almost a century later.
Invasion of the Wobblies -- That summer of 1909, Mayor Pratt pointed to the evidence of saloons and Pan Tans as evidence that there was something fundamentally wrong with Spokane's political apparatus. He appointed a commission to explore the possibility of alternative forms of government.
Meanwhile, that fall brought another controversy to the streets of Spokane. The International Workers of the World, better known as the IWW or "Wobblies," arrived to organize in Spokane. They began recruiting union members at private employment agencies, which were notorious for charging workers fees and sending them off to non-existent jobs.
Since the Wobblies were considered dangerous anyway, the employment agencies had no trouble getting the city council to pass an ordinance outlawing street speeches. Police were sent to guard the agencies, and when a union member started to talk he was immediately arrested. The IWW leadership put out a nationwide appeal for help and hundreds of union members descended upon Spokane. Their plan was to overwhelm the city with an unstoppable line of speakers. As soon as one was arrested, another took his place.
The city responded by putting the fire department (conveniently equipped with its many hoses) under the command of Police Chief John Sullivan. When a one of the Wobblies got up to speak, he was blasted with a stream of pressurized water. "The speaker of the evening," the Review reported in one such instance, "hardly had mounted the box when a yell of warning come from the crowd. His words, 'Feller workers,' were cut short with a cold, blinding stream of water." The speakers routinely received beatings and then were dragged off to jail. The Review reported that a lawyer watching on from an upper story shouted, "And this is supposed to be a free country!" He was immediately arrested and charged with inciting a riot.
The face-off between IWW and the city filled the city jail, then an unused schoolhouse, then a federal building at Fort Wright -- over 400 people in all. It was costing the city a great deal of money and embarrassment.
One of those arrested was the soon-to-be famous radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. When she described her rough treatment in the women's jail, and also her suspicion that prostitutes there were being exploited by police guards, it caused a sensation. The Spokane Women's Club, aided by Spokane's most famous early feminist, May Arkwright Hutton, led a march of 3,000 people to city hall to demand that the city hire female guards to oversee the jail.
All of these events of 1909 -- massive unemployment, urban corruption, union unrest, free speech campaigns and the political stirrings of women -- were really nationwide problems, symptoms of the industrial revolution which would take the federal government the next half century to address. But at the time they seemed to many in Spokane to cast doubt on the viability of popular government, at least at the local level.
At this moment in Spokane's history, Mayor Pratt's study group finished its work and recommended that Spokane adopt the latest experiment in local government, called the "Commissioner Plan." The commissioner form of government had been fashioned just a few years earlier, in 1900, in Galveston, Texas, after that city had been devastated by a hurricane. The destruction of nearly everything in the city left its government stunned and indecisive. Citizens quickly decided to put all resources in the hands of five competent men with the commission to do what they must to get the city operating again. This emergency committee of five men did such a good job of rescuing the city that it captured national attention.
Other American cities felt they were undergoing hurricane-scale disasters in the form of overcrowding, mass poverty and urban corruption. They began adapting the Galveston system to their own set of problems. It became a kind of fad, and it came to Spokane's attention at just the right moment. A committee of Spokane citizens collected petitions to force a vote of a new charter. Quickly, on Dec. 28, 1910, the proposed change to a commissioner system was put on a special ballot.
New System, New Problems -- The idea of switching the system of government had plenty of critics. Spokane's Democrats and a large segment of its business community contended the plan would deprive Spokane of its political system. It provided for no single voice to represent all the people and it provided for no grassroots representation.
But such theoretical arguments did not get far with people who had specific complaints against the old system. Anti-vice ministers and their flocks voted for a new system of government because the old one had been the chief obstacle to reform. This anti-prostitution vote was undoubtedly given a big boost by the fact that Washington state had just enfranchised women and that this election was the first in which Spokane women could vote. The existing city council had also alienated an entirely different constituency -- unions and socialists -- by their handling of the free speech debacle. Both the conservative Spokesman-Review and the populist Spokane Press backed the measure as a way to bring order to the city.
The measure passed by a 60 percent margin. In the next local government election (March 7, 1911), five commissioners elected at large replaced 10 council members and a directly elected mayor. Traumatized by a decade of turmoil in city hall, Spokane voters attempted to place their politics in a blind trust. Commissioners were supposed to withdraw from political involvement and just generally do what was best for the city. They were elected not as representatives of people but as super-managers expected to tend to the work while not bothering others unduly.
Over the next 50 years, commissioners generally did as they had been instructed. They minded business within city hall and seldom rallied citizens to new ideas. Citizens were free to stop thinking much about city government at all, except when the tax bill arrived. This planned remoteness from citizens was undoubtedly an ingredient of Spokane's oft-lamented "leave me alone" orientation to government and its capital projects.
This separation of government and citizen also had the effect of undermining the city's independence entity. Commissioners soon discovered that politicians who cannot claim to speak for a set of voters have nothing to bring to a bargaining table. The real politicians in Spokane were its business leaders. Almost by default, they found themselves responsible for giving some shape to Spokane's development. The "constituents" of these business-politicians were their employees; other businesses affiliated with them; those who knew them in churches, clubs and civic causes; and generally all Spokane citizens who recognized a business leader as one who had ideas and the wherewithal to do something about them.
This makeshift political leadership had its advantages. Spokane got the services of many minds that likely never would have been devoted to public service. But it had some disadvantages, including the fact that no matter how extensive an unelected official's "constituency," it excluded some people, and these people realized it -- another source of the alienation that would become a part of Spokane's political makeup.
In the end, even Spokane's business leaders declared the commissioner system a failure. Spokesman-Review Publisher William Cowles was the most enthusiastic supporter of the form, but his son, William Cowles Jr., joined a small group of businessmen in the successful fight to switch to the city manager system. The commission form of government was discarded in 1960, exactly half a century after Spokane's most consequential election.
William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University and the author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.
Publication date: 07/03/03