Opinion

Commentary: Tacoma had its own political drama

I was feeling a bit wistful after hearing that yet another governor was indicted for corruption.

This time it was Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, who was arrested after being indicted on suspicion of soliciting bribes from people interested in the U.S. Senate appointment to replace Barack Obama.

Now that's the kind of governor that could make a newsie's day or year. It's perverse, I know, but it does get a bit boring in the Northwest where our elected officials tend toward the Boy Scout edge of the spectrum.

Say what you want about John Spellman, Booth Gardner, Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire. Chances are you will never say the word "exciting." Mike Lowry is as close as we have gotten lately to a character who could be considered a character. And poof, he was gone after just one term.

Good-government types might consider this a blessing. Good-government types have never had to maintain reader interest in state politics for more than a few weeks.

There was a time, however, when the life of a reporter was made blissful by a batch of politicians, local politicians. And, come to think of it, one even talking of trading political favors for an appointment to the Senate.

The problem for then-Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, however, was that the Senate seat wasn't vacant. It was held by longtime U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson.

Despite being from the same party – technically at least – Dixy and Maggie were not friendly. Shortly after the Tacoma novice had taken office in 1977, Magnuson thwarted her dream of a huge oil port at Cherry Point by quietly – and quite skillfully – slipping an amendment into a spending bill that banned such a project. For that, Dixy dubbed Magnuson a "dictator."

A bit later Maggie, hard-drinking and fun-loving, was diagnosed with diabetes. That led to speculation that he might not survive his current term in the Senate and led Dixy to suggest that a Senate appointment might be available to powerful politicians who did what she wanted them to do.

It was such a potent offer that Dixy made it to three, at least – state Senate Majority Leader Gordon Walgren, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams and U.S. Rep. Mike McCormack. It wasn't illegal, just tacky.

When word leaked out, Maggie wasn’t amused.

1980 was a wacky year in state and national politics. It started with the federal indictments of Washington's speaker of the house (John Bagnariol) and Senate majority leader (Walgren) for allegedly trying to expand gambling in return for payoffs.

Mount St. Helens erupted in May, and the year ended with a big Reagan landslide. That year's Democratic convention in Hoquiam was the beginning of the end for Washington Democrats.

After Ray gave her speech to delegates, Maggie – who unlike Dixy was loved by most Democrats – took the stage for his keynote address. With the governor seated behind him, Maggie laid into her.

In his biography of Ray for Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Bates Technical College history teacher Kurt Schaefer recounts what Maggie said: "Now, one more thing. While I’ve been back in Washington working on problems of the state and nation, I hear that some have been bartering my job.

"Well, I want to tell the governor and any other governor there ain't gonna be any vacancy in the U.S. Senate."

The crowd roared. Dixy stomped out of the room.

Magnuson lost his bid for a seventh term to Slade Gorton that November. Dixy lost the Democratic primary to Jim McDermott who, in turn, lost to Spellman – the last Republican to hold that office.

Three years later, there was a vacancy in the U.S. Senate following the sudden death of Henry "Scoop" Jackson. But it wasn't Dixy making the appointment of another Democrat – it was Spellman who appointed a fellow Republican, Dan Evans.

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