Durkan’s kind of class seldom seen now

The radio was playing when Sen. Martin James Durkan was in his office in Olympia.

That was to foil any efforts by his enemies to secretly tape conversations in there, the Issaquah Democrat told me.

No, he wasn’t paranoid. He’d already been stung by the chief aide of his No. 1 enemy in the Senate, who arranged for a “trapping” device to be placed on Durkan’s telephone, without consulting anyone in Senate authority about it. “Trapping” records phone numbers on all incoming and outgoing calls.

The aide, who said he was trying to catch an obscene caller when an outraged Durkan found out about it, was fired and sued Durkan for libel but the jury found for Durkan.

Durkan, who died last week at 81, was one of the class acts of politics and one of my first friends when I became the first woman political reporter to cover the Legislature in 1961. He’d been a senator since 1957, sworn in on the same day as Rep. Dan Evans, against whom he would run for governor twice, losing in the Democratic primary to John J. O’Connell in 1968 and Al Rosellini in 1972.

I eventually wrote 65 columns about him.

I called him Senator Sly and Lurkin’ Durkan for the way he moved around as if on roller skates. He had a particular glide I attributed to the fact he had been badly wounded in World War II at Saipan and Okinawa. He almost lost a leg and had, I’m told, a chest full of shrapnel holes.

At one point he was given last rites. He never talked about it. Another ex-Marine lawmaker told me.

Durkan didn’t drink. He did once but handled it poorly and went teetotaler after a long talk with a Catholic priest who told him you can’t smell the cork if you want to be other than a Skid Row bum.

He had to choose between a taste for booze and a taste for power and he chose power. He still prowled the night clubs and the bars at night, drinking 7-Up and lining up votes.

As the longtime chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he was the most powerful man in the Legislature. When some Senate legislators began a move to close down the two veterans homes at Retsil and Orting, Durkan simply gathered all the bills that affected Seattle into his committee and none moved until the danger to the homes was eliminated.

He was a man of his word, but you had to listen. When a county official complained to Gov. Evans that Durkan had promised to bring a bill out to the floor of the Senate and never did, Evans said, “Oh, you have to pin him down better than that. He brought it out on the fourth floor of the Senate. You have to make him specify which floor he’s talking about.”

Durkan was a fine lawyer, often retained by Attorney General Slade Gorton to handle special cases. When Durkan was up for re-election in 1970, with an eye toward running for governor in 1972, huge billboards appeared in Spokane reading, “Washington Needs Durkan’s Leadership.”

Pretty far from the 47th District in King County, chided the media. Durkan said he was outraged and embarrassed by the billboard company’s mistake and would demand a refund.

Another time he was in Spokane at a cities convention and he walked out of the Ridpath Hotel on the heels of a bunch of Republican legislators for whom two state patrol cars were waiting. Durkan addressed a small group of onlookers. “Let me show you a Democrat. CAB!”

When he announced in 1974 he was hanging it up, I asked him what was the best thing he accomplished in his 18 years in the Senate. “The thing that made it worth it,” he said, “was funding of people on public assistance, the mentally retarded and the mentally ill. Whether Rosellini or Evans likes it or not, I established a norm of at least reasonable funding for the poor. That beat me for governor. Rosellini put out an ad saying Durkan increased every budget and really the only one was social services. The one thing I really feel comfortable about is that I never wheeled or dealed there. I never compromised on that, even in conference. Sure, on other things I did, but if you’re not willing to compromise, you’re not going to get anything done.”

Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69, Hansville, WA, 98340.

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