Phyllis Lamphere’s time on the City Council was part of a decades-long commitment to civic service in Seattle and beyond that included leading the push for the Washington State Convention Center and other major projects.
When Phyllis Lamphere announced her plan to run for the Seattle City Council in the 1960s, one political consultant told her it would be best to wait until the “woman’s seat” opened up.
Only four women had served on the City Council before that, and never two at the same time. But Lamphere brushed off the suggestion — and won.
“In terms of gender inequality, my mother just ignored it,” daughter Claudia Lamphere said. “We would ask her, ‘How did you do this? How did you become the first woman this, the first woman that,’ and she would say ‘I just did it.’ She didn’t pay any attention to those people.”
Phyllis Hagmoe Lamphere’s time on the City Council was part of a decades-long commitment to civic service in Seattle and beyond that included leading the push for the Washington State Convention Center and other major projects. She died Nov. 13 at age 96.
Mrs. Lamphere died of natural causes, Claudia Lamphere said.
The daughter of Democrats, Mrs. Lamphere became involved in groups such as the League of Women Voters in the early 1960s. At the time, the Seattle City Council controlled the city’s budget, with each member overseeing separate parts. She lobbied the Legislature to pass a bill that placed budget decisions under the mayor’s authority. Her work changed the way the city governs to this day.
She commanded attention from the start, political veterans said, and not just because of classy clothes or her height — 5 feet 9 inches — which reporters often noted in stories about her.
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“She was always energetic and forceful and cheerful,” said Dick Page, deputy mayor from 1970-71. “She wasn’t in it for money, she wasn’t in it for national office. A lot of people go into public life for various reasons. Hers was for civic betterment.”
Former City Councilmember Jean Godden was awestruck by Lamphere. When Godden joined the League of Women Voters as a “sapling,” Mrs. Lamphere was a towering figure. So taken by Mrs. Lamphere was Godden that when the soon-to-be elected council member walked into a League of Women Voters event at which Godden was the discussion leader she broke out in hives.
“She was indeed a marvel and a role model,” said Godden, who served on the City Council from 2003 to 2015.
Mrs. Lamphere won the City Council seat in 1967 by a wide margin and remained on the council for 11 years. She took her seat in 1968, as the nation was divided on issues such as Vietnam and civil rights. It was “a time of great disquiet,” she told HistoryLink.org in 2013.
One of her first battles was over a fair-housing ordinance that she said was “bitterly fought.” The supporters had a majority, which included Sam Smith, the council’s first African-American member. When the vote passed, a council member stormed out of the chamber, saying it was the worst day in Seattle’s history.
“Tensions were high, things were difficult, and so we had that to wade our way through,” Mrs. Lamphere said.
In 1977, she was named president of the National League of Cities, becoming the first woman and nonmayor to hold the title. That same year she decided to run for mayor, and came in fourth in the primary. She remained one of the few women in Seattle history to make a serious bid for mayor until the 2017 election, which was won by Jenny Durkan.
After leaving the council and a stint as regional director of the Economic Development Administration, Mrs. Lamphere was named in 1980 to a team tasked with building a new convention center. Mrs. Lamphere emphasized putting the center close to the downtown hotels, so visitors wouldn’t have to travel far between their lodging and the center.
Around the time that the Washington State Convention & Trade Center opened over Interstate 5 in 1988, Mrs. Lamphere noticed many bare walls she thought would be perfect for artwork. She called large corporations and asked if any would be willing to loan pieces to the center. She wanted the center to be a place for both residents and visitors to enjoy, said John Christison, who was the center’s president and CEO from 1990 to 2011.
“She said ‘I know you’ve got some nice pieces of art on the 30th floor, would you be willing to share that with us?’ She was a real dynamo about building the collection, and now it’s quite substantial,” Christison said.
The center also has a gallery on its second level for rotating exhibitions; nearly 200 exhibitions have been featured there. The center named the space the Phyllis Lamphere Gallery last year.
Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), said Mrs. Lamphere came to him with the idea of making the former Naval Reserve Armory on South Lake Union the new home for MOHAI. Within two years of her getting him on board, MOHAI divested itself of the downtown space it had targeted for its home and focused on becoming part of the new Lake Union Park.
Garfield said Mrs. Lamphere’s imprint is all over the city and that she and her generation of leaders paved the way for what Seattle has become.
“She really was the person who took a great idea and made it reality,” Garfield said. “I think the combination of being very practical and visionary is what made Phyllis so unique.”
Retirement didn’t slow her down. When Page visited her at the First Hill retirement community Horizon House a few years ago, she lectured him on a civic venture she thought he should get busy on. Godden said Mrs. Lamphere continued to show up at council meetings advocating for issues she deemed important into her 90s.
“She is someone who has steered Seattle in the right direction at all times,” Godden said.
Mrs. Lamphere was born Feb. 9, 1922, in Seattle. She graduated from Barnard College and worked at IBM in New York and Boeing in Seattle before her political career.
She was widowed at 22, when her husband was killed in a kamikaze attack during World War II. Her brief second marriage ended in divorce. She was married to psychologist Arthur Lamphere for 35 years, until his death in 1987. She wed Phillip Swain, a former Boeing executive and Seattle School Board member, in 1988; Swain died a decade later. She was married to Dr. James Wilson, an internist and community activist, from 1998 until his death in 2003.
She is survived by three daughters, Deborah Riedesel, Barbara Schaad-Lamphere and Claudia Lamphere, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The family plans private services.
Staff reporter Ryan Blethen contributed to this report.