Hayner, Jeannette C. (1919-2010)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 12/01/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9643
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Despite a late start in politics and competing in a field dominated by men at the time, Jeannette C. Hayner became one of Washington's most powerful state legislators. In 1972 -- 30 years after getting her law degree and after raising three children -- she was elected to the State House of Representatives. Four years later she was elected to the State Senate. While still in her freshman term, she became leader of the Republican caucus in a surprising coup, and within two years was the first woman in state history to be Senate Majority Leader. Short, impeccably dressed, charming, and tough as nails, she ran her caucus with an iron fist, insisting that all members vote together. Her strong leadership made Republicans a force after years of domination by the Democrats. Although a staunch conservative, generally for limited government and against raising taxes, she also was a pragmatist who worked with the opposition to tackle budget crises and manage growth. She never lost an election. When she retired in 1993 at age 73, she had served as a caucus leader longer than anyone in state history. And then she helped launch TVW, Washington state's version of C-Span.

From Young Leader to Lawyer

She was born Jeannette Hafner on January 22, 1919, in Portland, Oregon, the only child of a creamery owner. At Jefferson High School she was an excellent student, a student body officer, and the only girl on the golf team. She earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon, where she studied business administration and was student body vice president and chapter president of Mortar Board, a national honor society that recognizes outstanding college seniors. A dean told her there was a bright future for women as lawyers, so she enrolled at the University of Oregon’s law school. There she met her future husband, H. H. "Dutch" Hahner (pronounced HAY-ner, and later changed so its spelling matched its pronunciation). He was a fellow law student, a Washington State University graduate from the farming community of Fairfield in Spokane County. Because his name was closest to hers alphabetically, he sat right behind her in class.

They were within months of getting their law degrees in 1942 when he was drafted into the army during World War II. She finished her studies and was one of only two women to graduate from Oregon’s law school that year. They were married on October 24 in an Army chapel at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas. About a year later, he was sent to Europe and the fighting there, and she returned to Portland and her parents’ home.

Her intent was to get a job with a Portland law firm. None would have her, so she became a legal counsel for the Bonneville Power Administration. Recalling that decision in 2007, she said, "I went to every big law firm in Portland, and they did not want a woman. So that’s why I went to work for the Bonneville Power Administration, because the government doesn’t discriminate that way. They can’t" (Jeannette Hayner: An Oral History, 10). She worked at BPA for two years, as an attorney involved in labor issues.

Moving to Walla Walla

Dutch returned from the war in 1945, and they went back to the University of Oregon. She worked for the university while he finished his law degree. After passing the bar exams in Oregon and Washington, he went to work in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland, but grew restless there. He was eager to return to Eastern Washington. The Hahners drove from town to town in that part of the state, with Dutch asking lawyers if they had a job for him. He accepted an offer from a law firm in Walla Walla, where they rented a house and put down roots.

Although Walla Walla had Whitman College, established 1882, the town was primarily a farming and ranching hub at the time. Being from a pioneer family counted for something. So did being a big landowner. But a post-war growth spurt was changing the landscape. Young professionals such as the Hahners were moving into town and gaining influence. Dutch joined the country club to make important contacts and soon formed a long-term legal partnership with W. L. "Shine" Minnick.

Jeannette, despite having a law degree of her own, followed the post-war trend for women of her generation and settled into the business of raising a family. They had three children -- Steven (b. 1948), James (b. 1950), and Judy (b. 1954). Although she considered herself a fulltime mother, Hahner was active in a variety of civic and charitable organizations. In 1956, she became the first woman to serve on the Walla Walla School Board, winning election despite being a write-in candidate. A women’s business group had convinced her to run after the deadline for being listed on the ballot. The way she told it, "I went to Sun Valley to ski one time and when I came back I discovered that I had been drafted ..." (Hayner Oral History, 182).

From Local to State Politics

Hahner (as her last name was spelled then) served for seven years on the school board, two as its chair, during a time that included a controversy over the fate of venerable Walla Walla High School. The town’s establishment had attended the old school, commonly known as Wa-Hi, and favored a plan to renovate it. Hahner was adamantly opposed. She favored building a large college-style campus that would qualify for state funding. After much battling, and drafting two allies who won spots on the board, she turned the tide of public opinion and prevailed. In 1964, the year after she left the board, the new school was completed on the edge of town. Its campus included separate buildings for administration, science, and music. The vacated Wa-Hi building became the first home of Walla Walla Community College.

As her children got older, Hahner increased her community involvement. In 1970, she was named Walla Walla Woman of the Year. By 1971, she had founded a local Meals on Wheels program, served on the YWCA Board of Directors, been a member of the Washington Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Walla Walla Youth and Family Services Advisory Board, and been chair of the county Mental Health Board and district chair of the White House Conference on Children and Youth. She also had been a Walla Walla County Republican State Committeewoman for two years. A political career was calling and she was interested.

With her youngest child, Judy, bound for Stanford University in the fall, Hahner decided to run for the open Sixteenth District seat in the State House of Representatives. She won a tough primary contest, going door-to-door to defeat three others candidates, two of them prominent men in the community, and then easily won the general election in November 1972. She was 53. After she was elected,  she and Dutch changed their last name to Hayner. His family name originally had an umlaut over the "a," making Hahner sound like Hayner. They changed to a phonetic spelling to eliminate confusion; they said people were having trouble finding Hahner in the phone book.

Moving Up to the Senate

When she arrived in Olympia in 1973, Jeannette Hayner was one of eight women in the House. There were none in the Senate. Women had served in the state Legislature as early as 1913, but always comprised a tiny minority and rarely achieved power. As a new representative, Hayner was given a desk in a hallway and shared a secretary with two other legislators. She served on the Judiciary, Education, and Constitution and Elections committees, and gained prominence by debating with Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) against a state income tax. She was re-elected in 1974 and served as minority whip.

In 1976, party officials asked her to run for a vacant Senate seat. Opposing her was a well-known Walla Walla farmer, along with some local sentiment that a woman shouldn’t be running for State Senate. The election was extremely close, with absentee ballots finally winning it for Hayner.

Democrats had a 30-19 majority when she took her seat in the back row of the Senate in 1977. Republicans had been in the minority for 22 years and some of them believed that their leader, Senator Jim Matson of Selah, had grown satisfied with the status quo. Senator George Scott of Seattle was among those who wanted their caucus to aggressively try for majority status. They began plotting to oust Matson, meeting secretly and quietly recruiting others to their cause. "We were in the midst of a crisis in the caucus, and I had wanted to change leadership and either get in the majority or get out," Scott recalled in 2007. "I looked back (in the Senate chamber), and there was Jeannette, bright-eyed, articulate, and serious about the business of government, who was a ‘legitimate’ conservative, and from Eastern Washington, and thus a logical partner" (Colleague’s Commentary, Hayner Oral History, 120).

Gaining Caucus Leadership

Hayner began attending the secret meetings. Near the end of the 1979 session the group was big enough to take control of the caucus but none of its organizers had enough support to become caucus leader. Hayner, still in her first term, emerged as a compromise candidate. "Jeannette now had credibility, was obviously very intelligent, very well-prepared educationally, and very serious about making her contribution to the operation of government, which I think was her central motivation," Scott said (Colleague’s Commentary, Hayner Oral History, 121). She had the added advantages of being conservative and from Eastern Washington, which widened her appeal.

The shocker came in May, about a week before the end of the session. Senator Kent Pullen stood up in a caucus meeting and moved to replace the old leadership. Matson, who had led the caucus since 1972, was blind-sided. Within minutes, reportedly by a 10-9 vote, Matson was out and Hayner was in. At age 60, she became the first woman in state history to hold a top leadership post in the legislature. "There was a stunned silence on the floor of the Senate when it became apparent a woman was about to become the leader of her caucus," Senator Lois North wrote in a forward to Hayner’s 2007 Oral History. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it a revolt (May 31, 1979). The Seattle Times said it was "a startling upset" (June 1, 1979).

A top priority for the new caucus leader was getting more Republicans elected. Her party gained four seats in 1980 for a total of 23, still in the minority but with uncommon clout because of Hayner’s ability to hold them together. "As a minority leader, I insisted that every bill that passed the House we would discuss in our caucus so that we could be as effective as possible. We didn’t have people just going their own way. Even though we were in the minority, if we approved of that bill, we were going to vote together. That was very powerful because the Democrats did not always have control of their people" (Hayner Oral History, 114-115).

Running the Majority

With the Republicans just one seat shy of a majority, Hayner approached Democratic Senator Peter von Reichbauer of Vashon in late 1980 and told him he was a Republican at heart and should join her caucus. On February 13, 1981, von Reichbauer did just that, giving Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years. Not only was it an unprecedented for a single legislator switching parties to change the majority, but also, for the first time, it made a woman Senate Majority Leader. Republicans lost majority status in 1982 but regained a one-vote majority in 1987, and Hayner remained Senate Majority Leader until she retired in 1992.

Keeping her caucus united was crucial for the Republicans, since they were dealing with a Democratic majority in the House and a Democratic governor, Booth Gardner (b. 1936). Hayner applied the so-called "rule of thirteen," meaning that any measure gaining 13 votes in caucus meetings would get all 25 Republican votes on the Senate floor. It was one thing to insist on that rule, but another entirely to get members to abide by it. She did -- staying calm and focused under pressure. "She was a natural leader, relentlessly practical and positive," Scott said. "She kept working the problem" (Colleague’s Commentary, Hayner Oral History, 132).

Hayner was sometimes described as patrician, a member of her hometown’s "royalty," As one friend put it, "She golfs with old Walla Walla." But her approach to the job was strictly blue collar. She routinely arrived at her desk at 7 a.m., without breakfast, and often stayed until 11 p.m. Colleagues remember her sipping hot water while she worked, sometimes even as a substitute for dinner. Reporters noted that she was trim, younger looking than her age, always well dressed, and ladylike. She agreed on that last point. "I have always conducted myself in a ladylike manner,’" she told one reporter, offering this formula: "Think like a man, work like a dog, and act like a lady" (The Seattle Times, January 4, 1981).

Generally, she opposed higher taxes and supported education. When cuts had to be made, she looked first at social service programs because she wasn’t convinced they were effective. She maintained that she had no agenda, other than "to see this place work. I want to see us do the best job we can" (Hayner Oral History, 156).

‘The Joe and Jeannette Show’

Throughout Hayner’s final five years as Majority Leader, Democratic Representative  Joe King of Vancouver was Speaker of the House. As rivals, they butted heads, but as pragmatists, they realized they needed to work together to get things done. Their dual reign came to be known as "the Joe and Jeannette Show." They were an odd couple: he a 6-foot-4, bombastic Baby Boom liberal, she a 5-foot-2 refined conservative from the previous generation. It helped that they appreciated each other’s direct but respectful style of negotiating. They came to enjoy their sparring, even to like each other. Long after both had retired, King recalled with amusement that when he introduced himself to her in 1987, she jabbed a finger up at him, all but poking him in the chest, demanding to know whether he was holding up one of her bills (TVW, Jeannette Hayner Recognition Ceremony, October 15, 2005).

King started calling Hayner "the Margaret Thatcher of the Washington Legislature,’ after the forceful Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Asked about that in 2007, Hayner said, "Oh, I’ve got a picture downstairs that they gave me that they framed with my picture and Margaret Thatcher’s picture. But I don’t think that’s all bad. I would certainly rather have that kind of a label attached to me than one that she was wishy-washy or that she didn’t know her own mind or had to ask everybody how they were going to vote before she could decide how she was going to vote" (Hayner Oral History, 141).

One of the biggest challenges they confronted together was a budget crisis. When Hayner had faced a similar one in 1981, she concluded the Legislature would have to raise taxes, and even though that went against her nature, she -- ever the pragmatist -- worked hard to win the necessary votes. A decade later the state was in similar financial trouble. King and other Democrats wanted to raise taxes again. This time she said no, but then worked with them to find other solutions. Together they were able to close the gap, and without a tax increase. King credited Hayner: "Without Jeannette it is unlikely we could have solved our $900 million budget problem within 60 days this year" (Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, May 6, 1992).

Managing Growth

One of their biggest accomplishments was reaching agreement on growth management. They had very different perspectives. King, who lived in Western Washington, was alarmed by the uncontrolled building and increasing traffic he confronted daily. Hayner, on the other hand, lived in a sparsely populated county, and was wary of government regulations that might interfere with private property rights. When several Snohomish County commissioners lost their seats to anti-growth candidates in 1989, King was able to persuade her that growth management was a top concern among voters and should be a priority for the Legislature. They worked together to pass a Growth Management Act in April 1990. And then, prodded by environmentalists, Hayner and King worked together to strengthen the bill in 1991. At the same time, she was able to claim a victory of sorts for Republicans because the rules were less restrictive for rural counties than for urban ones.

The revised Growth Management Act earned bipartisan praise for the Republican leader. "Whatever her personal doubts, Hayner respected and responded to strong public sentiment for growth-management legislation with backbone," The Seattle Times editorialized. "Powerful business and government lobbies pushed hard in the other direction, but Hayner refused to budge, and she held the Senate Republicans together. A gritty performance" (June 30, 1991).

Late in her career, Hayner persuaded the Legislature to establish a $280 million reserve account, a so-called rainy-day fund. She backed the Running Start Bill, which allowed students to earn college credits while in high school, and a law making bike helmets mandatory, on the grounds that it would reduce the amount of public money spent on accident victims. She also was outspoken on a gamut of political and social issues. She opposed state lotteries because she was against gambling. She resisted Governor Gardner’s push for legislation to crack down on hate crimes, because of what she saw as undue emphasis on homosexuals. She said claims of sexuality-based discrimination were "blown way out of proportion. I’m not sure that that’s happened" (The Seattle Times, January 25, 1990). She also suggested that the most appropriate punishment for sexual predators might be castration.

After 20 Years, Retirement

In May 1992, at age 73 with five grandchildren, she announced she would not seek re-election. Although she loved working in the Legislature, she said she had no qualms about quitting: "I thought I could be more effective the longer I was there, but then when it got to be twenty years, I said, ‘That’s enough’" (Hayner Oral History, 231). Reaction was mixed. State Democratic chairwoman Karen Marchioro said Hayner had been a roadblock to progressive legislation. Organizers for farm workers rejoiced. They saw Hayner as an enemy after she said novice farm workers didn’t deserve a minimum wage because they ate more strawberries than they put in their baskets. But legislators on both sides of the aisle saluted her for her fairness and ability to keep her caucus united. King called her "my favorite conservative," and Senator Linda Smith, a Republican from Vancouver, said, "She’s very wise. She carries no chip on her shoulder. She has been one of the strongest leaders I have ever seen" (Union Bulletin, May 8, 1992).

Hayner already had been named Legislator of the Year by the National Republican Legislators Association in 1986. Whitman College gave her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1992, shortly after her retirement announcement. Although she left the Senate, Hayner continued to serve on several boards and committees, as well as direct campaign strategy and help raise money for Republican candidates.

Since she had been an advocate of open government while in office, she was recruited to be the first chair of the Board of Directors for TVW, a state public affairs broadcasting network being modeled after C-Span, the cable television station that shows unedited federal government proceedings. Co-founder Denny Heck wanted TVW to be seen as non-partisan, so he sought Hayner as a balance to his Democratic ties. The move temporarily backfired when Democratic Majority League Marc Gaspard cited Hayner’s ongoing work on behalf of Republicans as evidence that TVW would be biased. TVW began airing other state government proceedings in 1995, but did not begin coverage of the Legislature until January 8, 1996, after Gaspard had retired. When TVW later moved to a new building, it was named for Hayner.

She died on November 26, 2010, at an assisted living home in Walla Walla, at the age of 91. Her husband of 67 years, Dutch, had died nine months earlier. A diminutive woman with a powerful presence, she was remembered both for her willingness to find common ground with her political opponents and for her steadfast refusal to consider herself a trailblazer. She shunned the label "feminist" and once pointed out that during 20 years of winters in Olympia, she never once wore pants to the office. "I treated everyone as individuals," she said in a 2004 interview with The Seattle Times, "not as a male or female" (May 7, 2004).


Jeannette Hayner: An Oral History, ed. by Sharon Boswell (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 2007), (http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/collection/pdf/hayner.pdf); Edward D. Seeberger, Sine Die: A Guide to the Washington State Legislative Process (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 144-146; Rex Allison, "Hahner: Ability Comes Before Issues," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, September 15, 1972, p. 9; Mike Layton, "State Senate GOP Revolts and Picks a New Leader, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 31, 1979, p. A-1; Lyle Burt, "Rapid Rise to Top Post for Freshman from Walla Walla," The Seattle Times, June 1, 1979; Peter Rinearson, "Jeannette Hayner GOP Caucus Leader, Ibid., November 8, 1980; Rinearson, "Minority Leader is Queen of the ‘Men’s Club,’" Ibid., January 4, 1981; David Ammons, "They Are the Best of Enemies," Ibid., January 21, 1990, p. B-2; TVW, "Jeannette Hayner Recognition Ceremony," October 17, 2005, Washington State Public Affairs TV Network website accessed November 2010 (www.tvw.org); Walter Hatch, "Legislature’s Titans Too Pragmatic to Clash," The Seattle Times, February 14, 1988; p. B-1; Editorial, "Promises Kept -- King and Hayner Deliver a Growth Bill in Olympia," The Seattle Times, June 30, 1991; Associated Press, "Hayner Won’t Run," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, May 6, 1992, p. 1; Mark Matassa, "Eloquent Plea for Gay Rights," The Seattle Times, January 25, 1990, p. A-1; Jim Simon, "Lawmakers Urge Castration For State’s Sexual Predators," Ibid., January 10, 1990, p. A-1; Associated Press, "Group Seeks Funds For Full TV Coverage of State Legislature," Ibid., August 31, 1993, p. B-3; Drake Witham, "Debate in the House is Going On TV Today," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 8, 1996, p. A-4; Rick Eskil, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, "Obituary: Jeannette Hayner, 91, Former State Senate Majority Leader," The Seattle Times, November 29, 2010 (seattletimes.nwsource.com); Lynda V. Mapes, "With Grit and Grace, Six Strong Women Show Us the Way," The Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest Magazine, May 7, 2004 (seattletimes.nwsource.com).

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