Elmer Huntley was a Republican legislator from Whitman County, serving first in the House and later in the Senate for 14 of the 16 years between 1957 and 1973. He also served as chairman of the state Highway Commission (now the Washington State Transportation Commission) in 1966 and 1967. After his Senate term ended he served on the Utilities and Transportation Commission for six years. A plain-speaking and straight-shooting man, Huntley earned the respect of many of his colleagues and constituents.
Elmer C. "Bud" Huntley was born on June 1, 1915, to Ernest Huntley (1891-1980) and Emily Schuster Huntley (1889-1972) on the family farm near St. John (Whitman County), in the rolling hills of the Palouse region of Eastern Washington. Huntley's ancestors were early settlers to the Palouse. His paternal great-grandparents, the Bakers, arrived in 1872 and settled near St. John; their daughter, Nettie, later married Huntley's grandfather Elmer E. Huntley, whose family had moved from California in 1880 and settled in Thornton (Whitman County), about nine miles east-northeast of St. John.
Huntley was the first of three children. A sister, Ernestine, followed in 1917, and a brother, Eugene (1919-1942), completed the family. He grew up on the family's wheat farm, and attended Washington State College (now  Washington State University), intending to major in pharmacy. But the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, and he couldn't afford to finish his studies. It wasn't a total loss, though. He met his wife, Necia Bennett of Klickitat, on a blind date while he was in college. They were married on September 29, 1935.
The Huntleys settled on the Huntley family farm in Thornton, where they farmed wheat and raised a few cattle and sheep. They had no children. Meanwhile as the young couple were starting their life together, Huntley's father was becoming involved in politics. He served as a county commissioner for a number of years in the 1930s, and in 1940 was elected to the state House of Representatives. He was a legislator until 1949, when he was appointed chairman of the Tax Commission. He later served as chairman of the Highway Commission between 1955 and 1957.
In an interview with the Washington State Oral History Program in 1993, Huntley allowed that though he thought his father's political career was "nice," it didn't have much of an influence on his decision to enter politics. "It just sort of evolved that way," he explained (Huntley, 19-20). Yet his political career would in some ways be remarkably similar to his father's. They were both Republicans, and both served in county politics prior to state politics; both were legislators for a number of years, and both served as chairman of the state Highway Commission in, respectively, the mid-1950s and mid-1960s.
Elmer Huntley was first elected to a county farm committee in 1954, then decided to run for the 9th District's House seat in 1956. He won, and was sworn in in January 1957. He wasted little time becoming active in the legislature, and served on a number of committees, including the Banks and Banking Committee, Constitution and Elections Committee, Education Committee, and the Highway Committee, of which he was elected chairman in 1963. He proudly recalled in his interview that the first bill he introduced in the House allowed third-class cities within fourth-class counties to establish cemetery districts, which included Colfax, the county seat for Whitman County. Huntley said the bill was not only the first one to pass the legislature in the 1957 term, but it was the first one that Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) signed.
One bill Huntley co-sponsored that was progressive for its day was Washington state's first seat-belt law. In 1962 he visited a fellow legislator in the hospital who had been in a high-speed car wreck. Seat belts weren't mandatory in 1962 (and wouldn't be for decades); at the time some cars didn't even have seat belts. But Huntley's colleague had been wearing his, and told Huntley it was the only reason he survived the crash. This prompted the two men to introduce a bill in the 1963 legislative session requiring that all new cars sold in the state after January 1, 1965, be equipped with a seat belt. It passed, but not without some dissent, as Huntley later recounted, quipping: "We had some John Birchers in the legislature at that time and they opposed it because it was against their constitutional rights" (Huntley, 35).
He was not as successful with another bill that he felt strongly about, which was the "implied consent" legislation. This legislation in essence would have required a suspected drunk or impaired driver to take a field sobriety test when stopped by the police, with severe consequences if the driver refused. Although Huntley sponsored or co-sponsored such a bill several times while he was in the House, it never made it to the floor for a vote. But he did see it become law some years later, after he had left the legislature.
The legislature was reapportioned shortly after Huntley's fifth term began in 1965. As a result he suddenly found that he would be forced to face off in the 1966 election against another representative from his district, Robert Goldsworthy (b. 1917), for a single position. Huntley didn't want to run against Goldsworthy, and a few weeks later an opportunity presented itself for him to bow out when Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) appointed him to the Highway Commission (now the Washington State Transportation Commission). Huntley resigned his house seat on March 26, 1965, to take his new position.
He was on the Highway Commission for a little more than two years, becoming chairman in 1966. Much of his work during the time dealt with issues surrounding the construction of Interstate 5 through Western Washington, as well as Interstate 405 through what is known as Seattle's "eastside." This included approving the routes that the highways eventually took, and attending numerous right-of-way hearings to discuss the construction's impact with affected landowners.
It also included attending ceremonial events. Opening freeways was heady stuff in the 1960s, and when freeway bridges or large sections of freeway were completed, there was usually a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by various state and local dignitaries and the requisite hometown beauty. An amusing picture in The Seattle Times on September 14, 1965, shows Huntley and several others (including Miss Bellevue, Betty Berryman), cutting a ribbon to open the Main Street overpass over I-405 in Bellevue in a soaking rainstorm.
Senator Elmer C. Huntley
In April 1967 state Senator Marshall Neill (1914-1979) was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Governor Evans, creating a vacant seat in the Senate. Neill was from Pullman and knew Huntley, and asked him if he was interested in being appointed to the seat. Huntley was enjoying his work on the Highway Commission and initially hesitated, but soon agreed and was sworn in to the Senate on April 24, 1967. (He was subsequently elected to the Senate in the 1968 election, winning handily with more than 71 percent of the vote.) As senator, Huntley served on the Agriculture Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, and several other committees, but he is best remembered for his work on the Senate's Highway Committee.
An especially straightforward man, Huntley met challenges and criticism of his work head on. For example, an article in The Seattle Times in November 1970 criticized the work of the legislature's Joint Committee on Highways for spending $1.3 million ($7.6 million in 2011 dollars) in state and federal funding on highway planning that seemed to be dragging on endlessly. Huntley, as chairman of the Subcommittee on Planning, answered that he felt the figure was too low if one factored in city, county, and state highway department contributions not included in the $1.3 million figure. He added "if you could get a handle on it, the total figure might be a great deal larger. But probably no other highway study has been so comprehensive" ("Money Issue Hobbles.") One gets the sense in reading his oral history that it was this candor and directness that made him a well-regarded senator among his colleagues.
In Public Service
Huntley's political career was once again sidetracked when the legislature was again reapportioned in 1972, and he lost his bid for re-election to the Senate that November. However, a few weeks after his term ended in January 1973, Governor Evans appointed him to the Utilities and Transportation Commission. After decades of maintaining their farm in Eastern Washington, Huntley and his wife moved west of the Cascades to Olympia -- a move he said he later regretted. But he diligently focused on his new job, which involved setting rates and regulating the services and practices of privately-owned utility and transportation companies in the state. Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) kept him on as commissioner for about four months after his term expired in January 1979, but, Huntley said, declined to appoint him to another full term since he was an Evans appointee.
Huntley also served on the state Toll Bridge Authority in the mid-1960s, and on the National Highway Transportation Safety Advisory Commission and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in the 1970s. In addition to his public service, he served on the boards of General Telephone, the Old National Bank of Washington, the Shriner's Hospital for Crippled Children, Spokane Deaconess Medical Center, and the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. He was also a 33rd Degree Mason, Past Grand Master of Masons in Washington state and Alaska, and Past Potentate of Spokane El Katif Shrine.
Looking back on his career in public service in the oral history interview done less than a year before his death, Huntley said he had enjoyed his work both in the legislature and on the commissions he served on: "I enjoyed the legislature, the camaraderie and everything that went with it. And the commissions, of course, I always felt that you were accomplishing something for the people that you were representing on them" (Huntley, 67).
Elmer Huntley died in his home in Olympia on May 13, 1994.