Why There Won’t Be Another Jim Ellis

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The Forward Thrust logo, 1968

The Seattle Times has just published an editorial praising Jim Ellis, the extraordinary civic leader who died this past week, and speculating on the chances for an Ellis 2.0.

The editorial wrote: “Such leadership is needed for issues like saving salmon runs and ensuring communities have adequate drinking water, former Gov. Gary Locke warns. ‘Perhaps out of this bitter political climate we find ourselves in, maybe it will prompt a group of people to come together to be the next Jim Ellis,’ he said, adding that ‘it could take four or five people to equal the vision, tenacity, commitment and vision of Jim Ellis.’”

Not likely. Activists today are too suspicious of the Ellis style of gathering the key power players, mostly white males in those days, and wary of people in power, especially business leaders (which was Ellis’s stock in trade). All it takes to sink big plans is for one member of the group to have a special interest, as happened when Paul Allen advanced the money so the advocates for a Seattle Commons could buy the land at affordable prices. (Or for that matter, for Amazon to join other reform-minded interests in trying to change the cast of the Seattle City Council.) In fairness, Seattle has pulled off one Ellis-scale civic project recently, the Central Waterfront Park replacing the Viaduct — but no one played the Ellis role.

There’s another, related reason these civic days are passed. As it happens I once asked Ellis if it would be possible to have another Forward Thrust, the signature capital-improvements bond issue that Ellis spearheaded. “No way,” he said, “and the reason is the media.” People like Ellis and Eddie Carlson (father of the Seattle World’s Fair) always went to the editors of the editorial pages of the two dailies before going public with their ideas. Once the papers were on board, complicated crusades became possible. (And of course the two papers and three television stations had much more sway in those days before a proliferation of outlets.) Ellis added that a generally adversarial and skeptical media was another adverse factor. (He said this, giving me a steely look!)

One example of the old, top-down method was the birth of the World’s Fair, which was hatched at a famous breakfast at the Olympic Hotel. As the story goes, Ross Cunningham, the power-broker editor of the Seattle Times editorial page, was there and offered to take care of the Seattle City Council. Also present was Cunningham’s counterpart at The P-I, who offered to line up the first legislative dollars. Thus drawn in, the two papers drummed up support and the Fair was born. Ellis knew all this, and he also knew how to enlist key civic organizations such as the Seattle Rotary and the Municipal League.

That was then. That isn’t now. Alas, and not-alas.

“Perhaps out of this bitter political climate we find ourselves in, maybe it will prompt a group of people to come together to be the next Jim Ellis,” he said, adding that “it could take four or five people to equal the vision, tenacity, commitment and vision of Jim Ellis.”

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