Dissident Democrats form coalition with Republicans to elect Democrat William S. Day speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives on January 14, 1963.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/06/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10654

On January 14, 1963, the Republican minority in the Washington State House of Representatives joins with a small group of dissident Democrats to oust long-serving Democratic speaker John L. O'Brien (1911-2007) and elect Spokane Democrat William S. Day (1923-1984) in his place. The stunning upset stems from the Democrats' long-running intraparty battle over public versus private power, which had turned particularly nasty during the 1961 legislative session. With mainstream Democrats substantially increasing their House majority in the 1964 election, Day will serve only one term as speaker. He will keep his seat in the House through the 1967 session and then serve three terms in the state Senate before being defeated in 1980. 

The Ideological Divide

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Washington's Democratic legislators had much in common but some significant points of disagreement. Almost all were pro-labor and most supported many if not all programs for the disadvantaged, the elderly, and the disabled. In the early days of environmental awareness, they often stood united or nearly so on the side of the environment. But there were differences on a range of other issues large and small, and the wheels really came off the party bandwagon over the fundamental question of the proper role of government vis-a-vis private enterprise.

Disagreements about who could best provide basic utility services had a long history in the state. Early in the twentieth century, Seattle voters, then served by the private Seattle Electric Company, passed a bond issue to construct a hydroelectric plant on the Cedar River. It went into service in 1905 and was the first such facility in the country to be owned by a municipality. An immediate success, it led in 1910 to the creation of Seattle City Light. The private Seattle Electric Company would later be renamed Puget Sound Power and Light.

As electricity spread into new areas, the public/private debate spread with it. As late as 1930, 90 percent of American farms had no electric service, and private power companies shunned the potential market as unprofitable. To fill the gap, Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 and the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935. These huge government endeavors at last brought power to rural America, and did so profitably.

Public power utilities arose from the democratic process, either by ballot or by legislative action. Private power companies as often as not were components of much larger conglomerates. It is not surprising that government at all levels often sought to nurture and strengthen public utilities. This could be done in a variety of ways, including providing subsidies and granting to them some of the powers usually reserved to government. Advocates of free enterprise, and there were many, saw this as unfair government meddling in the workings of a free market. These issues bedeviled the state's Democrats for decades.

The Pot Boils

William S. Day, a successful Spokane chiropractor, was first elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1958. He was a strong supporter of labor and an equally strong opponent of big government and the taxes needed to run it. He was generally conservative on most issues, but not ideologically rigid. Where he did lack flexibility was on what he viewed as the proper and limited role of government:

"I believe in the free enterprise system. I believe in taxing that system to support necessary government services. I think government should be in business only when it is impossible for private individuals to do the job" ("Day Looms Large ...").

Not surprisingly, when it came to the long debate over public versus private power, Day supported the private sector. Nor was he alone; nearly all Republicans and at least a few like-minded Democrats saw things the same way. This set the stage for a confrontation that would roil the Democratic Party for several years in the early 1960s.

The public-vs.-private-power debate had been dormant for some time, but in 1959, Bill Day's first year in the legislature, it sparked into life. The two main opponents went back a long way: Seattle City Light, the pioneering public utility started in 1910, and Puget Sound Power & Light Company, which traced it roots to the Stone & Webster utility cartel, based in Massachusetts but active in Seattle and the Puget Sound region since 1900. The two had been competing for decades, and at about the time Day first entered the House things had become very hot indeed.

The Battle Is Joined

In the late 1950s, Seattle City Light decided to extend its services to the industrial areas in and around Tukwila, an independent city to the south of Seattle that was incorporated in 1908. Puget Sound Power & Light had served Tukwila for decades and believed it had the right to continue doing so, free of competition from a public utility that was owned by a different city. This raised the issue of whether utilities owned by cities and counties should be allowed to extend service to areas beyond their own borders. Nothing in state law prohibited it, so in 1959 private power pushed for passage of a law, designated Senate Bill 365, that would prohibit such extraterritorial expansion. It failed.

Events after the legislature adjourned that year brought little comfort to Puget Sound Power and other private power utilities. In June, Tacoma City Light announced plans to purchase, or if necessary condemn, PSP's holdings in south King County. Public utilities had long had the power of eminent domain under state law, but to use that power to take over the assets of direct competitors struck many as unfair and inimical to the unfettered competition so valued by free-market advocates. In the case of Tacoma, exercising the power would extend its reach not just beyond city limits, but across a county line. Frank McLaughlin, the president of Puget Sound Power, tried to make light of the threat: "I don't regard this as too serious. Next they'll be planning to extend to San Francisco and Los Angeles" ("Tacoma Seeks ... ").

McLaughlin was whistling in the graveyard. Next up was Thurston County, which announced plans to condemn Puget Sound Power's facilities in the home county of the state legislature. What was happening in the Puget Sound region was seen as an existential threat to all private power utilities, and they prepared to storm the 1961 legislature to seek relief.

As Ye Sow ...

When the 1961 legislative session began, private-utility supporters had ready a bill that they believed would turn the tide in their favor. It was not complicated, did not seem unreasonable on its face, and did not strip public utilities of their quasi-governmental powers. Rather, it proposed "to require public utility districts to submit to the voters any condemnation action against a private utility and also any bond issue ... which would be used to finance such condemnation" ("Legislators to Pass Upon ... ").

Democrats held a 59-40 margin in the House, and most opposed the measure, known as House Bill 197. But about a dozen party members joined with minority Republicans to keep the issue alive, and the debate dragged on for four days, tying up the House and delaying action on a host of other issues. Proponents claimed HB 197 simply upheld the people's right to vote; opponents said it was an attempt to gut public utilities. The Speaker of the House, John L. O'Brien, strongly opposed the legislation. He was a master of procedure and used his skills to help defeat the proposal. Tempers flared, insults flew, and HB 197 finally went down to defeat.

Democratic supporters of HB 197, including Bill Day and a handful others, felt bulldozed by their own party, and particularly by speaker O'Brien. These feelings were further aggravated when one pro-private-power Democrat, Representative Robert A. Perry (ca. 1922-1991) of Seattle, was fired as business agent for Local 46 of the Electrical Workers' Union, reportedly because he supported the bill. Day, Perry, and other dissident Democrats had 18 months to stew about it, and when next the party met, they were ready.

So Shall Ye Reap

The state Democratic convention was held in Bellingham in August 1962, and it was from the start a tense and raucous affair. Although the public/private debate had kept the pot boiling since 1961, a McCarthy-era law aimed at domestic communism was the issue that caused it to bubble over.

The majority of party delegates opposed certain provisions of the rather draconian McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, a federal law passed when a near-hysterical fear of communist subversion was loose in the land. They introduced a plank to the party platform that called for the law's modification and the elimination of loyalty oaths. Most of the Democrats who supported private utilities were also fiercely anti-communist, and they opposed the plank. When a motion by Bill Day to remove it from the platform lost on a voice vote, all hell broke loose. Democratic Representative W. L. "Bill" McCormick (1925-1968) of Spokane stood and announced that he could no longer support the party's platform. He and the other 24 delegates from Spokane, including Day, then walked dramatically out of the convention.

Republicans capitalized on the disarray in the next election, and House Democrats did not fare well, losing eight seats and escaping with a slim 51-49 edge. Those who did get elected scheduled their pre-session caucus for December 3, 1962, in Olympia, and would there choose their candidate for speaker. It was widely believed that the entrenched O'Brien, serving a then-unprecedented fourth term in the seat, was invincible and could retain the speakership for as long as his party held the majority.

But the chickens of previous years were not yet done coming home to roost. Two Democrats who were particularly bruised in the utility wars, Day and Perry, announced before the caucus vote that under no circumstances would they support O'Brien for speaker. This meant that when the entire House met in January, and the Republicans as expected voted as a bloc, O'Brien would have less than the 50 votes needed for a first-ballot victory. Nonetheless, most observers, having seen the cagey veteran get his way over the years, were confident that he would find a way to keep the speakership.

High Drama

Unbeknownst to almost everyone except the participants, on the evening of January 13, 1963, dissident Democrats met in secret with the Republican House leadership at a house "down this dark road, out in the country" (Joel M. Pritchard ...). The identity of all those who attended that meeting remains uncertain, but it appears that both Day and Perry were there, and on the Republican side Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925), who was House minority leader, and Slade Gorton (b. 1928). There were no doubt several others, and names mentioned in some sources include Bill McCormick, who led the convention walkout the previous August, and Dick Kink, a Democrat from Bellingham.

At this clandestine meeting, the decision was made to form a coalition between the dissidents and the minority Republicans. When the legislature convened next day for the 1963 session, the rebellious Democrats caucused with the unified Republicans. (Even the exact number of Democrats who caucused with the Republicans is difficult to pin down, with different accounts claiming six, seven, eight, or nine.) This immediately signaled O'Brien and his many supporters that he was in trouble, but they remained confident of victory.

The House's first order of business was the election of a speaker. No one knew at that point whether the Republican/Democrat coalition would try to put Dan Evans in the speaker's chair or one of the dissident Democrats, most likely Bill Day (who had come by the nickname "Big Daddy," which, at six foot three and weighing in at more than 300 pounds, he accepted with good humor). The answer was not long in coming.

On the first ballot, the count was 48 votes for Evans (all Republican), 45 for O'Brien, and six for Bill Day. After an equally inconclusive second ballot, Evans gave the signal to the Republicans to shift their votes to Day. Because voting was alphabetical, the first Republican to rise was Representative Alfred "Doc" Adams (ca. 1897-1989), a patrician Spokane Republican. Adams, a successful orthopedic surgeon, had little belief in the health benefits of chiropractic and made no effort to conceal his opinions about it. He and Bill Day were longtime adversaries -- they had often clashed over the regulation of chiropractors and on other issues. Although both men were from Spokane, they had little else in common and disliked each other intensely.

Before the third ballot began, O'Brien must have known he was in very deep trouble, but he seemed to many observers to simply not believe it. But when Adams rose and cast his vote for Day, the first Republican to do so, it was game, set, and match. As Jim Dolliver (1924-2004), a Republican House member and later justice of the state Supreme Court recalled:

"The first Republican voter was Al Adams, an orthopedic surgeon. You can imagine his feelings about voting for a chiropractor. I'll never forget it. Adams turned around and said in a very loud voice, 'Day.' And away it went. About a third of the way through the roll call, when the Speaker began to realize that he was going to lose because of the coalition, he came roaring down the central aisle, but it was too late. The votes had already been cast" (James M. Dolliver ...).

O'Brien's stunned response was noted by Republican legislator Elmer Huntley (1915-1994):

"Dr. Adams, of course, was the lead-off voter for the coalition when he voted for Day. And John O'Brien was sitting about three rows over from us and he couldn't come straight through, the way the desks were positioned so he jumped over one and he came to where Dr. Adams and I were sitting and he put his hand on Doc's shoulder and he said, 'Let's talk this over a little bit. Let's talk this over.' Doc says, 'John, we've been talking this over for the last few years'" (Elmer Huntley ...).

Speaker Day

For something so public, there is considerable disagreement in news reports about the final vote count. Some sources say Day won all 48 Republican votes plus nine from the Democrats. Others say one Republican couldn't bring himself to vote for a Democrat, and that Day received only eight dissident votes. There are one or two other versions that present slightly different variations. Whatever the precise count, Day won and O'Brien lost.

Bill Day's reign as speaker lasted just one session. In the 1964 election, Democrats regained a comfortable margin in the House, sufficient to fend off any small group of defectors. The next speaker would be Democrat Robert M. Schaefer (b. 1930) from Vancouver. O'Brien would never regain the seat that many thought was his for life.

Day's tenure in the speaker's chair was bedeviled by the complex, highly partisan legal and political issue of redistricting, which the legislature was under pressure from the federal courts to accomplish. It failed to do so in the 1963 session, and the courts would again intervene. But Day did surprise some with his performance as speaker. One Tacoma reporter wrote:

"Biggest surprise -- the function of the coalition in the House and Speaker William S. Day's ability to wield the gavel. Day came comparatively green to the speaker's platform, but gained considerable success with his ability. He became well liked and admired even among many of the regular Democrats who wouldn't dare say so publicly, but will tell you so privately. The regular Democrats expected the coalition to fall apart for at least the first 45 days of the regular session, but if anything it got more solid, accomplished reforms in legislative procedures, worked hard, and really screened all legislation that came to the floor" ("When Good ...").

Day switched to the Senate in the 1968 election, winning a seat from the same Spokane district he had represented in the House. He was reelected twice, but in 1980 was defeated in the Reagan sweep by someone more conservative, Republican Bob McCaslin (ca. 1927-2011). In his last years, Day worked as a lobbyist for the state chiropractors' association, and he died on May 27, 1984, at the age of 61. O'Brien, his fellow Democrat but bitter enemy, would outlive him by nearly a quarter century before passing away on April 22, 2007, at age 95.

Sources: "25 Spokane Delegates Bolt Demo Meeting," The Seattle Times, June 23, 1962, p. 1; E. B. Fussell, "Utilities in Fight over Service Area," Ibid., February 20, 1959, p. 25; "Tacoma Seeks Puget Power Properties," Ibid., June 16, 1959, p. 12; Ed Guthman, "Legislators to Pass Upon Renewed Rivalries of Public and Private Power Interests," Ibid., January 5, 1961, p. 10; "Power Firms Contemplate Initiative," Ibid., December 22, 1961, p. 38; "Solon Who Backed Private Power Loses Union Job," Ibid., April 14, 1961, p. 7; "Day Looms Large (300 Lbs.) as Speaker," Ibid., January 15, 1963, p. A; Jack Pyle, "When Good, Was Very, Very Good, But When Bad, 'Twas Horrid," Tacoma News-Tribune, April 6, 1963; "Communism in Washington State," University of Washington Communism in Washington State History and Memory Project website accessed October 25, 2013 (http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/cpproject/); "Emergence of Electrical Utilities in America," Smithsonian National Museum of American History website accessed October 25, 2013 (http://americanhistory.si.edu/powering/past/h1main.htm); "Puget Sound Power & Light Company Records: Organizational History," Western Washington University Center for Pacific Northwest Studies website accessed October 25, 2013 (http://west.wwu.edu/cpnws/findingaids/cpnws/puget/pugethist.htm); Elmer Huntley: An Oral History (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 1996), 35, 37, available at Washington State Legislature Oral History website (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/huntley.pdf); Joel M. Pritchard: An Oral History (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 2000), 98, 99, available at Washington State Legislature Oral History website (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/pritchard/pritchardfull.pdf); James M. Dolliver: An Oral History (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 1999), 33, available at Washington State Legislature Oral History website (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/dolliver.pdf); "The Formation of the Coalition: 1963," Washington State Legislature Oral History website accessed October 19, 2013 (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/timeline_event.aspx?e=40); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "City Light's Birth and Seattle's Early Power Struggles, 1886-1950" (by Walt Crowley), "Day, William Scott (1923-1984)" (by John Caldbick), and "Cedar Falls hydroelectric plant begins lighting Seattle streets on January 10, 1905" (by Gregg Lange), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 26, 2013).

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