If you saw the obituaries and appreciations for George Duff in the past week, you would be forgiven for wondering “George who?” George Duff was one of the most influential figures in the Seattle region in the Post-World War II era but was mostly invisible.
Your perplexity would have been just fine with him. George knew what power and influence were and how to build and exercise them, and he also knew that none of that had anything to do with his personal visibility. As president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce (1968-95), George knew that influence came from the Chamber’s ability to mobilize the business community and to contribute in positive ways to civic leadership and the policy process.
I had the privilege of working under George for eight years, from 1987 until his retirement in 1995. Most of what I know about civic leadership and organizational management I learned from him, and I count myself among the many lucky people who benefitted from his very generous mentorship.
Here are some of the major initiatives where George played a central role: the I-90 bridge, Washington State Convention Center, saving the Mariners, bringing cruise ships to the waterfront, the third runway at Sea-Tac. But a smaller project that I remember vividly clearly illustrates the George Duff way: the low-level West Seattle Bridge (yes, the one in the news today).
When I joined the Chamber one of my assignments was to staff the Maritime Committee, which, at that moment, was in full lather over a proposed scheme by Mayor Charles Royer to cancel construction of the new swing bridge over the Duwamish, rehab the existing bascule bridge, and use the difference as money for other projects. But rehabbing the existing bridge would have frozen the width of the waterway at 150 feet, far narrower than ships and barges need to safely move up and down the river.
Chuck Holland, from Jones Stevedoring, assembled a formidable array of waterway users (guys you don’t want to mess with). We developed a detailed case for the new bridge and began to lean on the council to scrap Royer’s plan and go ahead with the new bridge. We started with just one vote on the council (Jeanette Williams) and ended up winning by an 8-1 margin. Royer was not happy when he thought he was going to lose, and called his friend George Duff, hoping he might call off the dogs. George just smiled and enjoyed a small, but important victory.
Here are a few lessons about the George Duff style:
Be the convenor. Literally, call the meetings, provide the room, make the coffee, write the agenda and the minutes, do the research. Be the physical place where people come, and, most importantly, do the grunt work. No one leads by just going to other people’s meetings.
Empower your committees and staff. George was only minimally involved in this effort, but the process had his stamp of approval, and the committee and staff knew he would back up their efforts. I never once worried that a call from the Mayor would get the rug pulled out from under us.
Bring out big guns when you need them. For a key council hearing we dragged John Fluke Jr. down to City Hall, to testify for the Chamber. Having a senior business leader represent the organization sends an important message. George made sure that the senior businesspeople in his orbit understood their obligation to represent the Chamber.
George was doubtlessly unaware that his style of civic leadership was fully in line with the prevailing academic view of how large cities are governed successfully: something called urban regime theory. Regime theory says that cities are led by a semi-permanent coalition of public and private actors, and that this elite group is open to individuals and groups based on two requirements. First, to be part of the coalition you must agree to the coalition’s agenda—outsiders need not apply. Second, you must contribute meaningful resources to the pursuit of that agenda.
Both of these requirements came naturally to George. The two major programs he started—Intercity Visits and the Puget Sound Leadership Conference—were central to the Chamber’s ability to have a firm place in the governing regime. The trips and conferences shaped the civic agenda, and the act of putting them on (huge undertakings) constituted an important contribution by the Chamber to the furtherance of the agenda.
At the same time, George never let the Chamber’s convening, Kumbaya role get in the way of advocacy for the business community. He made sure the Chamber was a strong advocate for tax and regulatory policies that would be good for business. He also knew that the councilmember on the receiving end of the Chamber’s wrath over some decision would happily get on the Chamber’s next plane.
Above all, George Duff understood that few interest groups have real residual power: influence is always contingent and must be earned. It was the hard work of the Chamber’s convening and educational roles that gave it the clout to get its way every once in a while.
As George approached retirement the civic landscape was changing dramatically. We had fewer major local businesses and leaders with local roots. In the 1980s Seattle was still run by a bunch of Huskies and graduates of the Warren Magnuson machine. Now it’s not obvious who runs anything, and the goodwill that fueled the George Duff style is in short supply.
Seattle’s urban regime has been dysfunctional for a couple of decades, and it is not clear it could ever be rebuilt into the effective leadership model of the Uhlman-Royer-Rice-Duff era. But until a better model comes along, we can still apply the lessons of that era: think big, be friendly, be focused, and pour the coffee.