Was Big Bertha Seattle's Best Mayor? | KUOW News and Information

Was Big Bertha Seattle's Best Mayor?

Oct 4, 2015

Before Bertha was a boring machine stuck under Seattle, she was Seattle’s first female mayor.

In 1926, her campaign motto was “municipal housekeeping.”

Bertha K. Landes was her full name and “she was wonderful,” according to columnist Emmett Watson.

Watson spoke with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds in 1992. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist had written about Big Bertha, as she was called, in his book, "Once Upon a Time in Seattle."

“She was not a flamboyant woman,” he said. “She was quiet, she was scholarly. Her husband was a geology professor here at the university.”

Bertha had belonged to many clubs in Seattle and founded a few of her own, Watson said. "The next step was to run for council, and she went and won by an overwhelming margin,” he said.

“She was really smart, and men liked her,” he said. “When the mayor Doc Brown went to the Democratic convention, he left Landes in charge. The chief of police made an offhand remark and it got in the paper that 100 policemen should not be on the force.

“The implication was clear,” Watson said. “They were on the take.”

Landes called the police chief and said, “You will fire 100 policemen or you will resign yourself.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, former Gov. Christine Gregoire and Sen. Patty Murray aboard a C-17 on a 2009 tour of flood damage on I-5. Washington was the first state to have a woman governor and two women senators serve at the same time.
Credit Courtesy of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell's Office

Dixy Lee Ray, a Democrat, was Washington state's first female governor in 1976. Her campaign motto was "Little lady takes on big boys."
Credit HistoryLink.org

"She wanted to cut out the worst elements about the hypocrisy and crookedness and especially the police force, and she really went after that," Watson said.

Landes appointed herself chief of police and was later elected mayor.

"For two years she ran probably the best city administration that's ever been run in Seattle,” Watson said.

“She wouldn't appoint her political supporters to good jobs,” he said. “She would go get technical people qualified to do the work. And she founded a number of departments, including the city planning commission, which it still exists.”

But Landes wasn’t reelected.

“The male chauvinism was so strong in those days,” Watson said. “Seattle thought of itself as a big He-Man’s town. They took a lot of teasing from boosters in other cities – ‘What’s the matter, you can't get a man elected up there?’

“So they finally did her in. They raised a lot of money to beat her.”

Landes’s legacy lives on today beyond a broken boring machine.

Women have long held elected office in Seattle. Among the most memorable is Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, whose motto was “Little Lady Takes on Big Boys.”  

In the 2005, Washington became the first state to have a female governor and two female U.S. senators serve at the same time.

report by the Center for Public Integrity found that Washington state is among the most politically transparent in the county. Writers of the report credited Washington’s “breed of tough, activist women.”