On February 13, 1981, state Senator Peter von Reichbauer triggers an historic shift in senate leadership when he changes his party affiliation from Democratic to Republican in the middle of the legislative session. Von Reichbauer's dramatic switch gives the Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time since 1955, and that in turn elevates Senate Republican leader Jeannette Hayner (1919-2010) of Walla Walla to the post of Majority Leader, the first woman to hold the position. Hayner quickly proves her skills as a legislative leader, becoming one of the most powerful and effective legislators in state history.
Jeannette Hayner grew up in Oregon and graduated from the University of Oregon Law School as one of only two women in her class. She married law-school classmate H. H. "Dutch" Hayner and worked as an attorney for the Bonneville Power Administration while he served in World War II. The couple settled in Walla Walla and Jeannette Hayner got involved in politics and civic life while raising their three children. She worked on campaigns, served on the school board, and was active in the Republican party. In 1972, she defeated three other Republicans in the primary and was elected to an open state House of Representatives seat in the 16th District. After she was re-elected to the House in 1974, Republican leaders encouraged her to run for the 16th District's state Senate seat in 1976. She won and held the seat until her retirement in 1992.
Hayner played an important leadership role even during her first four-year term in the Senate. She joined a group of fellow Republican senators who were frustrated that the party had been a minority in the Senate for over two decades and felt that the existing Republican leadership was not making serious efforts to regain the majority. When the group staged a legislative "coup" against the current leaders at the end of the 1979 session, Hayner, still in her freshman term, became the new Senate Minority Leader and the first woman to lead a party caucus in the Washington State Legislature.
The new Senate Republican leadership's effort to win a majority was greatly aided in the 1980 election by the nationwide Republican landslide headed by Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and by the arrest and eventual conviction of two prominent Democratic legislators, House co-Speaker John Bagnariol (ca. 1932-2009) and Senate Majority Leader Gordon L. Walgren, on racketeering charges. Nevertheless, the effort came up one seat short and the Democrats clung to a narrow 25-to-24 majority in the state Senate when the 1981 legislative session opened in January.
Peter von Reichbauer
Unfortunately for the Democrats, their one-vote majority included the 30th District seat held by Peter von Reichbauer of Vashon Island since 1973. Considered a volatile personality by some fellow legislators, von Reichbauer feuded with Democratic Senate leaders from the start of the session. In an oral history interview long after her retirement, Hayner recalled that even before the session opened she had suggested a switch to von Reichbauer, telling him "Peter, you're really a Republican at heart, and I think you'd be much happier in our caucus" (Jeannette Hayner). However, von Reichbauer responded non-committally and did not give her any advance notice of his decision.
Von Reichbauer first revealed his intention to join the Republicans on Thursday, February 12, 1981, five weeks into the legislative session. He made the switch official at a tumultuous news conference in a crowded Senate hearing room the following morning, Friday the 13th. The now-former Democrat said it was not he but the party that had changed, becoming "hostage to a narrower base than when I joined it (in 1973)" (Larsen, "Democrats Lose Control...")
The sudden switch produced dismay and celebration. Von Reichbauer was not the first legislator to change party affiliation, but he was the first and only (as of 2009) one who gave the majority to a different party by doing so. Dismayed Democrats denounced von Reichbauer and searched, unsuccessfully, for ways to challenge his defection. Once-powerful committee chairmen lost their posts and some committee staff employed by the Democrats were let go as the Republicans reorganized the Senate.
Naturally Republicans celebrated von Reichbauer, whose decision gave them the key 25th vote and turned Hayner from Minority to Majority Leader. Hayner welcomed von Reichbauer as a "valuable member" of her caucus (Larsen, "Legislature Feels ..."). Hayner recalled in her oral history that some Republicans were skeptical of von Reichbauer and his motives but said "he proved to be very helpful to us and very cooperative" (Jeannette Hayner).
Because it had been so long since the Republicans held the majority, and the task of reorganizing the entire Senate structure in the middle of the session to reflect the new majority was unprecedented, Hayner turned to legislative leaders from other states for advice. The new Majority Leader had ample opportunity to demonstrate her leadership ability as she managed a smooth transition and then presided over a session facing the worst budget crisis in years. Hayner also led the Senate through the 1982 session, again facing budget difficulties.
In the 1982 election, the Democrats took control of the state Senate and Hayner returned to being Minority Leader. However, in 1987 Republican Linda A. Smith of Vancouver won an off-year election for the 18th District seat vacated when the Democratic incumbent resigned to become Chief Clerk of the state House of Representatives, and the Republicans once again had a 25-to-24 edge in the Senate. Hayner returned to the Majority Leader position and led the Senate through the 1992 session.
Slim Margin, Firm Control
During those five years, through two more elections, the Republicans held the majority by only a single seat and it was a testament to Hayner's leadership that she kept 25 disparate caucus members with often-divergent views tightly disciplined and united. That unity allowed the slim Senate majority to stand up to the Democratic controlled House of Representatives and popular Democratic governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) and made Hayner one of the most powerful politicians in the state. For the entire time that Hayner served as Majority Leader, von Reichbauer was one of the 25 votes that gave the Republicans their one-vote majority. After his switch on February 13, 1981, he was re-elected three more times to the Senate as a Republican. In 1993 he was elected as a Republican to the King County Council where in 2009 he continues to serve.
Hayner did not run for re-election in 1992, when she was 73 years old. By then, in addition to her historic firsts, she had served as Republican leader (both minority and majority) longer than any other party caucus leader in the history of the legislature.