Mr. Hopeful

John Hempelmann was there for Camelot, nearly became a U.S. congressman, and is still shaping public policy—and the landscape—every day at Cairncross & Hempelmann

Published in 2011 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

By Beth Taylor on June 14, 2011


Q: Who were some major influences in your life?

A: My mom and dad were incredibly supportive of everything I did; I was the first one to graduate from college in my family. In fourth grade, a nun at Christ the King Grade School … started talking to me about being a lawyer or being elected to something. Sister Mary Raphael started talking to me about that and, you know, about going to D.C., so I went to Georgetown [University] instead of a bunch of other places because it was in Washington, D.C. I had a job in the biggest shoe store back there, because I had worked summers and Christmases at Nordstrom, and Bruce Nordstrom had arranged for me to get a job in Washington, D.C., with another big company. But I went to [Capitol] Hill and went into [Sen. Henry M. “Scoop”] Jackson’s office and talked to them, and they didn’t have a job. I went back a couple of days later and I said, “Well, do you need a volunteer for something?” So I volunteered, and about a week later they hired me. I worked on a lot of important legislation with [Jackson], ironically including the very beginning of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. I had no idea that, by the 1980s, land use and environmental law would be the major focus of my life.


Q: What are some of your memories of Scoop Jackson?

A: He was a major, major factor in my life. At one point in my life I thought I was going to be a professor [of government]. One day in August of ’66, Scoop took me over to have lunch with one of the Supreme Court justices, I think it was Bill Brennan, and the two of them were telling me how much more flexibility I would have to do things as a lawyer than as a professor. I remember Scoop telling me, “If you’re a lawyer, you can teach and you can also be a lawyer. If you’re a professor, you can teach but you can’t be a lawyer.” I had been admitted to Georgetown law school. Scoop said, “Nope, if you’re going to have a future in government, you’re going to be going to school out where you live.” I said, “Well, Senator, it’s August-something and I haven’t even applied to the University of Washington Law School,” and he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” He came over to my office later that day and said, “You’re in. They’ve got one more student than they thought they had.” I had three great years there, and I’d go back in the summers and work for Scoop.


Q: So Jackson expected you to become involved in government?

A: He thought I should follow him into politics. When his presidential campaign collapsed in April of 1972, he literally pushed me into a race for the U.S. Congress in Seattle and Bellevue. That had been a Republican seat for over 40 years. I was a 28-year-old Democrat.


Q: How did you do?

A: I won the election by 2,000 votes on election night, notwithstanding the fact that George McGovern was at the head of the ticket, and he got beat very badly. Then I lost in the absentee ballots the week before Christmas, the last race in America to be decided in 1972. You know, that was the first and only time I ever ran for office. What I have found is that I can be very effective working public policy issues that interest me—like congressional leadership, like international human rights issues, like all of the urban-growth and smart-growth issues that I work on, both as a vocation and as an avocation. Sometimes you can be more effective than if you’re elected. People, sadly, look at you differently.


Q: Meanwhile, your law career was progressing?

A: I started in 1969 at Perkins Coie, which was then 37 lawyers, if you can imagine. … Took a leave of absence from there to run Scoop’s presidential campaign in ’72 in Oregon and Southern California, and also to run my own campaign after Scoop withdrew. Funny story—When I came back, they said: You know your desk is there, you’ve got a bunch of files on your desk—I was a young trial lawyer—we’ve given you a raise, so tell us you’re not going to run again. I said, “I can’t guarantee that,” and so I went with a small firm, very active Democrats, all former U.S. attorneys under Robert Kennedy, because when I was working for Scoop starting in 1960, I got very much into that whole circle of the Kennedy magic and Camelot. (Teddy made TV commercials for me in 1972.) So I wasn’t about to say “never, ever again,” and the long and short of it was, it never was again. After I left Perkins, I helped build a law firm that no longer exists, Diamond & Sylvester. The most important thing about that part of my life is I got to know Joe Diamond, who most people know as Diamond Parking. Joe Diamond was one of the most interesting businessmen, business lawyers I have ever known. He was a real lion of our profession. But in that firm there were structural issues, so in 1987 a very good friend of mine who had been at Perkins with me … Ray Cairncross and I founded Cairncross & Hempelmann, and we grew it from eight lawyers to—right now it’s 41 lawyers. It is one of the most successful, most happy places. It’s one of the few law firms in America where we don’t fight over money.


Q: Being part of Camelot, you must have witnessed some amazing history.

A: I got to go to JFK’s inaugural ball; I got to shovel snow on Pennsylvania Avenue for his inaugural parade. I worked all that night for 50 bucks. Can you imagine? Fifty bucks in 1960? It was a heck of a lot of money. And then a young woman took me to the inaugural ball. She was the daughter of a lobbyist for the National Forest Products Association. I had no idea, of course, in 1961 that I’d [someday] be working for timber companies like Plum Creek. Georgetown was a mens school at that time. There were nine girls schools in D.C., and Northern Virginia and Maryland, and the senior boys would auction the freshman boys off to these girls as a way of raising money for the student fund. Anne [McGrath] “bought” me as a freshman, and one of my jobs as her serf was to go with her to the inaugural ball.


Q: Nice job!

A: That’s how my life is. I am really, really lucky. I ran the C&O Canal with Bobby Kennedy when fitness started to become something to pay attention to, and I got to play in the famous baseball games at Dumbarton Oaks with the Kennedy clan. Scoop was really close to them. I was there on November 22, 1963, and it makes my heart … I feel it. I was there. I was there during the Cuban missile crisis. I was terrified. We were in range of those Soviet midrange ballistic weapons they were going to put in Cuba. I was there when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and I was there during the riots when the nation’s capital was on fire in 1968. Then I came to law school here, but every summer I went back [to D.C.], and Scoop would send [his wife and children] home to Everett in the summers, and two summers he said to me, “Well, I’m here by myself and you shouldn’t be paying rent, so just come stay at the house.” My job was to answer the phone and cut the lawn. Scoop would drive us to work—he never let me drive, so he drove; we both went to the Senate office. He was that kind of man: just a very down-to-earth guy. I took a call one night from President Johnson, and it wasn’t an operator; it was: “This is LBJ. I wanna talk to Scoop.” The Russians had just sent the tanks into Czechoslovakia. So I was sitting there with the senator, and he was talking to LBJ about what to do, because Scoop was the national defense and security expert in the Senate, and LBJ had been majority leader in the Senate. I remember sitting with Scoop, it was probably 3 in the morning when we got done. It was scary: Was this the beginning of another world war? Scoop said, “You know, John … look at it this way: Something good always comes out of something bad.” Shortly after the first of the [anti-Mubarak] riots in Egypt, there was an article saying [something like] I bet Obama wishes he had someone like Scoop Jackson to call and talk to about what’s going on in the Middle East. What’s neat is that Scoop’s legacy lives on. I’m now the president of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. I get to do really neat things with that. Next month I will be giving the opening speech at a conference in Washington, D.C., at the Brookings Institution. We have the best and brightest talking about the need for bipartisan leadership in the Congress, which is extremely timely. Jackson was known as someone who would work really well with Republicans as well as Democrats.


Q: How did you end up in land use?

A: I started out as a litigator at Perkins Coie. I got a lot of actual trials in those early days, partly because I was handling all the warranty cases for General Motors; partly because there were no public defenders in those days and I got appointed a whole bunch of times to represent indigent criminal defendants. So I had some really big cases in the early years. I was doing a lot of litigation for a major developer … [and] said to the developer, “If you let me do a little bit of your work up front, you won’t have as many lawsuits.” So I started doing some real estate work, and one day he handed me a land use case. I said, “I don’t know anything about land use.” He said, “Aww, you can do it.” I figured out how to do a transfer of development rights for a building that then got bigger down in the Denny Regrade. I remember going home—we were living up on Capitol Hill and had a view over downtown Seattle—I remember pointing so proudly out the window to my wife and saying, “See that building with the crane down there? I just added three more stories to that building by transferring the development rights off the parking lot across the alley.” She said, “You did what? You just blocked our view.” I said, “Oh, yeah, we’ll move.”


Q: And did you?

A: Yes, we moved. It was an apartment, so we would have moved anyway. That was the beginning of a family that ended up with three daughters, and I’ve got three beautiful grandchildren.


Q: You literally helped shape the local landscape. What are some of the projects you’re most proud of?

A: We are still building things. I started working on that first building in the Denny Regrade in ’78, ’79. Since then there have been hundreds of projects. I like to tell people I’m building things for us and for our kids and for our grandkids. Things that I’ve helped build include what’s now the Columbia Center [which] started out as a 10-story building, and we worked, got the zoning code … it ended up as a 76-story building. I’ve done projects like the new Four Seasons Hotel and [Private] Residences of Seattle. We looked for years for the right place for them; we got the Four Seasons on First Avenue just at the time First Avenue was becoming Seattle’s major pedestrian thoroughfare. That also included a transfer of development rights. I’ve been doing transfers of development rights since the late ’70s, including one of the biggest ones in Washington state: the whole new development of Black Diamond. We’re in the process with our client YarrowBay of processing two master-planned communities in the city of Black Diamond, down there between Renton and Enumclaw on the way to Mount Rainier, and that will ultimately have close to 6,000 new homes. Projects like the Columbia Tower and the master-planned communities in Black Diamond, some people call them legacy projects. They’re ones that … will serve our communities for the next hundred or 200 years. How fun it is to be part of that, to be able to make that happen.


Q: Suncadia in Eastern Washington was another big feather in your cap.

A: It was, and is, the first and only master-planned resort in Washington, and that property was originally owned by Plum Creek Timber Company, a very, very good client of ours. Suncadia was 6,000 acres of timberland. It was primarily pine plantations in Eastern Washington over there by Roslyn, Cle Elum. The Growth Management Act was adopted on April 1 of 1990, and it pretty much said we’re going to stop building in the rural areas; we’re going to stop sprawling outside of the cities all the way to the crest of the Cascades and over. But there were a few exceptions. At that time, there was no exception for resorts, but resorts play a very important part in the economy, particularly in places like Washington that have such great natural beauty. I could see that was the future of that property. It was one of the few places where Plum Creek had consolidated ownership. Most of their timberlands were in a checkerboard pattern because … the Great Northern Railroad and the Burlington Northern Railroad had obtained every other section 20 miles deep as the transcontinental railroads were brought across America. I worked with the state government to create the concept of a master-planned resort. The people there who did not want change fought it, we had numerous appeals, but we got the property designated under the comprehensive plan in Kittitas County for a resort, and then the property was sold by Plum Creek to a company called Trendwest Resorts, based in Redmond. Trendwest hired me, and it took me exactly four years from the day they hired me until we broke ground on Suncadia. It’s a spectacular piece of property because the Cle Elum River runs through it, and there are incredible views. What I like to tell people is, Suncadia turned out better than my best dreams. I am extraordinarily happy, proud, humble, all of those things, to have been part of that. It is going to be such a treasure for the people in our state, for families. That’s what I love about it—it’s a retreat where you take your kids, and then your grandkids come, and hopefully your great-grandkids. I did Suncadia when Gary [Locke] was governor, and whenever I see Gary—including last fall in Washington, D.C.—he always asks me, “How are you doing in Black Diamond? How is Suncadia doing?” 


Q: Do you ever worry that there’s too much development in the area?

A: Let me answer it this way: Let’s take Central Puget Sound as an example. It is projected in the next 30 years—so by 2040—that Central Puget Sound will have to accommodate another 1.7 million people and another 1 million jobs. What’s going to happen here is the equivalent of lifting the entire Portland metropolitan area—or most of it—and putting it in Central Puget Sound. That is going to require over 900,000 new housing units and offices and factories and shops for a bunch of those million people that are going to have new jobs here. We are one of the areas of the country that is a great place to live, and that’s why people come here. That’s why companies come here. People want to live here and so we have to accommodate them, but it has to be smart growth and it has to be growth that protects the environment and it has to be growth with jobs and housing. This is my passion that I’m working on now and I’ll be working on for at least the next 25 years—and that is finding ways to connect housing and transportation and employment, and the way we do that is with high-capacity transit.


Q: What are you doing to bring that about?

A: I worked with a very broad consortium of governmental and nongovernmental folks last year and spearheaded a grant application to the new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, which happens to be in the office of my friend Ron Sims, who’s deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development, [a] former King County executive. We got the maximum grant—$5 million—for Central Puget Sound to do transit-oriented development action strategies. That’s my most active current passion. When you think of all the neat things I’ve got to do, it’s going to be even better, and as important as the Black Diamond communities are going to be. … What we’re going to be doing in Central Puget Sound with transit-oriented communities is going to be transformative of the region. We’ve got to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit, and we’ve got to get them to live closer to where they work and closer to where they can get on light rail.


Q: You sound pretty happy with your life.

A: I am one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet. At the office they call me “Mr. Hopeful.” I’ve got an incredible family life; I’ve got an incredible law firm. I’ve survived a heart attack when I was helicopter skiing 10 years ago up in northeastern Canada, and 30 days later I went back and was helicopter skiing again after they fixed me. I was at the top of an 8,000-foot mountain when I had the heart attack, in the middle of nowhere. I’ve survived cancer, and I figure I’ve got another 20 years at the least of doing what I’m doing, because I have no interest in retiring, I am having so much fun. This is the beauty of it: I get to use my experience working in government—national, state, local government—my experience working in the private sector, my experience working with all kinds of nonprofit organizations. I think what I’m going to get to do for the next 20 to 25 years is going to eclipse what I’ve been able to do in the last 40 years.


Q: What do you think you’ll be remembered for?

A: One of my greatest accomplishments was working with Plum Creek to do a huge land exchange on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains that we called the I-90 Land Exchange. The environmental groups were all fighting among themselves, and this [land deal] had to go through the White House and the Congress. It was all tied up; Bill Clinton was president. It was at the end of the last session of the Congress that could have approved this, and the thing was dead; and I remember out there at Overlake Golf Course one afternoon with Rick Holley, who was the president of Plum Creek, and he had been trying to do this [project] for four years and he was just distraught. I said, “I have an idea,” and that idea turned into us—Plum Creek—suing the environmental groups. It was front-page Seattle Times, kind of like: You won’t believe this, this is one of the greatest reversals ever seen, a timber company suing the environmentalists. We forced them into court and the judge forced them into settlement negotiations; and in my conference room for four days, we hammered out a compromise. The appropriations bill that could approve this land exchange had already gone from the Congress to Bill Clinton’s desk, and it was arranged for the president to send it back to the Congress. Having reached a settlement agreement, the Congress then approved the I-90 Land Exchange. That was 36,000 acres of pristine high-quality habitat on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, totally preserved now forever; and Plum Creek got comparable lands, mostly down in southwest Washington that the environmentalists were okay having harvested. So everybody won. Another legacy. Every time I drive over the [mountain] pass, I look north as I’m going to Suncadia; I see all those trees, and I think, “Hmm, I played a little role in that, you know?”

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