Ralph B. Potts, Political Reformer, Attorney And Promoter Of The Arts

He was a Depression-era political reformer, an author of fiction and nonfiction, a 54-year lawyer and a promoter of the arts.

Ralph Bushnell Potts was "a feisty little guy who was out to make a mark and do things," said retired Superior Court Judge William Wilkins.

Mr. Potts, 93, of Seattle, died April 12. He was perhaps best known for "Come Now the Lawyers," a history of the state's legal profession.

And his political legacy is substantial. In 1933, for example, Mr. Potts was a founder of the New Order of Cincinnatus, a nonpartisan political organization of young men.

They formulated what was then a progressive agenda - rooting out corruption and reining in the escalating costs of local government. To a certain degree, they succeeded.

"As I see it, a crisis is facing the taxpayers of this state," Mr. Potts told The Times after being appointed Cincinnatus commander in 1933. "Counties and cities are nearly insolvent. . . . The only solution is to reduce government to the size of the taxpayers' purse."

The group fielded candidates and within two years had three it had endorsed on the Seattle City Council. One of them was David Lockwood, then 26 and to this day the youngest ever elected to that body. Another was Arthur Langlie, who went on to become mayor and a three-term governor of Washington.

"He decided it would be a good idea to expand," Lockwood said of Mr. Potts, "so he suggested we run some Cincinnatus members for Congress and Senate. We also went down into California."

The group eventually spread statewide and into the San Francisco area. Wilkins ran for Senate and lost, but went on to become a prominent judge. The Cincinnatus group eventually lost steam and Mr. Potts went on to other things.

"He would get into anything, you bet, and he gave it his all," Wilkins said of Mr. Potts. "He was what you'd call a darn good guy and a very able lawyer."

Among his accomplishments, he was a founder of Allied Arts of Seattle, the Northwest Writers Conference and the Seattle Repertory Theater.

His involvement in the writers conference stemmed from his own prolific work. He was the co-author of "Counsel for the Damned," the true story of Industrial Workers of the World counsel George Vanderveer.

Mr. Potts also wrote "Come Now the Lawyers," the history of Washington's early courts, which was made into the motion picture "The Specialist"; "Sir Boss," a loosely fictional account of a labor leader that was clearly based on famed Teamsters boss and Seattleite Dave Beck; "Seattle Heritage," his impressions of the city's personalities; and numerous plays.

Mr. Potts was born in Appleton, Wis. When he was 5, he and his brother were orphaned and were taken by grandparents to Condon, Ore.

He attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., then the University of Oregon Law School. He came to Seattle in 1925 and began his law practice, first with a partner but soon on his own.

In 1932, he announced his intent to run for the Legislature and showed uncanny prescience: "I believe the savings-and-loan association code should be revised so that it would be impossible in the future for a situation to arise where embezzlement of funds and criminal mismanagement can be concealed for months or years," he told The Times.

In 1945, Mr. Potts penned "My Sacred Ballot," an essay that won a national award from the American Bar Association. It spoke of voting as a responsibility, not a right. "I garden for dreams, but with a realistic spade," says the essay. "My test is not of trend or popularity, but of principle and liberty. I vote as if my ballot alone decided the contest."

While the Cincinnatus movement was regarded as nonpartisan and progressive, Mr. Potts was a Republican, and in the 1970s he was in the ironic position of challenging the progressive nature of the Seattle City Council as head of the Civic Builders Committee.

Business interests feared council candidates - including John Miller, now a congressman; Tim Hill, now King County Executive; and Paul Kraabel, today a councilman - would endanger the vitality of the city by curbing growth.

Mr. Potts retired from his law practice in 1979 but remained active with the arts organizations.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Schaumberger Potts; a son, Ralph B. Potts Jr. of Bothell; three daughters, the Rev. Drusilla Baunach of Mukilteo, Ruah Oken of Seattle and Roberta Potts of Redmond; a stepdaughter, Susan Hogue of Seattle; a stepson, John Schaumberger of Lynnwood; eight grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Services were Wednesday. Memorial contributions may be made to Children's Hospital and Medical Center or the charity of one's choice.