Judge Willis: Democrat, Republican, or Independent?

After four years of legal practice in Yakima, Robert John Willis, II (I, his son, am III), decided to run for prosecuting attorney. The year 1934 promised to be a landslide election season for President Roosevelt’s New Deal party. Joining a winning team, Bob Willis sought voter acceptance as a Democrat. He won!

A Young and Hopeful Politician

I learned after he died that he attempted public office as a Democrat at the urging of his wife. His sister, Katherine Willis, told me, “She said, ‘You had better run as a Democrat if you want to win, as Roosevelt will carry the day.’” As a boy, I mistakenly took this candidacy as firm proof of his democratic party affiliation.

In 1937 Yakima County had two superior court judges. A tragic car accident snuffed out the life of one of them. Clarence Martin, the democratic governor of Washington State, appointed Yakima’s young prosecutor to complete the deceased judge’s term.  He would begin his new duties on September 7, 1937. Knowing this history reinforced for me my father’s democratic credentials.

First Day of Court: Robert Willis, Judge; Frank Denton, Bailiff

In Washington State judges stand for re-election every four years on a non-partisan slate. Judge Willis easily defeated the other candidates in 1940, so much so he never faced another challenger in his twenty years on the bench. He dutifully ran as required, always non-partisan, never showing any political party preference. I simply presumed he remained an undisclosed Democrat.

As national elections came and went, my parents always participated. Occasionally I would inquire how they had voted. I never received an answer. “That’s private.” Although they cloaked their reticence  in the sacred privacy of the voting booth, I often wondered why they wouldn’t tell me. And did they share their choice in private? Perhaps they voted for different parties and didn’t want to upset the other. Still no answer.

When Chief Justice Thomas Grady of the Washington Supreme Court decided to retire in 1954, the Yakima Bar Association urged Judge Willis to run to replace him. He declined, citing personal reasons (his wife was suffering from chronic illness). 

 After he himself retired from the superior court bench and had returned to private practice, he was approached by Washington’s two democratic senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, to accept their invitation to run for the State’s highest court. Occurring during the Kennedy administration, he said he would run if the party gave him $60,000 to fund a statewide campaign, and another $60,000 in four years. Moreover, he could not and would not publicly endorse Kennedy’s Aid to Education bill. The senators left without their candidate. I wondered about this, especially as Dad had been Governor Al Rosellini’s, a Democrat,  campaign manager in Central Washington during his  1960 re-election bid.  Perhaps he had also supported Kennedy that year, not because of his political affiliation but for other reasons: as an American war hero, or as a Catholic, or as an Irishman. I had heard him often disparage supreme court justice William O. Douglas, a man from Ellensburg whom he knew, as being too liberal, as a one-time supporter of the “Wobblies,” an international workers party that smacked of socialism. Washington State went Republican, against the tide, in 1960. For whom had my parents voted? Would a  President Kennedy be too liberal too? No matter, for Al Rosellini, with Dad’s energetic support, had won.

Years later, when President Nixon fired the special prosecutor Elliott Richardson and accepted the resignation of his attorney general, Archibald Cox, in the infamous “Saturday Night Masssacre,” the retired Judge Willis fired a telegram off to Senator Scoop Jackson. It read like a simple legal verdict: “Fire him. He thinks he’s god!” It appeared that he could agree with, or disagree with, any president, no matter his party.

I know that Yakima County, then and now, has so few democrats that, as a McKanna relative recently opined, “you could put them all in a phone booth and still have room to walk around!” I also recognize that my parents’ friends in our home town tended to be doctors and lawyers, folks who generally lean toward the Republican Party. Yet I also remember how Dad enjoyed talking to our black garbage collector as he made his Saturday pickup throughout our neighborhood. He either stayed in a democratic closet in a republican town, or he hid in a non-partisan closet so as not to be exposed as a Republican. Or, then again, perhaps he truly lived as a political independent.

4 Comments

  1. Erin Willis Deklotz said,

    I would be most proud of my grandpa if he was able to criticize both parties and remain an independent thinker!

    Very interesting blog, Uncle Robert.

  2. Lynn McAleer said,

    I think our Dad was a conservative Democrat. He many times (though not as often as the story of the stranger on the Harvard campus) told about his running for prosecuting attorney on the Democratic ticket, being advised by our Mom’s thinking that FDR’s coattails were long.

    After retiring as a judge, he was head of the Central Washington campaign for Governor Rossellini for re -election. No doubt there: Rossellini was a Democrat.

    I grew up knowing my parents were Democrats. I remember waiting at our home for results of the election of a friend, Owen Clark. The results came thru telephone and the radio. He won. It was exciting. I have no idea how old I was.

    I tended more toward the Democratic Party because of my perceived belief of my father’s predilection. However, once I began voting I was more of an Independent. But then, I was a Young Republican for awhile at Gonzaga. Somewhat of an anomaly there at a Jesuit institution, but I had friends who urged me to join. Prescient? But this is not about me!

    I think that if our Dad were alive today, he may well have an affinity toward the tea party movement, with a splash of bourbon perhaps!

    Did we really have the same parents?

    • rjjwillis said,

      Lynn, I am most certain that we had the same parents! My certainty then moves to us: I have never been a Young Republican, you have. But then I was part of the Jesuit Institution, a anomoly to you, a one-time home for me.

      Your journey from “I tended toward the Democratic Party” to “Young Republican” to a present “Prescient?” during Obama’s Administration, and your judgment that our Father may today “have an affinity toward the tea party movement” leaves me with no question about you but the same question about Dad.

      As to “with a splash of bourbon perhaps!”, I would drop the “perhaps!”

  3. Jack Glaser said,

    Bob, what a delight to meet anew dimensions of your life and family that flashed by in conversations and stories over the past 40 years. Thanks for all the love and work that gathered these gems of the human spirit.

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