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Will the next Jim Ellis please step forward?

Seattle’s most prolific civic crusader is 92. He no longer drives, so we talked city history this week at his kitchen table. To meet this humble visionary is to receive a windfall of wisdom.

Seattle attorney and civic leader Jim Ellis at home on Aug. 21, 2013. (Photo by Thanh Tan)
Seattle attorney and civic leader Jim Ellis at home on Aug. 21, 2013. (Photo by Thanh Tan)

Ellis has played a vital role in shaping our region’s heritage, from the cleanup of Lake Washington in the 1950s to the formation of Metro and founding of “Forward Thrust,” a series of bold bond measures in 1968 that created the Kingdome, parks and trails, public swimming pools, fire departments, sewage districts, neighborhood improvement, arterial highways and a youth service center. In the 1980s, he led efforts to develop the convention center in downtown Seattle. By the 1990s, Ellis was still active, helping to create the Mountains to Sound Greenway.

“I don’t like the ‘I’ word,” he says emphatically throughout our two-hour visit. All those efforts “were very much a committee thing. It’s fascinating to see how everything we’ve undertaken, when we had far-sided leadership — and were willing to pay for the bill — has met expectations and is serving us well today.”

How did this private man — an attorney who never ran for or held office — manage to shape Seattle in such lasting and profound ways?

“A lot of work and sensitive listening,” he responds. “Citizens have the capacity to do things. They don’t have to be officials.”

(Ellis also credits his late wife, Mary Lou, and their children for tolerating his civic schedule.)

The “Forward Thrust” initiative, for instance, brought together 200 community members. Ellis says stakeholders met regularly to hash out their differences and to find compromise. Though voters passed seven of 12 “Forward Thrust” bond measures in 1968, they rejected an effort to build a regional rapid transit system. Federal funds that would have paid for 90 percent of the project, Ellis remembers with disappointment, went to Atlanta.

We’ve been stuck with a piecemeal approach to transportation projects ever since.

“The truth is we couldn’t afford not to do it,” he says. “If we’d done it in 1968 as a complete system, it would have been paid for by now and the basic system would have been in place twenty years ago, and far more extensive than what we have now.”

I asked him what he thinks of Metro’s latest struggles to maintain public transit routes in the face of a pending budget shortfall. Ellis says he doesn’t keep up with headlines like he used to, but he still believes transportation must be viewed through a bipartisan lens  — and focused on long-term goals.

Seattle attorney and civic leader Jim Ellis, and his son, Bob, a newly retired teacher. (Photo by Thanh Tan)
Seattle attorney and civic leader Jim Ellis, and his son, Bob, a newly retired teacher. (Photo by Thanh Tan)

He reminded me that Republicans like former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton and former Gov. Dan Evans were champions of the “Forward Thrust” movement. They didn’t resent taxpayer-subsidized projects that served the public good.

Contrast that agenda with some of the most ideological, anti-tax lawmakers serving today in the Washington Legislature; many of whom refuse to support a transportation funding package that would give King County voters a chance to decide whether they want to raise their own taxes to preserve Metro bus routes. Those same lawmakers oppose federal funding to replace the Columbia River Crossing bridge on I-5 if it includes light rail. They’ve not been swayed, either, by pleas for action from a rare coalition of business, union and environmental leaders.

Are we being short-sighted yet again? I’d hate to see us look back 45 years from now with the same wistful expression that appears on Ellis’ face every time he recounts how voters passed up the opportunity to build a world-class, rapid transit system to compete with New York City and Washington, D.C.

“When you put it all together it seems so obvious in hindsight. How come we didn’t do it?” he asks, before answering his own question. “Foresight is kind of tricky, because you’re not sure what’s going to happen. People are more inclined to assume the worse.”

True that. A lifetime of active citizenship tells me a visionary like Jim Ellis understands better than most what it takes to change a city and a region for the better.

I left our conversation with big questions:

  • How do we define “Forward Thrust” in the 21st Century?
  • What must we do to ensure Seattle is the best place to live and work?
  • Who is the next Jim Ellis?

Let’s start a conversation. Leave a comment or email me at I’m also on Twitter @uscthanhtan.