The Persistence of Progressivism

James Ellis and the Forward Thrust Campaign

by William H. Mullins

Note: The following article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Pacific Northwest Quarterly. The version below includes photos and links that did not appear in the printed copy. For readers who are interested in more information about Forward Thrust, the author directs them to the three-volume publication “A Report to the Residents of King County Washington on Progress of Forward Thrust Projects” available at University of Washington Libraries. The Forward Thrust Collections (accession number 1707) at UW Special Collections is another source of primary documents, especially meeting minutes and correspondence of James Ellis and other movement leaders.


James Ellis was frustrated. It was the mid-1960s, and Seattle was poised for growth. Boeing was rapidly expanding. The successful 1962 Seattle world’s fair had given the city a jolt of energy and greater confidence. By 1965 forecasters were predicting that King County’s population might double to two million in 20 years. The most optimistic economists thought the state could gain 60,000 jobs every year, most of them along the newly completed segment of Interstate 5 running between Tacoma and Everett through Seattle.[1] Ellis fretted that the region was doing little to prepare for growth. In Seattle a weak-mayor–strong-council city government had sapped municipal initiative for years. Even as they made mild attempts at reform, Mayor Dorm Braman and the Seattle City Council acted like risk-averse investors when faced with any significant expenditures. In addition, King County’s government needed streamlining.

Ellis had already tried to interest voters in more efficient government through a charter revision for the county in 1952, and again in 1958, but with no luck.[2] The bond attorney turned civic activist did have success in his push to clean up Lake Washington, though. The large lake lying along Seattle’s eastern flank had been in danger of turning into a municipal cesspool. So Ellis proposed creating Metro, an entity that would span two counties and several cities. His original dream was of a supragovernmental agency that would clean up the lake, oversee a regional transit system, and engage in regional planning. After a defeat at the polls in the spring of 1958, he scaled it back to only sewage disposal, excluded Snohomish County to the north and a portion of south King County that opposed the plan, and eventually won approval the following September.[3] But Metro was just a warm-up. In the latter half of the 1960s, Ellis’s frustration drove him to undertake the most ambitious project Seattle had ever seen.

James Ellis, born in 1921, grew up in Seattle. He attended Franklin High School and Yale University and then finished his education at the University of Washington law school before joining the firm that would become Preston, Thorgrimson, Horowitz, Starin and Ellis.[4] An admiring biographer describes him as neither charismatic nor colorful. But the same observer lauded Ellis’s well-organized mind, which could control a vast amount of information. He was articulate—able to cast a vision, then translate it into concrete reality.[5] As early as 1951, he had begun to worry about Seattle’s ability, and willingness, to manage urban growth. Ellis’s efforts at reforming the county government and creating Metro reflected his keen desire to establish a regional government powerful enough to respond to the complexity of the challenges he saw coming.

James Ellis (below) speaking at one of many forums held around King County to educate the public about Forward Thrust. (Post-Intelligencer Collection, MOHAI, 1986.5.8979.1)

In November 1965 Ellis was ready to try a new tack. At a Rotary Club of Seattle meeting, he proposed organizing a citizens group to push projects to fruition that had already been planned but were moribund—bound up by a lack of initiative or funding or both. In that speech and later writings, he identified his priorities. Ever the public transportation advocate, Ellis called for a rapid transit system to move people around the region more efficiently. He exhorted citizens to take action to keep “urban sprawl from swallowing the countryside”—through more open space, more parks, and greater public waterfront access and by burying utility wires, widening and beautifying urban arterials, and preserving the hinterlands. Deteriorating neighborhoods would be renovated. Cultural facilities (unnamed, but a domed stadium comes to mind) would be built.[6] The citizens group would identify the projects, which would be funded by an array of voter-approved bond issues paid off through property taxes.

The response was immediate and largely positive. The Seattle Times called the scope of the program “breathtaking” and urged readers to take the plan seriously, but presciently cautioned that property owners, who would bear the financial burden, would have to be convinced. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the morning daily, applauded the fact that a prominent citizen had spoken out, praised the magnitude of the plan, and pointed out it had already advocated many of the same ideas.[7] Ellis’s clarion call resonated with his fellow civic leaders, such as the hotelier Ed Carlson, the banker William Jenkins, and the attorney Marvin Durning. But there were detractors. Some saw a conflict of interest in a bond attorney proposing massive bond issues. Ellis promised more than once that any fees he might receive from working on the bond issues in his capacity as an attorney would go to charity or public beautification projects.[8]

Forward Thrust, the name Ellis had christened the undertaking, heralded a new cycle of urban reform that blossomed in the 1970s. Ellis’s eagerness to temper the ill effects of untrammeled growth reflected the values of “quality-of-life liberals” who were just emerging throughout the United States, especially in the West. According to the urban historian Carl Abbott, “These middle-class city people worried that breakneck development was fouling the air, eating up open space, [and] sacrificing neighborhoods to the automobile.”[9] President Lyndon Johnson, commenting on beautification and open space in 1965, was speaking the language of Forward Thrust when he asserted, “We must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities.”[10]

Forward Thrust was also part of a shifting Puget Sound political climate. It is possible that James Ellis sensed this and considered the time right to launch the campaign. Whether by plan or by fortune, the second half of the 1960s was an opportune time to ask the citizens of Seattle and King County to vote for change that would preserve their region. A political reform group, CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council), came together in 1967. It comprised young city leaders who sought an end to status quo politics and included members of both the Young Democrats and Young Republicans. A number of CHECC-supported candidates and others sympathetic to the group won seats on the Seattle City Council. By 1971 the entire council had been replaced. In 1969 the 35-year-old Wes Uhlman was elected mayor. Under the leadership of the new council and Uhlman, Seattle passed an open-housing ordinance and acted on historic preservation, senior services, parks, creative arts, and racial integration of the police and fire departments.[11] In addition, in 1968 voters finally approved a new charter for King County. John Spellman, elected to the new post of county executive in 1969, energized King County government. Forward Thrust, then, was among the first signs that change was afoot in the region.

Somewhat more subtle evidence indicated a favorable climate for Ellis’s reform agenda. During the two Forward Thrust campaigns, a row about the future of Pike Place Market moved to resolution in favor of those who sought to preserve and restore the market rather than thoroughly remodel it. Forward Thrust initiatives were often similarly preservation minded as they aimed at retaining the vibrancy of the Seattle downtown core. Victor Steinbrueck, a chief defender of the market, joined Ellis’s Forward Thrust committee.[12] The Model Cities program and efforts to turn the U.S. Army’s Fort Lawton (pictured below) into a park were similarly aimed at urban nurture. Seattle Model City sought to upgrade rather than raze dilapidated housing. The activists seeking to repurpose Fort Lawton succeeded in their push against the military (the Department of Defense proposed a missile base), ultimately creating Discovery Park in the midst of the city. Though these efforts reached their height after the initial Forward Thrust election, they indicate that Ellis’s quality-of-life messages resonated with many local residents.[13]

Although Forward Thrust was at or near the cutting edge of urban reform in the West, and signaled an emerging vitality in city politics, there was also much about it that reflected values from the past that Ellis and his closest cohorts embraced. These older notions guided and, at times, restrained their actions. In particular, Ellis and many of his reform-minded associates reached back to the Progressive Era for principles that directed the Forward Thrust processes.Though the Forward Thrust campaign got going fully 50 years after the heyday of the era, strands of the Progressive tradition were deeply embedded in its fabric.[14] This was not surprising. Washington State’s history is marked by a Progressive ethos. Social legislation, labor laws, woman suffrage, and the creation of Seattle City Light—evidence of the reform impulse in the state—were vital memories for Ellis and many of his generation. The Municipal League, organized in 1910, remained an engine for urban reform, and the League of Women Voters, an offshoot of the women’s suffrage movement, was going strong.[15] The initiative and referendum were cogwheels of the electoral machinery. That the people should go to the polls to determine the future of the region even as they tallied up the weight of their tax burden? Simply a given. James Ellis was a long-standing member of the Municipal League and rallied like-minded folk around his endeavor—a substantial number of Forward Thrust’s members listed the Municipal League or the League of Women Voters among their affiliations.

This enduring Progressive impulse was not unique to Seattle. Abbott identifies bands of neo-Progressives that cropped up in a number of western cities 10 to 20 years before Ellis began his campaign. As in Seattle, reformers in San Jose, Denver, San Antonio, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and several other western cities were predominantly middle-class business leaders and professionals initially working outside the government. But the goals of these immediate postwar reformers in other cities were quite different from those of the quality-of-life liberals with Progressive sensibilities who led Forward Thrust. The neo-Progressives sought to install new administrations that were sympathetic to growth and prepared to provide services to make their communities work more efficiently.[16] Forward Thrust literature makes clear that the group had not been created to replace existing governmental bodies or to accelerate the growth of the area. Instead, it was intended to spark a wider vision that would surmount the inertia of not only the current officeholders but also the citizenry. Forward Thrust members confidently styled themselves not as government reformers, but as an antidote to a fragmented local leadership beset by interest-group politics. Forward Thrust literature proclaimed, “The traditional separate attack upon separate problems by different agencies at different times in response to individual pressures has prevented the public from considering overall community needs and the balanced tax program needed to satisfy those needs.”[17] The Progressive yearning for efficiency and good government was strong. It would be an efficiency born of experts and top-down planning. But Forward Thrust would not campaign to supplant the rascals or the inept. It would, instead, create and fund projects that the existing city or county government, or a regional agency (likely the already-existing Metro), would administer to ameliorate the trials of growth.

Ellis and his followers, similar to many of their Progressive forebears, believed that shaping the urban environment contributed to a better life for everyone. But they looked through a lens that, again echoing a strain of Progressivism, had a distinctly middle-class (really, upper-middle-class) focus. Forward Thrust would not sponsor the creation of social programs. It limited its proposals to capital improvements that would “help to meet the human needs and reasonable hopes of the people of the county”; the improvements would be financed by general obligation bonds.[18] The physical environment would be enhanced, but only to the extent possible with bricks, mortar, and asphalt. Urban poverty was a concern, but Forward Thrust aimed less at easing the lives of the underclass already residing in the region than at handling the influx of newcomers. The main goal was to create an urban landscape that would “maximize for all the residents of this area the opportunities for fulfilled living and preserve the natural quality of the region.”[19] And, although not the primary impetus, the finished projects would create a healthier business climate that would attract investment, trade, and financial growth. As Forward Thrust publications begged the citizens to embrace the entire program for the good of all, the group revealed its middle-class predilection:

While some may suggest that these items be deferred for more “essential needs,” the [Forward Thrust] committee is convinced that the attractiveness of the metropolitan area and the quality of urban life depend critically upon adequate cultural, recreation, and entertainment opportunities. Many of these opportunities can only be provided by public capital investment.[20]

At the same time, a more liberal Progressive tendency to set aside an individual ethic for a more communal ideal was also evident. Ellis and his followers believed that “the power of the government” was “a major means of shaping the environment of the city.”[21]

Finally, a good deal of optimism about the human condition (again, a common characteristic of Progressive values) animated almost every participant who put in hundreds of hours of personal time to see the goals of Forward Thrust accomplished. Ellis captured this, and much more, in his Rotary Club speech:

The heart of the metropolitan area should serve as the rallying point for this forward thrust, but the welfare of the entire area will be its aim. With the tools of urban design, a regard for human values, and plenty of work we could see the beginning of a golden age for Seattle. We could build one of the great cities of man.[22]

Ellis made sure his group was made up of those who possessed this can-do mentality, more typical of the 1950s . . . or the Progressive Era. In the end, the most optimistic hopes of Ellis and his colleagues were not fulfilled, but their sense of expectancy was not entirely misplaced.

Ellis began by putting the world’s fair network into motion. He went first to a fellow Municipal League member, Paul Seibert, a leader of the Central Association, a consortium of downtown businesses. The two men contacted William Allen, president of Boeing; Ed Carlson, president of Western International Hotels; Walter Straley, president of Pacific Northwest Bell; and William Jenkins, board chairman of Seattle First National Bank. Ellis left politicians off the initial planning committee because he was afraid they would kill the whole project with infighting.[23] This group formulated the concept behind Forward Thrust and determined that “the key problems are financing, public acceptance and political teamwork.”[24] Voters from Seattle and all over King County would be asked to approve bonds to finance specific projects, but there was opportunity for even broader funding. Local governments could use these bonds secured by property taxes as seed money to attract state and federal matching grants. With Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society moving into high gear and the state’s long-tenured U.S. senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson in Washington, D.C., it was foolish not to think big. So, a widely representative citizens committee would conceptualize a package of ambitious capital projects. They would have to stage an effective publicity campaign to help property owners comprehend the opportunity and the need. If it all came together, Puget Sound would be uplifted, even transformed. Here was a modern divergence from the old Progressive ethic. The government was no longer seen as a regulator for the good (as it was, for example, during Prohibition), but a facilitator of a good life.[25]

Forward Thrust incorporated in 1966 as a nonprofit organization, underwritten by $100,000 of private contributions. Local political leaders now joined the effort and immediately got busy. Mayor Braman and the county commissioner, Scott Wallace, initiated the second stage of planning in March 1966, formally appointing the Organizing Committee of 24, which Ellis had already selected. The organizing committee consisted of five politicians, three attorneys, two utility company heads, eight businessmen, a University of Washington professor, an architect, a labor union leader, and three civic association members.[26]

The committee of 23 men and 1 woman met three days a week for three months at the Washington Athletic Club in downtown Seattle to select the actual operating group of 200. Ninety-seven percent of those the Committee of 24 contacted agreed to serve. When Ellis met with the larger group for the first time in September 1966, he emphasized to the volunteers that “this is not a letterhead committee.”[27] They would meet six hours a week every week for two years. The 200 ultimately formed seven subcommittees, each focused on a specific area. Each subcommittee was composed of four or five working groups. Ellis made it clear that Forward Thrust would not become a governing or even an administrating entity. The subcommittees were to establish priorities, drawing from lists of ideas and needs already circulating in the community, then hammer out a comprehensive program of capital projects to place before the voters. Ellis was justifiably proud of Forward Thrust’s Committee of 200. This band of civic leaders, according to the organizing committee member Harold Amoss, would show that “a heterogeneous group of urban and suburban citizens can organize themselves to study issues, suggest solutions, stimulate intelligent citizen involvement and translate these things into action.”[28] Later, Forward Thrust speakers would press home the point of grassroots planning as they assured voters that “the program has not been formulated by government and handed to a specially selected committee to advertise. It has been developed by citizen volunteers working with officials in the governmental agencies.”[29] In reality, though the Committee of 200 did do all the groundwork, local government officials exercised a good deal of influence over the final slate of bond issues.

Some criticized Forward Thrust for limiting itself to public works. Ellis simply responded that his organization was focused on bond levies, which could finance capital improvements but could never sustain ongoing social programs. Ellis and his band of midcentury reformers tilted toward a masculine strain of Progressive reform—a desire to fix things—and eschewed a Jane Addams–style nurturing sensibility.[30] In other words, these latter-day Progressives set a limit on their quality-of-life ideals. Consequently, there would be plenty of projects left through which younger, countercultural environmentalists could foster diversity, urban sustainability, and cooperative living throughout the 1970s and beyond.[31]

For most Forward Thrust members, efficiency was a watchword. They were experts in a rush to ameliorate urban excesses already evident. Ellis overestimated the pace of the growth, but in his mind and for many others in Seattle, the mid-1960s was just barely soon enough to mitigate the effects of a booming economy. “People will come,” Ellis said. “You either prepare for them or you don’t. That’s the option.” And either the preparation would be reactive and piecemeal, or it could be planned, he thought. The bogey was Los Angeles and urban sprawl. Forward Thrust was both Progressive (shaped by past reform) and progressive (anticipating the urban conservation movement of the mid to late 20th century) as it aspired to maintain the Puget Sound way of life in the midst of rapid growth.[32]

Cooperation was also a primary objective. Citizens were providing the impetus for the program, but they were still working in harness with their government leaders. A comment in a 1970 Forward Thrust publication makes clear the organization was aware that the Progressive ideal of community and consensus was changing: “In this era of clamor and complaint,” it read, “successful civic action represents thoughtful communication between officials and citizens. It is not officials telling citizens what’s good for them, nor is it citizens demanding more than they are willing to pay for. It is a continuing dialogue. It is listening, learning, and hard work on both sides.”[33] Ellis hoped an array of projects authorized simultaneously would compel governments at the federal, state, and, particularly, the local level to act together and accomplish something magnificent for everyone.

The vision of rallying together for the good of all, however, fell short. Even though Forward Thrust included the proverbial something for everyone, its focus was still on the downtown core of Seattle. Ellis viewed the heart of the city as an ongoing center of management, finance, trade, retail shopping, and culture in the region. The continued vibrancy of the downtown core, Ellis thought, was critical for the well-being of the outlying areas.[34] For example, a rapid transit system was essential to bring people into and out of downtown, alleviating congestion. In this sense, Ellis’s vision was backward looking, at least according to Abbott’s theories on eras of city development. Abbott suggests that building around the core was more typical of city planning in the mid-1950s than in 1965.[35] Ellis might have retorted that the whole genius of the plan was that it brought together leaders from all over King County, to formulate projects that would entail cooperation among governments across the area. Nonetheless, it was difficult for Ellis and other key leaders of Forward Thrust, most of whom were closely connected to downtown Seattle, to shed their subconscious Seattle-centric outlook, no matter how hard they might have tried to operate for the good of the whole. As one member of Forward Thrust insightfully observed, “Ellis may be the spark that sets the pulse of the people in the Seattle power structure to palpitating because of his excellent ideas. I’m not at all sure he’s a magic word in suburbia.”[36]

If Forward Thrust was conceived as a community effort, just how broad was its representation? Ellis initially envisioned the committee as 100 citizens, but, as he recognized the enormity of the undertaking, he quickly doubled the membership. Though the Committee of 24 took responsibility for selection, Ellis was recruiter in chief.[37] The committee reflected his network, particularly at the top. After some thought of hiring a nationally known leader from outside the region, the committee selected Ellis as the president. To exemplify the spirit of voluntarism he hoped to see in all the members, he turned down a $40,000 yearly salary.[38] His executive board included Marvin Durning, the manufacturer John Fluke, Lowell Mickelwait, Boeing vice president of industrial and public relations, the social welfare activist Dorothy Smith, and Thomas Bolger, the new president of Pacific Northwest Bell. Names familiar to locals dotted the board of trustees, including Ed Carlson, William Jenkins, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, chair of king Broadcasting, Harry Carr, president of the Central Labor Council, Weyerhaeuser’s Norton Clapp, and Everett Nordstrom. Thirty-five percent of the Committee of 200 were businesspeople, while elected officials from around the area made up 11 percent. Perhaps overlapping the latter percentage, 11 percent were attorneys. Providers of services made up 10 percent. Housewives, college professors, real-estate investors, and bankers each made up 5 percent. The committee was almost 90 percent male and less than 5 percent nonwhite. Comparing its profile to the general population makes Forward Thrust a little reminiscent of the Constitutional Convention. Proportionately, there were eight times as many executives as in King County, and three times as many professionals.[39]

Forward Thrust was about evenly split politically between Republicans and Democrats. For example, Ellis was a liberal Republican, Fluke a very conservative Republican, and Durning a liberal Democrat and environmental activist. Tellingly, 60 percent of the membership lived in Seattle and 75 percent worked there.[40] There was representation from throughout the county, especially among local political leaders, but the bulk of the committee shared Ellis’s bias toward the core of the city. Finally, as the record of the hard work and time put in attests, many committee members were responding to a civic obligation. They were eager to solve municipal problems and shape the city. But it was not entirely a selfless outpouring of municipal concern. For some, Forward Thrust was a steppingstone into political office, a grand networking opportunity not seen since the world’s fair. And, at the very least, it was a chance to be seen doing good.[41]

Forward Thrust leaders were aware of the criticism that their organization was not representative. During the lead-up to the 1968 Forward Thrust bond election, one speaker warned that naysayers viewed Forward Thrust as “a tight little group of elite citizens attempting to impose a slick, multi-million dollar program of beautifying metropolitan Seattle.”[42] The attorney Bennett Feigenbaum, a member of the Committee of 200, privately and publicly pleaded with Ellis to add younger people, African Americans, and advocates for the poor.[43] Ellis argued, perhaps a bit too candidly, “It is a fact of life you must get the backing from the people who control the money. It would be a waste of effort and time to become too deeply involved in Forward Thrust without first receiving the green light from the business community.”[44]

He certainly had the business community’s approval. A variety of enterprises—from Boeing to the local J. C. Penney, both daily newspapers, and dozens of engineering firms—gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Forward Thrust’s operations.[45] The critiques of Ellis and Forward Thrust echo historians’ criticisms of the Progressives: that the middle class was seeking to bend the working class, for its own good, to its projects.[46] Ellis did not easily transcend his own milieu. He associated with businessmen and other civic leaders. He was comfortable with them and trusted both their judgment and their willingness to work for the good of his city, and that opened him and the committee to charges of being patronizing, at the least. And, his reference point was Seattle, which probably somewhat skewed his perception of the rest of the county. Finally, he was concerned that too many voices, perhaps especially voices that were growing louder and more fractious by 1968, would delay or even derail his hopes for significant capital improvements. So, within a circle of reasonable comfort, he recruited somewhat diversely—not just friends and acquaintances, not just Republicans, not just Seattleites—to form an alliance of established leaders and deeply concerned private citizens who could surmount mild differences of opinion to bring forth a complex program. Despite the fact that James Ellis, man of vision, had his blind spots, it is hard to disagree with John Fischer of Harper’s, who observed that most people in Seattle and King County believed him to be trustworthy, good at planning, and without a political agenda—and for those reasons they were willing to give his ideas a fair hearing. “In sum,” Fischer observed, “[Ellis] is a walking contradiction of everything that C. Wright Mills has told us about the Power Elite.”[47]

This did not mean that Ellis allowed Forward Thrust to take its own way. A great deal of research and deliberation went on, but when the final slate of bond issues emerged, it was very much in line with what Ellis and government leaders had established as most desirable and most feasible. The process began in September 1966 with background studies and information gathering. Forward Thrust members filled out questionnaires soliciting their opinions about regional priorities. The committee contacted two hundred community groups, asking what they appreciated about Puget Sound life, what they feared might disrupt it, and what they saw as major physical environmental problems in the region. The committee collected more than two thousand written responses. Newsletters went out twice a week to a thousand interested citizens.[48]

The group met throughout the fall of 1966 at the Seattle Center every Saturday morning when the University of Washington football team was not playing at home. It heard experts and government department heads testify at length about opportunities and problems that Forward Thrust might address. A 60-mile bus tour of the county afforded firsthand information about some of those needs. Only 12 of the 200 committee members attended all six of the consciousness-raising Saturday meetings. Over half made it to one or two sessions. This might have been discouraging to the leadership, but then again, executive board members made up a good percentage of the 36 who came to none of the events. A pattern, typical of most volunteer organizations, was set. Throughout the process it was only a few people on each subcommittee who contributed the bulk of the effort.[49]

Developing an initial list of needs was not difficult. Forward Thrust was bombarded with ideas, and most local governments had a lengthy list of projects—roads and highways, parks, pollution, health care, public safety, municipal services, and on and on. All of this had to be sifted and put into a priority order that would attract votes and not alienate governments that would receive only a portion of their desires. With so many projects to choose from, finding agreement on a balanced and coherent program would be difficult. Ellis fretted, “A metropolitan consensus is hard to achieve and easy to break. Some citizens and officials are more than willing to think the worst of their neighbors and say so publicly. The opportunity to sow distrust is great and the temptation strong.”[50] In the spirit of an age that was just passing, Forward Thrust ran on consensus, and the leadership kept that ideal in front of the committee continually.

In January 1967, Forward Thrust began work on two fronts. First, the executive board divided the Committee of 200 into the seven subcommittees. Members were placed on a subcommittee mainly on the basis of interest and expertise, though some consideration was given to personality and tendencies to lobby too strenuously for pet projects. The seven subcommittees were Culture and EntertainmentHealth, Safety, and Welfare; Parks and Recreation; Highways; Rapid Transit; Urban Redevelopment; and Utilities. Forward Thrust leadership reminded the chairmen of the subcommittees to be cost conscious—or at least to put projects in priority order so they might be winnowed later—and to avail themselves of local experts. The hope was the committees might not stray too far from what local governments already determined as their most critical needs. They were to have their recommendations ready for review by April.[51]

The second task was to persuade the state legislature to lay some groundwork. Forward Thrust inundated the biennial legislative session with 19 separate bills. The Municipal League, Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Port of Seattle, and Governor Dan Evans pressed hard for their passage. The legislature enacted all but one, paving the way for the special Forward Thrust bond election. Many of the bills granted greater flexibility to the taxing and spending powers of local governments. The legislature also added a good deal of state funding to a number of projects Forward Thrust was considering. More state money was set aside for a light-rail transit system. Lawmakers gave Metro oversight of the anticipated rapid transit system, and rapid transit could now use highway rights of way. The legislature raised the Seattle and King County debt ceilings from 5 percent to 10 percent of assessed value and extended permissible bond maturities to 40 years. The state allocated to King County almost half of the 4.5 percent state sales tax on hotel and motel revenue generated in the county to help pay off bonds for a new stadium, a Forward Thrust priority, thereby reducing the impact on property owners.[52]

With this helpful legislative framework in place and a myriad of ideas in front of them, the next step for the Committee of 200 was to decide what would actually go before the voters. The subcommittees set their priorities, although they went through no formal process to arrive at their conclusions. Two additional screening committees exercised substantial control over the final decisions. These two bodies labored through the summer and into the fall of 1967, sifting through the reports and evidence presented by the seven subcommittees and determining what should go on the ballot. In retrospect, the powerful role of these two groups cast a shadow over the image of Forward Thrust as a democratic, grassroots organization. The Economic Analysis Committee, made up of University of Washington professors, local economists, and city bankers, had to determine how much to ask for. The committee studied the proposed programs and the bonding limits of the participating governments. It devised procedures to stagger the sale of bonds over several years to stay below the debt ceilings. And it judged the willingness of the voters to assent to increases in their property taxes.[54]

Backers of Forward Thrust placed many advertisements of the type pictured below in Seattle newspapers in an effort to build support for the program. (Special Collections, UW Libraries, UW 36512)

The Forward Thrust executive board, along with the chairs and cochairs of the seven subcommittees—about 50 individuals in all—made up the second gatekeeper, the Planning and Action Committee (PAC). The PAC judged which projects were appropriate for general obligation bond funding, decided what was most likely to pass, and established a balance among the proposals. To someone following the entire process, it would have appeared that the PAC was compelled less by the subcommittee reports than by its own preconceptions about what projects the region needed most. In fact, Dick Page, Forward Thrust’s program coordinator, wrote a confidential letter outlining his concerns to Ellis and the executive director, Bud Donahue. Page was afraid that the PAC members would not read the committee reports, much less pore through the supporting materials. Because many on the PAC had not participated on any of the subcommittees, Page worried, they might have little sympathy or understanding of the work leading up to the reports. Finally, Page—noting the composition of the PAC—was apprehensive that a preference for transportation and storm sewers would overwhelm community renewal projects and parks.54 Though Page’s second concern turned out to be unwarranted, the PAC review did tend to transform subcommittee recommendations into proposals that more closely matched speeches by Ellis and others about what Seattle needed most, and the resulting projects resembled those that had been on local government drawing boards for some time.[55] No matter the criteria, the process must have seemed draconian to the subcommittee members. Altogether, over $4 billion worth of projects emerged from these committees. Forward Thrust ultimately asked voters to approve 12 measures totaling $820 million and made a point of how stringent the Committee of 200 had been in limiting the requests.[56]

Rapid transit topped the list. Though Ellis was quite serious in his request for a broad and coordinated program of public works, this was the initiative dearest to his heart. Seattle traffic had been increasing by 4 percent a year. Traffic congestion was growing acute during the morning and afternoon commutes.[57] While some members of Forward Thrust, notably the head of the Rapid Transit Committee, wanted more roads and enhancement of the bus system, most agreed with Ellis about mass transit. The plan that would be offered to voters was only in outline form, with maps of rail lines radiating out from downtown Seattle northeast to Shoreline, northwest to Greenwood, and southeast to Renton (but with just a dedicated bus lane to West Seattle). One extension crossed Lake Washington to the Eastside. The transit system would be expensive: $1.15 billion. But two-thirds of that could be paid by a federal grant available through the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (a grant that many insiders were confident Senator Magnuson could help secure for Seattle). King County needed to put up the remaining $385 million in matching funds.[58] That made transit the largest single item on the ballot.

Ellis knew from the beginning that including a multipurpose stadium in the Forward Thrust package would draw voters to the polls. A stadium issue had been submitted twice before in the 1960s, but had lost. Little study was necessary to determine that $40 million was the amount to ask of voters. The subcommittee predicted the state’s allocation of hotel-motel tax revenue to help pay off the bonds should put it over the top.[59]

The Parks and Recreation Committee expressed fervor for open space to ameliorate urban sprawl—a hallmark of the quality-of-life liberal agenda. It proposed adding 70,000 new acres of protected green space between Everett (to the north of Seattle) and Tacoma (to the south) at a cost of over $600 million. After its proposals were trimmed a couple of times, it settled for a $118 million request to develop 11 new parks, improve 7 others, purchase waterfront property, build swimming pools, and help fund an aquarium.[60] Forward Thrust also backed a successful separate state referendum for $40 million devoted to parks and recreation.

Though it was criticized for neglecting social programs, Forward Thrust gave attention to bricks-and-mortar assistance to underserved communities. The Forward Thrust Health, Safety, and Welfare Committee determined that federal grants from the Great Society were addressing a number of the needs it found among the urban poor; and, in any case, it did not receive many requests for Forward Thrust assistance. Nevertheless, the subcommittee came up with a number of suggestions that did not pass muster with the PAC, proposing, for example, that Forward Thrust provide ongoing coordination for publicly provided social services. Kindly but firmly, Donahue reiterated that Forward Thrust would no longer exist after the election.[61] The subcommittee lobbied for $400,000 to measure air pollution, an endeavor that was ultimately declared an operating expense; non–Forward Thrust funds were found to carry it out. The subcommittee also called for $2.5 million for mental health facilities, $6 million for health and social service centers, and $5 million for community centers. These items were consolidated with the Culture and Entertainment Committee’s request for recreational centers, producing a proposal for 11 multipurpose community centers to serve all of these needs. Combined with $10 million to improve Seattle Center, the request came to $26.3 million.[62] It is not clear whether the Health, Safety, and Welfare Committee initiated requests for fire stations and a youth service center (so that children waiting to be put in foster care or group homes could be housed separately from juvenile offenders), but by their final report a request for $6.2 million for fire stations and $6.1 million for the youth center had appeared. Both made the final list of bond issues.[63]

Early on in their deliberations, the Urban Redevelopment Committee determined that local funds had already been set aside for preservation efforts at Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square and matched by a federal grant, so Forward Thrust sidestepped a potential disagreement over whether the two historic sites should be restored or remodeled. Urged on by Ellis and urban planning experts and officials, the committee turned instead to neighborhood improvement (with a $20 million recommendation to improve infrastructure in blighted areas) and to work along Seattle’s waterfront (a $4 to $5 million recommendation). The waterfront proposal did not make the cut, and the neighborhood improvement work was scaled down to $12 million.[64] Seattle voters would also be asked to endorse $3 million more for a housing land bank, an innovative revolving fund. The city of Seattle would use the $3 million to purchase property in run-down neighborhoods; it would then sell the property to contractors, who would redevelop the blighted areas into more adequate low-cost housing. The proceeds from the sale to builders would replenish the fund.[65]

Forward Thrust did not neglect basic infrastructure needs. It would request $68 million for separating storm water from sanitary sewers to keep the wastewater plants from overflowing during storms. Another $70 million would go to Seattle sewer improvements. For construction and improvement of arterials, which included funding for lighting, signals, and beautification, $81.6 million went on the ballot.[66]

The total request for $820 million was a significant amount. The Economic Analysis Committee had pared the total down as much as it could, but Forward Thrust officials were aware that it challenged the debt capacity of the governments and the willingness of the voters to pay higher property taxes. Part of the argument for Forward Thrust was that the local economy was strong and growing. Homeowners would be able to pay off the debt with increasing ease. (As it turned out, the Puget Sound area in the 1970s would experience one of the toughest economic downturns since the Great Depression.) Economists estimated that King County and Seattle would be stretched to about 85 percent of their newly increased bonding capacities; to keep it that low, bonds would have to be issued incrementally and some would require a 40-year maturity period—the new outer limit set by the legislature.[67]

The vote was set for February 1968. The campaign started in the fall of 1967, with Forward Thrust making the 12 projects and their costs public. Forward Thrust’s arguments and figures were meant to reassure citizens that this grand venture was being approached with caution, and to put the fiscally prudent at ease. If every issue passed, a Seattleite, who would be helping to fund both the city and the county levies, would pay about $45 more in taxes annually on a $20,000 house (about an average house price in 1967). Moreover, local homeowners would still be paying lower property taxes than their peers in similarly sized cities in Oregon, California, Colorado, and Minnesota.[68] If these reassurances were not enough, then that average homeowner needed to remember it would never be cheaper to accomplish all of these projects. And now was the time to spend, because the federal government would add millions to the pot if the local government was willing to provide the ante.

In the end, the final slate of issues was more carefully orchestrated by Ellis, his colleagues, and the politicians than Forward Thrust would have liked to admit. In Progressive style, experts and efficiency prevailed over grassroots imagination and strident critics had no voice. But when the focus shifts from what might have been done—such as generating social programs aimed at economic redress—to what was actually proposed, Forward Thrust must be rated a dramatic step in urban planning. These projects, at least those that voters approved, really did prepare Puget Sound for an influx of population without destroying the ambience of the region. Forward Thrust was a quality-of-life liberal’s ideal. And the Economic Analysis Committee, struggling to come up with a cost-benefit equation to quantify their efforts, employed quality-of-life language to describe the vision: Forward Thrust “will create substantial economic and social benefits, even though it is very difficult to put a specific value on benefits such as the aesthetic quality of green space in urban areas, the value of clean air and water, or the social values available at the community centers.”[69]

It was a big project and an expensive one. It would take a herculean effort to sell it to the voters. The temptation to offer Forward Thrust as a major integrated undertaking to be voted up or down as one piece must have been great, especially for Ellis, who tended to think in terms of coordinated approaches, but it would have been risky. If the voters’ glass was half-full, they would approve a complete package to ensure that their favorite programs would be funded. But if it was half-empty, voters would reject the whole program because they opposed one or two of its elements. When it came to taxes, the more pessimistic assumption was a safer bet. Consequently, the Forward Thrust ballot presented 12 separate funding items. Six were King County issues, five were limited to Seattle voters only, and one was a Metro item. There was also a nonmonetary administrative issue related to transit.[70] Though several cities, such as Toronto, Kansas City, and Phoenix, had proposed multiple issue packages, no other effort had spanned three governmental agencies, as this one did, at least according to the Seattle Times.[71] Still, Forward Thrust members viewed it as a unified plan and worked hard to convince the voters to support every measure. Members of the Committee of 200 were eager to persuade residents to be as selfless as they perceived themselves to be as they constructed the plan. An internal report reveals their hopes:

The opera lovers, swimmers, golfers, boaters, walkers or sit-and-watchers are each a numerical minority of the population. In recommending a balanced cultural and recreation program, the committee is seeking to create opportunities for fulfillment for all of the people of the county. The achievement of a great community will rest on the willingness of each citizen to consider and support public improvements which will serve the special needs or wants of others.[72]

Though rapid transit was the compelling issue for Ellis and most of the top leaders of Forward Thrust, the stadium would be the magnet that pulled people to the voting booth. In preelection polls, the stadium issue had the sixth-highest yes vote (50 percent) but also the highest no vote (36 percent). The American League had promised Seattle an expansion baseball team if an arena was approved. For the good of sports in Seattle, and probably for the good of Forward Thrust’s campaign momentum, the owners of the Seattle Pilots—the expansion team and the prime beneficiaries should the stadium vote pass—got busy. The baseball luminaries Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski came to town to promote the vote, and the American League president Joe Cronin promised local service clubs that with a place to play, Seattle was guaranteed a permanent team.[73]

Generating a positive response to the $40 million stadium bond was important, but there was much more to the election effort. Realizing the magnitude of their task, advocates spent more money on the campaign than had supporters of any bond vote in the history of Seattle and King County up to that time.[74] Thomas Bolger headed the get-out-the-vote effort. The Public Information Committee hired an ad agency to create a two-color, 16-page brochure. Radio and television ads ran the last 10 days before the election. The Face-to-Face Committee organized a speakers bureau and blanketed organizations with letters asking for a chance to present the Forward Thrust program. More than six hundred groups responded. A speaker was often accompanied by a listener who judged the receptiveness of the audience. The Mailing Committee sent out different editions of Forward Thrust Facts tailored to the interests of each neighborhood. The Neighborhood Committee recruited 3,000 doorbell ringers who visited 100,000 homes in King County. The campaign concentrated on the regions of the city and county that were most likely to be favorably disposed to Forward Thrust’s proposals.[75]

Rather than bogging down the public in the details of each initiative, speakers, mailings, and solicitors concentrated their message on the problems that Forward Thrust was organized to solve, emphasizing, as always, the need to prepare for the massive influx of people—and cars—into Puget Sound over the next decades. There was some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting as well. Dorm Braman wrote to the county prosecutor, Charles O. Carroll, suggesting they get together to head off any negative ads that their mutual “good friends” (unnamed) might try to publish.[76]

Though the Times and the P-I showed little interest during Forward Thrust’s deliberations, both endorsed the project and both supported it with question-and-answer sections that ran for a month before the vote. Editorials in the two dailies took up similar themes: the Forward Thrust program was an “orderly, prudent blueprint for the future.”[77] It was a balanced program that would serve all communities and was a necessity if the Puget Sound region wanted to avoid urban sprawl and maintain its character. More specifically, the papers emphasized that the stadium was not a subsidy to some future sports team. It would generate revenue and be used for a variety of events. Deflecting a criticism that would emerge more strongly after the election, the Times pointed out that the relatively impoverished Central District would directly benefit from at least five of the proposals, particularly the revolving fund for housing improvement and the construction of a fire station in the neighborhood. The weekly Argus, always more skeptical, endorsed the issues after a close study convinced the editor that growth was inevitable and that, without Forward Thrust, Seattle would be on its way to becoming another Los Angeles. The Helix, a countercultural newspaper edited by Walt Crowley (who would later soften his radicalism and become a pillar of mainstream Seattle politics), simply dismissed Forward Thrust as sugarcoating for a terminally diseased system that needed a complete reorganization.[78]

Endorsements flowed from at least 150 organizations, including the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, the King County Labor Council, and William Jenkins, Seattle First National Bank chairman, who bought a half-page ad. Twenty-six members of the world’s fair executive committee purchased ad space exhorting Seattle, “Let’s Do It Again.” The teamsters opposed the transit issue, but okayed the youth center, the stadium, and arterial improvements. Governor Evans, Senators Magnuson and Jackson, both congressmen from the region, and 75 percent of the King County delegation to the state legislature supported the measures.[79]

Though people who opposed the slate of issues risked censure in the community, there were those who spoke out against it. Jeanette Williams, chair of the King County Democratic Party and later a city council member, was among several who believed that James Ellis would profit from the sale of bonds. Critics also noted Ellis was legal counsel for Metro, and Metro would run the transit system.[80] In a similar vein, some citizens saw the whole Forward Thrust membership and its program as elitist. An anonymous cartoon captioned “Why do they want it so much?” displayed a band of greedy bankers, real-estate agents, politicians, attorneys, and stockbrokers. On the flip side was a drawing of a home­owner with a giant screw labeled “Forward Thrust” through his midsection.[81] The bulk of questions phoned in to a local PBS broadcast of a Forward Thrust forum expressed concern over property taxes and higher rents, and indicated a general distrust. Callers wondered just who these Forward Thrust people were.[82] Rapid transit, the centerpiece of the program, was the most expensive issue and garnered the most criticism. Vic Gould, a real-estate promoter, organized Citizens for Sensible Transit to oppose the Forward Thrust mass transportation proposal, advocating instead high-speed buses traveling on expressways. He also criticized the committee for working a power play on behalf of Seattle’s elite. Joining him in his opposition was the state senator Sam Guess from Spokane, chairman of the senate transportation committee, and members of the state highway commission who believed the transit initiative was 20 years premature.[83]

Opponents of Forward Thrust feared higher taxes, rents, and other costs if the initiatives passed, as evidenced by the bumper sticker pictured above.

In 1932, at the nadir of the Great Depression, Washington property owners, fearing they would be unable to pay their property taxes, put a law into place that required a 60 percent approval and a voter turnout of at least 40 percent of the last general election for any significant bond issue.[84] This supermajority requirement made passing the Forward Thrust issues all the more democratic and considerably more challenging. Though Forward Thrust leaders had decided early on not to present the issues as one, part of the strategy of putting an array of bond measures on the ballot was to bring out a sufficient number of voters. Their hope was that people, once in the booth, would pull the “approve” lever for each proposal.

Tuesday, February 13, 1968, was exceptionally balmy, and the voters came out in droves. It was the largest turnout for a special election in Washington State history—around 50 percent of the eligible voters in King County made their way to the polls. Every one of the measures received more than 50 percent of the vote, but only 7 out of the 12 earned the requisite 60 percent. The voters approved the youth service center at almost 73 percent. The stadium received 62 percent of the vote. Voters also endorsed the fire protection, parks and recreation, and sewer, arterial highway, and neighborhood improvement measures. The losers included storm water control (receiving 59.6 percent), community centers, low-income housing, and three maintenance shops that would have consolidated repair services for city vehicles. The biggest disappointment was the centerpiece issue, rapid transit. It was the least popular of all the measures, receiving only 50.9 percent of the vote.[85]

A study of voting precincts reveals that high-income neighborhoods most strongly supported Forward Thrust. Low-income voters were almost as enthusiastic, voting largely in support of the measures. African American areas were more likely to vote yes, exceeding the average vote by anywhere from 2.4 to 16.2 percentage points depending on the issue. Among black voters, the widest divergence in favor came on neighborhood improvement (which passed) and low-income housing (which did not). It was among the working middle class—blue-collar voters, a portion of the middle class that the Committee of 200 did not really represent—that Forward Thrust stumbled. For example, Renton, a working-class area home to many Boeing workers, gave a 60 percent endorsement to only the community centers. Or, in another example: neighborhoods with average incomes of $12,000 or more voted 67 percent in favor of the stadium; precincts with average incomes of $8,000 or less gave it a 65.6 percent approval; and those in the middle of this range just barely endorsed the stadium with a 60.9 percent yes vote.[86] This pattern generally held true for each of the issues.

Figures from Forward Thrust’s own files affirm the precinct study, although low-income neighborhoods do not show quite so much support in data broken down by legislative districts and cities outside Seattle. While all areas endorsed the youth center, low-income families in South Seattle turned down the rest of the programs, often yielding the lowest approval percentages in the county. Rainier Valley, another low-income area, approved only the youth center and the fire stations. The more middle-class West Seattle district did the same.[87]

The precincts that the Forward Thrust committee members came from had higher approval rates than those in the rest of the county. Though it may be restating the point (that is, that well-off neighborhoods were most supportive), this fact also signals a lack of lower-middle-class and blue-collar representation on the committee. In a county replete with skilled Boeing workers, this lack was a strategic error.[88]

In retrospect Ellis and his committee were probably too optimistic in hoping that the public would take a logrolling attitude into the voter’s booth. In selecting the issues for the ballot, committee members had done plenty of horse-trading with one another. But would a voter really be inclined to think, “I will vote for an issue I do not really care about because someone else is supposedly voting for my favorite issue”? It was tempting for Forward Thrust leaders to think of their program as one piece, but with the issues separated on the ballot, it was unlikely that voters would share that perception and simply cast a blanket yes.[89]

The defeat of rapid transit was the most galling to Ellis. Years later he called it his greatest regret. Only Bellevue, Laurelhurst, and central Seattle, which included the neighborhoods along Lake Washington—all wealthy areas—gave transit 60 percent or more of their votes. In South Seattle the transit project received the lowest yes vote of any of the 12 issues anywhere in the region: 32 percent. Opposition to Ellis’s pet project in Renton (only 38 percent voted yes) and Rainier Valley (where 39 percent voted in favor) was almost as strong. Forward Thrust interviews after the election found that voters were concerned about three things: the steep costs, the impact on their taxes, and the uncertainties about obtaining additional funding. Males, people with more education, and those with higher incomes were sources of support. Females, blue-collar workers, and lower-income citizens were more likely to vote no.[90] There is evidence that General Motors had a hand in swaying the public against transit, arguing that an enhanced bus system would serve the region just as well. But the main point was this: the freeways were simply not sufficiently congested to persuade property owners to take on more taxes or for suburbanites to pay to give up their cars.[91]

Ellis had promised to disband Forward Thrust after the election, but Mayor Braman persuaded him and the committee to stage an encore. Between 1968 and 1970, Forward Thrust did it all over again. One hundred more representatives from Seattle and King County joined the committee, making the total 300. Businesses chipped in $100,000 to keep things going. Meeting followed meeting. Committee members met with organizations throughout Puget Sound. Focusing on the five failed issues from the first election, the committee once again analyzed needs, weighed projects, and came up with just over $615 million worth of propositions. More than anything, rapid transit motivated Ellis to give it another try. This time the price tag for rapid transit was $440 million, but the exciting news was that Senator Magnuson had secured almost $1 billion of federal monies to match the bond funds for a transit system.[92] There would be 49 miles of grade-separated track and 34 stations running between Lake City in the north and Renton in the south, between Seattle and Bellevue along Highway 520 across the Evergreen Point Bridge, and between downtown Seattle and Mercer Island along Interstate 90. Ninety-five percent of metropolitan Seattle would be within a quarter mile of the route. Trains would be running by 1976, and the project would be finished by 1985.[93]

Community centers also made a second appearance. The cost similarly rose, from $26.3 million to $55.3 million, with funds added for libraries (4 additional centers, making 24 total) and an upgrade of Seattle Center.[94] The request for storm water facilities was renewed, up by $12 million to $80 million—because of inflation and a growing population. Public safety and health was a new category at $40.2 million. Spurred by a 47 percent jump in crime over the previous two years, Forward Thrust proposed a regional detention center (county jail) and several rehabilitation centers, including a facility on Yesler Way near Pioneer Square (Skid Road). The committee decided that a special levy, not general obligation bonds, was appropriate to fund low-income housing, so that issue fell by the wayside.[95]

Just as the May 1970 Election Day came into view, Boeing and, inevitably, Seattle slid into a severe recession. The writers of the introduction to the report explaining Forward Thrust’s new initiatives in 1969 may have recognized the coming economic challenges. The original 1968 report had described Boeing as the economic engine that drove Seattle and featured a photograph of a Boeing assembly plant on its cover. Now there was a bank vault on the cover of Forward Thrust’s new report. The booklet described Seattle as the finance, business, and shipping center of the Pacific Northwest. By 1970 Forward Thrust was presenting its measures as an economic stimulus. Another Forward Thrust publication promised careful supervision of all projects to make sure there was no overspending. Organization officials knew they were in trouble, but they soldiered on, meeting with a wide variety of groups to get the message out.[96]

There was another serious drag on the campaign. The decision process to find a location for the new stadium had become a fiasco, and the Pilots, the team that was supposed to occupy the stadium, had decamped for Milwaukee. This all weighed upon a voting populace always a little leery of large public projects. The Boeing aeromechanics union and the King County Labor Council joined antitax groups to oppose Forward Thrust.[97] The difficult campaign affected Ellis. Stomach problems had constantly troubled him, and now they put him in the hospital. Forward Thrust more or less drifted into the May 19 election and suffered a resounding loss. Only one of the issues, public safety, got even a 50 percent approval.[98] In a time of high unemployment, the idea of higher taxes was a nonstarter. Blue-collar Seattle, mainly folks from Boeing who were substantially unemployed, was even less enthusiastic than in 1968. Ellis had expected it, and an unnamed observer, bitter (and overreacting), declared, “Seattle has always been called a provincial town—now it’s gone and proved it.”[99]

It was not all bad. The momentum for Forward Thrust had dissipated during the Boeing recession, but the impact of the first election was just being felt in 1970. By 1971 Forward Thrust had completed 110 of 370 proposed projects, though at some cost. Nationally, inflation had set in, lifting interest rates on Forward Thrust bonds above what had been anticipated.[100] There were cost overruns, sometimes massive ones. Steel Lake Park in Federal Way, projected at $196,000, cost $425,000 to complete. The price for Medgar Evers Pool doubled to $1.07 million. The Lincoln Park project had almost tripled to $913,000 by 1971.[101] But as administrators made adjustments on the fly and as bond money that had not yet been spent yielded revenue from those same high interest rates, Forward Thrust went on buying land, building, and finding matching funds. By 1980 Forward Thrust had sold all its bonds and completed over 80 percent of its projects. A partial list reads like a latter-day Works Progress Administration inventory. In 10 years Forward Thrust had acquired 4,776 acres of parkland and 53 miles of waterfront, built the Seattle Aquarium, finished the Kingdome, acted as a catalyst for improvements at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and provided the research for the state’s creation of an enhanced county bus transit system under the aegis of Metro.[102] These projects, together with the construction of the youth service center and fire stations, street paving and improved lighting, and the installation of sewers, contributed 22,811 man-years of jobs (that is, enough jobs to put more than 22,000 to work for a year) in a struggling economy.[103] The cost to service and retire the bonds was significant, but not excessive. Property owners’ tax payments, on the average, were 10 to 15 percent greater than Forward Thrust leaders predicted in 1968. But even then for a homeowner of an average house worth $21,500 in 1971, Forward Thrust cost $30.61 a year.[104] Residents may not have gotten a bargain, exactly, but Seattle and King County did receive substantial benefits.

James Ellis had overseen a remarkable city-building effort. A man of holistic vision, he and Forward Thrust sought to address the needs of the entire county and a wide array of interests. They accomplished much. The supermajority rule made it difficult to pass any measure, and five issues were rejected, but Forward Thrust achieved better than a 50 % success rate. Yet Ellis was still a frustrated man in 1971, because rapid transit, which was the main reason he had put together Forward Thrust in the first place, had failed. The dismaying traffic jams that could have pushed the issue over the top were still in the future. Ellis was farseeing, and despite herculean efforts he and his group were not able to convince homeowners that an easier commute in 10 or 15 years was worth the added taxes.

The fate of Forward Thrust was not unique. The historian Adam Rome notes that urban voters endorsed quality-of-life liberal measures only “when convenient and inexpensive.”[105] But there was the added burden of the old-style Progressive ideals that were wearing thin. True, the whole Forward Thrust program rested on the right of the public to determine the future of their region. But Ellis and his group of reformers were very much the gatekeepers for any plans. The committee, because of its makeup, skewed the vision of Forward Thrust toward the wealthier parts of the population. It focused on the needs of downtown more than those of Seattle’s neighborhoods or the outlying cities in King County, which may have been more interested in growth than ambience, anyway. And restricting itself to capital improvements meant the Forward Thrust program would substantially neglect the racial and economic issues that were just then emerging as priorities of reform. Though Forward Thrust made ostensible efforts at consulting the public, most of that public—voters who would make the final decision—did not have much of a say on which measures reached the ballot. The result was that not enough citizens felt a sense of ownership of the program. The persistent Progressive ideals that informed, even impelled, a remarkably modern reform campaign were at least partly responsible for the shortfall of the best hopes of Ellis and his team.

William H. Mullins is history professor emeritus at Oklahoma Baptist University. He lives in Federal Way, Washington. In 2013 the University of Washington Press published his book Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots, and Stadium Politics.



1.     Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan for King County, pt. 1: Background (Seattle, 1967), 5, 170. Copies of all published Forward Thrust documents can be found in the University of Washington (UW) Libraries, Seattle.
2.     Robert David Wilkinson, “Forward Thrust,” M.A. thesis (University of Washington, 1972), 11.
3.     Roberto Brambilla and Gianni Longo, Learning from Seattle: What Makes Cities Livable? (New York, 1979), 37.
4.     Patrick Douglas, “Building a City: The Ins and Outs of Forward Thrust,” Seattle Magazine, January 1968, p. 30.
5.     John Fischer, “Seattle’s Modern-Day Vigilantes,” Harper’s Magazine, May 1969, p. 14; Wilkinson, 16.
6.     James Ellis, “City Environment Priorities and Capital Investment,” Jan. 21, 1966, Listeners Talk folder, box 3, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records, Special Collections, UW Libraries (qtn.); idem, “Human Environment and Public Investment,” Jan. 21, 1966, in Selected Speeches on Forward Thrust and
February 13, 1968, Election Results
([Seattle, 1968]), 12-14.
7.     Seattle Times, Nov. 3, 1965; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 5, 8, 1965 (hereafter cited as P-I, with appropriate date).
8.     Forward Thrust Question and Answer Mimeograph, n.d., Day File, January 1968 folder, box 2, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
9.     Carl Abbott, The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson, Ariz., 1993), 103.
10.   Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, Eng., 2001), 140. Rome discusses the genesis of quality-of-life liberalism. Middle-class concern for open space was just emerging in a number of locales in the mid to late 1960s. See also Jeffrey Craig Sanders, Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia (Pittsburgh, Pa., 2010), 108-12.
11.   Peter LeSourd, “checc’s Emergence in 1967 as an Agent of Political Change in Seattle,” PNQ, Vol. 100 (2009), 107, 110, 117.
12.   Roger Sale, Seattle, Past to Present (Seattle, 1976), 227, 232; Sanders, 50-64.
13.   Sanders, 80-84, 108-12, 118-23. For changing attitudes toward the military and economic growth around Puget Sound, see Brian G. Casserly, “Puget Sound’s Security Codependency and Western Cold War Histories, 1950-1984,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 80 (2011), 270-71, 279-80.
14.   Determining the nature of Progressivism—or determining whether there was even such a thing as Progressivism—has been a long-standing enterprise. Here are a few sources for that conversation: Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, from Bryan to FDR (New York, 1955); Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York, 1967); Allen F. Davis, Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914 (New York, 1967); Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (New York, 2003); and Maureen A. Flanagan, America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s-1920s (New York, 2007). Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, ed., Who Were the Progressives? Readings (Boston, 2002), and Walter Nugent, Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Eng., 2010), provide helpful overviews of the ongoing debate into the 21st century.
15.   See Richard Berner, Seattle in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1: Seattle, 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Tolerance to Restoration (Seattle, 1991), 117; and Robert E. Ficken and Charles P. LeWarne, Washington: A Centennial History (Seattle, 1988), 80-83.
16.   Abbott, 39-43; Amy Bridges, Morning Glories: Municipal Reform in the Southwest (Princeton, N.J., 1997), 119, 122, 170-72, 210.
17.   “Analysis and Summary of Preliminary Findings,” June 1, 1967, Day File, May 1967 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
18.   Forward Thrust, cover letter to Developing a Capital Improvement Plan for King County, pt. 3: Recommendations (Seattle, 1967).
19.   “Forward Thrust Statement of Purpose,” n.d., Listeners Talk folder, box 3, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
20.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan for King County, pt. 2: Analysis (Seattle, 1967), 51-56.
21.   Ellis, “Human Environment,” 11. The tendency of middle-class Progressives to set aside their traditional individualism for communal action is a prominent theme in McGerr.
22.   James R. Ellis, “Transportation and the Shape of the City,” n.d., in Selected Speeches, 9.
23.   Study City Team, Northwestern University, Seattle: City with a Chance (Seattle, 1968), 35.
24.   Ellis, “Transportation,” 8.
25.   McGerr, 317-18.
26.   Susanne Elaine Vandenbosch, “The 1968 Seattle Forward Thrust Election: An Analysis of Voting on an Ad Hoc Effort to Solve Metropolitan Problems without Metropolitan Government,” Ph.D. dissertation (University of Washington, 1974), 17-19.
27.   James R. Ellis, “Remarks at the First Meeting,” July 28, 1966, in Selected Speeches, 31.
28.   Harold L. Amoss, “Forward Thrust and the Man on the Street,” August 1967, in Selected Speeches, 49.
29.   Draft of speech, n.d., Speakers Bureau folder, box 11, acc. 1707-002, Forward Thrust Records.
30.   “Script for Speakers’ Bureau,” October 1966, Day File through October 1966 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records. See Flanagan, 88-89, and McGerr, 52-53, for comments on “masculine” Progressivism.
31.   See Sanders, chaps. 4 and 5.
32.   Ellis quoted in Philip Herrera, “Megalopolis Comes to the Northwest,” Fortune Magazine, December 1967, p. 194; Rome, 8.
33.   Forward Thrust, inside cover of Forward Thrust Work, 1968-1970: A Report to the Residents of King County, Washington, on the Progress of 370 Forward Thrust Projects ([Seattle, 1970]).
34.   Wilkinson, 70; Seattle: City with a Chance, 35.
35.   Carl Abbott, “Five Strategies for Downtown: Policy Discourse and Planning since 1943,” in Planning the Twentieth-Century American City, ed. Mary Corbin Sies and Christopher Silver (Baltimore, Md., 1986), 409.
36.   Jay Becker to Bill Adams, Nov. 7, 1965, Forward Thrust Program folder, box 4, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records. Abbott points out that as the suburbs of western cities grew, their residents’ interests focused more on economic growth, and thus their interests diverged from those of downtown liberals, who pursued livability. See Abbott, Metropolitan Frontier, 103.
37.   Frederick William Hedges, “The Impact of Forward Thrust on Park Development in Seattle,” M.A. thesis (University of Washington, 1972), 52.
38.   Wilkinson, 15-16.
39.   Ibid., 66, 156; Vandenbosch, 21-23.
40.   Wilkinson, 66; Vandenbosch, 21-24.
41.   Wilkinson, 76-77.
42.   Amoss, 48.
43.   Bennett Feigenbaum to James Ellis, May 9, 1968, folder 13, box 2, Baseball Litigation Records, City of Seattle Law Department, Seattle Municipal Archives; P-I, July 10, 1969.
44.   Ellis quoted in Wilkinson, 19.
45.   “What a Contributor Should Know about Forward Thrust,” n.d., Day File, June 1967 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records; Wilkinson, 25; misc. letters, Firms—Contributions folder, box 12, acc. 1707-002, Forward Thrust Records.
46.   See especially McGerr, xiv-xv, 99-104.
47.   Fischer, 14, 22. In his book The Power Elite (New York, 1956), the sociologist
C. Wright Mills maintains that most of the important decisions that affect America are made by a small network of corporate, political, and military leaders.
48.   Misc. docs, unmarked folder, box 1, acc. 1707-004, Forward Thrust Records; Richard S. Page, “Creating a Place to Live,” July 1967, in Selected Speeches, 45.
49.   James R. Ellis, “Ends and Beginnings,” July 1968, in Selected Speeches, 93-95; “Meeting of Executive Committee,” Oct. 24, 1966, Day File through October 1966 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
50.   James R. Ellis, “Thrust toward Quality,” National Civic Review, Vol. 58 (February 1969), 75.
51.   “Notes for Jim Ellis,” n.d., December 17 Program Meeting folder, box 3, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records; misc. docs., Subject Study Commission Structure folder, box 2, acc. 1707-004, Forward Thrust Records.
52.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 1:174, 182-88; “Financial Resources and Legislative Goals,” n.d., December 17 Program Meeting folder, box 3, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records; Vandenbosch, 35.
53.   Wilkinson, 45; Hedges, 54.
54.   Dick Page to Ellis and Bud Donahue, March 20, 1967, Day File, March 1967 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
55.   Wilkinson, 47.
56.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 1:172-73; idem, Forward Thrust Progress Report ([Seattle], 1980), 2.
57.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 1:33-34, 2:144.
58.   “The Rapid Transit Plan for the Metropolitan Seattle Area,” n.d., unmarked folder, box 9, and “Report of Transportation-Transit Committee,”
April 17, 1967, Day File, April 1967 folder, box 1, both in acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
59.   See William H. Mullins, Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots, and Stadium Politics (Seattle, 2013), chap. 5, for a full discussion of the stadium issue.
60.   Rome, 122-26, 131; Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 3:26, 2:69, 99.
61.   Donahue to Page, April 10, 1967, Day File, April 1967 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
62.   “July 1, 1967, Status Report: Health, Safety, Welfare Committee,” Economic Analysis Committee Preliminary Draft folder, box 11, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records; “Report of Health, Safety, Welfare Committee,” n.d., Health, Safety, Welfare folder, box 2, acc. 1707-004, Forward Thrust Records; Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 3:15-16.
63.   “Report of Health, Safety, Welfare Committee,” n.d., Day File, September 1967 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
64.   “Report of Urban Development Committee,” n.d., Urban Redevelopment Follow-up folder, box 3, acc. 1707-004, Forward Thrust Records.
65.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 2:185.
66.   Ibid., 2:53.
67.   Ibid., 2:25, 37, 3:56.
68.   Ibid., 2:35; “Report of Economic Analysis Committee,” Aug. 23, 1967, Day File, August 1967 folder, box 1, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
69.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 2:37.
70.   Ibid., 2:206.
71.   Times, Feb. 11, 1968.
72.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 3:62.
73.   John Kraft Survey of Seattle Bond Issue, Feb. 2, 1968, folder 3, box 1, Washington v. American League, Northwest Regional Branch, Washington State Archives, Bellingham; Mullins, 81-82.
74.   Wilkinson, 25, 94.
75.   Vandenbosch, 52; Bruce Baker to Tom Bolger, Dec. 11, 1967, and R. Mort Frayn and Lyman Block to “Neighborhood Chairmen and Vice Chairmen,”
Dec. 11, 1967, both in County Campaign Organization folder, box 3, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
76.   Dorm Braman to Charles O. Carroll, Feb. 1, 1968, folder 13, box 2, Baseball Litigation Files.
77.   Times, Feb. 11, 1968.
78.   Times, Jan. 23, 30, 1968; P-I, Feb. 11, 1968; Argus, Dec. 22, 1967; Helix, Jan. 25, 1968.
79.   Times, Feb. 11, 1968; P-I, Feb. 4, 1968; Vandenbosch, 52, 63.
80.   Vandenbosch, 105; Hedges, 58-59.
81.   Cartoon, n.d., County Campaign Organization folder, box 3, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
82.   Misc. docs., Campaign Literature folder, box 1, acc. 1707-004, Forward Thrust Records.
83.   Memorandum to “Fellow Thrusters,”
Feb. 1, 1968, Day File, February 1968 folder, box 2, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
84.   Mullins, 46-47.
85.   Vandenbosch, 66; Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan for King County, pt. 4: Analysis and Recommendations—1970 (Seattle, 1970), 7-9.
86.   Vandenbosch, 85, 92, 125.
87.   “Rain/Storm Water Control Meeting Summary,” Oct. 5, 1968, Utilities Report 10/68 folder, box 11, acc. 1707-001, Forward Thrust Records.
88.   Vandenbosch, 109, 143; Seattle: City with a Chance, 36-38.
89.   Vandenbosch, 146, 149.
90.   James R. Ellis, interview by author,
May 19, 2008, Seattle; “Rain/Storm Water Control Meeting Summary”; “Summary Report Public Transportation Meeting,” Sept. 14, 1968, Day File, November–December 1968 folder, box 4, acc. 1707-002, Forward Thrust Records.
91.   P-I, Feb. 10, 1976.
92.   Matthew Klingle, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (New Haven, Conn., 2007), 235.
93.   Merry, Calvo, Lane, and Baker, The 1970 Forward Thrust Bond Issues Press Book ([Seattle], 1970), 8; “Overtaxed Inc. of the Eastside—Answers,” May 8, 1970, Transit Project Review Committee, 1970 folder, box 3, acc. 1707-002, Forward Thrust Records.
94.   “Pressbook for 1970,” unmarked folder, box 4, acc. 1707-002, Forward Thrust Records.
95.   Forward Thrust, Developing a Capital Improvement Plan, 4:148, 162; “Forward Thrust General Speech: Public Safety,” n.d., 1, Junk folder, box 11, acc. 1707-002, Forward Thrust Records.
96.   Forward Thrust, The Forward Thrust Program, rev. ed. (Seattle, 1969); “Forward Thrust General Speech: Introduction,” n.d., 2, Junk folder, box 11, acc. 1707-002, Forward Thrust Records; Merry, Calvo, Lane, and Baker, 17-28.
97.   P-I, May 18, 1970.
98.   “Vote Comparisons, 1968 and 1970 Elections,” n.d., Correspondence folder, box 2, acc. 2146-002, James R. Ellis Papers, Spec. Colls., UW Libraries.
99.   P-I, May 20, 1970.
100.  Forward Thrust, Forward Thrust Work, 1968-1972: A Report to the Residents of King County, Washington, on the Progress of Forward Thrust Projects ([Seattle, 1972]), 2.
101.  Forward Thrust, Forward Thrust Work, 1968-1970, n.p.
102.  Forward Thrust, Forward Thrust Progress Report, 1-2, 6-10, 22, 24.
103.  Ibid., 31.
104.  Forward Thrust, Forward Thrust Progress Report, 1973 ([Seattle, 1973]), 3.
105.  Rome, 12.



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Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest