Senate power struggle similar to 1963 fight

OLYMPIA (AP) — This year’s state Senate power struggle is similar to a coup in the Washington Statehouse 50 years ago, but former lawmakers who were part of that history say this year’s events are slightly less dramatic.

The power struggle between a shrinking Democratic majority against a new alliance of Republicans and Democrats was not a surprise this month, like a similar fight in 1963 that left the Senate in chaos for days after the Legislature convened.

And in contrast to 50 years ago, lawmakers don’t appear to be preparing for all-out war this time, The Olympian reported in Sunday’s newspaper.

Former Gov. Dan Evans, who was one of the ringleaders in 1963, recently said the new Senate alliance between some dissident Democrats and 23 Republicans has the potential to remake the political landscape in Olympia in a bipartisan way.

Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon made known their intentions to join the Senate Republicans weeks ago, giving lawmakers time to come to terms with the upset and consider its implications for organization of the Senate.

“I’ll be fascinated to watch (it) this time to see how it plays out,” Evans said. “I think frankly it could be a real bonus that could well work to the benefit of everybody — not only the citizens but for the governor and the Legislature. Now they have to talk to each other.”

Evans, Slade Gorton and others joined dissident Democrats five decades ago to unseat legendary House Speaker John L. O’Brien in a power grab that put Democratic Rep. William “Big Daddy” Day of Spokane in charge.

Evans said the key issue for his members had been redistricting, which today is done by a bipartisan commission but back then was decided by the Legislature. The threat of O’Brien, aided by a near supermajority of Democrats in the Senate, drawing political lines in a way that made it impossible for the GOP to win either chamber helped fuel the political takeover.

Day and other Spokane-area Democrats also were angry at O’Brien for stifling a bill that would have required a public vote before any county could convert a private utility into a public utility district. They approached the GOP with the coalition idea.

Although it took just part of an afternoon to topple O’Brien and replace him with Day, the defeated leader’s loyal backers kept fighting for more than a week.

Some called the Day-Evans tactics dictatorial. In one floor speech, a Democrat spoke of fascism and referred to Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Castro’s Cuba. Then-Gov. Albert Rosellini, a Democrat, called it “an unholy alliance.”

It took Speaker Day’s coalition nine stormy days to finally settle leadership appointments and assign committee chairmanships.

The current power struggle is also likely to get resolved on the floor of the Senate. Democratic Sens. Ed Murray of Seattle and Karen Fraser of Thurston County insist that if the new coalition wants to depose Murray from the position of Senate majority leader, it must change 100-year-old Senate rules on the first day of the session.

“I think there is potential for very interesting steps and motions on both sides,” said Fraser, chair of the Democratic Caucus. “My guess is both sides will be very well prepared. I don’t think it will be chaos but I think it will be a very interesting study in how the Senate works.”

Tom has said he wants to start reorganizing the Senate in advance. But the 24 still-loyal Democrats have turned down his offer to chair or co-chair 12 of the Senate’s 15 committees, saying the scheme is not true power-sharing.

Late Thursday, Murray said that he would seek Lt. Gov. Brad Owen’s help in breaking the stalemate.

Murray said he plans to ask his leadership team to appoint members who could meet with a delegation from Tom’s coalition and under the auspices of Owen. The lieutenant governor is a conservative Democrat who presides over Senate sessions and has a reputation for evenhandedness.

“I think that’s what we’ve been asking for. I’m happy to see there is some movement there and we can get some things worked out. So on the 14th we can get on with the people’s business,” Tom said.

Whatever happens, Democrats still have a 55-43 majority in the House. Majority Leader Pat Sullivan of Covington said his chamber is prepared to negotiate with a closely divided Senate.

“As long as that coalition holds together, that’s who we will be dealing with,” Sullivan said. “In the end we are going to have to agree to a budget and to policy (positions) that move us forward.”