The ongoing power struggle in the state Senate — pitting a shrinking Democratic majority against a new alliance of Republicans and Democratic dissidents — is drawing comparisons to a similar fight 50 years ago that left the chamber in chaos for days after the Legislature convened.
But, in contrast to 1963, when the coup was sprung as a surprise and prompted allegations of immorality and tyranny, lawmakers don’t appear to be girding for all-out war this time.
Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon made known their intentions to join 23 Republicans in forming the Majority Coalition Caucus weeks ago, giving legislators time to come to terms with the upset and consider its implications for organization of the Senate.
Former Gov. Dan Evans, who was one of the ringleaders in 1963, said recently that next year’s Senate alliance has the potential to remake the political landscape in Olympia in a bipartisan way.
“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.’’
It was Evans, Slade Gorton and others who joined other 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.
In a scene that Evans said was straight out of a B-movie, the Republicans met their coalition partners the night before session began in a remote cabin off Cooper Point Road on Olympia’s northwest flanks. Day, a massive man weighing some 300 pounds, opened the door as Evans, Gorton and a few others entered to hatch their plot.
The next day, they pounced. Evans still remembers O’Brien – with arms outstretched – trying to work out a deal even as the votes were being called that ended his then-record eight-year reign as speaker.
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.”
In the bitter moments after he was deposed, O’Brien said on the floor: “This is a very unusual position, for the presumably majority party to be in a minority position. We think it is a very bad mistake for the Republican Party to go to this low type of political maneuvering. In my opinion, it is absolutely politically dishonest and immoral. After all, we come to Olympia to do a real job. There should be a code of ethics, even among legislators.’’
Some Democrats of that time even talked of loyalty oaths, a practice that never took hold.
It took Speaker Day’s coalition nine stormy days to finally settle leadership appointments and assign committee chairmanships. Historical accounts of the battle – including the memoir, “The Politics of the Possible,” by Mary Ellen McCaffree, a freshman Republican legislator at the time – say a bitterness hung over the session much longer. A biography of Slade Gorton by John Hughes and a book about John O’Brien’s career by Daniel Jack Chasan also have accounts that capture drama and anger from the 1963 fight.
The current power struggle is also likely to get resolved on the floor of the Senate, but there is reason to think that the floor action on Jan. 14 won’t be as contentious.
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.
Tom said he welcomed Murray’s new offer.
“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.
The uncertainty in the Senate comes as lawmakers face a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall and the need to answer a Supreme Court ruling on school funding by finding anywhere from $1 billion to more than $2 billion in additional funds for K-12 education.
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.’’