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Former Wash. Governor: Speaker Is Not 'Alternate Governor'

Washington Speaker of the House Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) will “have to learn” to negotiate. That tough talk comes from former Republican Governor Dan Evans in reaction to the announcement that a philosophical majority of Republicans and two Democrats have formed to take control of the state Senate for the 2013 session.

The last time a power-sharing takeover occurred in the Washington legislature was in the House in 1963. A young Evans was one of the leaders of that insurgency. Six Democrats joined forces with 48 Republicans on the first day of session to yank control from Democrats and depose Speaker John O’Brien.

“We made a decision to go ahead with it and on the 3rd ballot we all switched to [Democrat] Bill Day and made him Speaker,” recalls Evans. “It was a real shock to most of the Democrats.”

According to an oral history of the Washington State Legislature, then-Governor Al Rosellini called it an “unholy alliance.”

“Everybody predicted it would fall apart and it didn’t,” says Evans. “We succeeded very, very well in that session … We didn’t lose one single policy vote during the entire session.”

Evans predicts the new Senate majority will enjoy the same success in 2013, even though it has the bare minimum of 25 votes to control the senate floor. Coalition leader Senator Rodney Tom, D-Medina, vows to hew to a moderate agenda. There’s always the risk of an internal schism if conservative Republican members of the Senate feel the agenda is too moderate.

But Evans says conservatives won’t have much choice but to go along.

“The alternative … is to have it tilt back and have [the agenda] a lot more liberal than a coalition would produce,” observes Evans.

Ultimately, former Governor Evans says the new Senate majority will serve to lessen the power that Speaker Chopp wields in Olympia. “The House of Representatives doesn’t run the state and the Speaker is not an alternate governor,” says the former Republican governor. Evans believes Chopp has enjoyed outsized influence over the past several years, but that this shift in the Senate may force Chopp to compromise on the budget and other key issues to a degree he hasn’t had to before.

Speaker Chopp was traveling out of state, but in a statement responding to Evans comments says, “I respect Governor Evans’ decades of service to our state, but in the 50 years since he was in the legislature, a lot has changed. Many leaders in his party have adopted hardline stances that are out of touch with the majority of Washington voters.”

The statement from Chopp goes on to say, “House Democrats will continue to work in a constructive, cooperative way with everyone committed to Washington’s priorities -– investing in education, creating jobs, increasing access to higher education, and protecting the health and safety of our people.”

On the Web:

1963 Washington legislative coalition (Washington Legislature)
Gov. Daniel Evans profile (National Governors Association)

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."