“THE ACTION TEAM” Republican ticket I headed as governor in 1968 featured a charismatic former NFL player I fully expected would go on to become Washington’s first Black governor.
After moving to the Tri-Cities to work at the Hanford nuclear site, Arthur Fletcher had organized a community self-help program in East Pasco and won election to the Pasco City Council. He had deep roots in the civil rights movement.
We drafted the initially skeptical Fletcher to take on the incumbent lieutenant governor, Democrat John Cherberg. The other two members of The Action Team, Secretary of State Lud Kramer and Slade Gorton, our nominee for attorney general, were amazed at Fletcher’s ability to rev up crowds, particularly young people.
On election night, it appeared we might score a clean sweep. But the absentees secured Cherberg’s reelection. A racist flyer by right-wingers in Yakima had portrayed Fletcher as unfit for high office.
I was inundated with congratulations for winning a second term, but deeply dismayed by comments I heard from a number of enthusiastic, mostly older supporters. They would pull me aside and say, “Governor, I just couldn’t vote for Art Fletcher because I was afraid of what might happen to you.” I was stunned, saddened and furious that the tentacles of discrimination, some overt, some unknowing, still gripped Washington state. Nearly 97,000 Washingtonians were among the 10 million Americans who cast their votes for George Wallace in 1968.
I’m confident that if Art Fletcher had been elected lieutenant governor, he would have succeeded me as governor, perhaps in 1977. In any case, sooner rather than later.
Happily, Fletcher’s political career was far from over. President-elect Richard Nixon named him assistant secretary of labor. He went on to serve in the Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations and became known as “the father of affirmative action.” Fletcher headed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the United Negro College Fund. Those were historic achievements. Yet I wish Washington could have been the first state in the union since Reconstruction to elect an African American governor.