Governor Dan Evans and the Politics of Big Ideas
The political vernacular of Washington–widely seen as a consistently leaning
Democratic state– includes a term of almost universal endearment that has come to symbolize political moderation, courageous leadership and an almost mythical admiration and respect for the dignity of public service. The term is “Dan Evans Republican.”
The independent expenditures in favor of Rob McKenna’s campaign for governor worked tirelessly to transfer the mantel from our state’s only three term governor to the attorney general who was widely viewed as the most seasoned Republican candidate in decades. Democrats, too, are fain to deny striving to associate with Governor Evans. In my 2008 campaign, especially given the new Top Two primary system, I sought out his endorsement with unrelenting fervor, and remain deeply honored to be among the first Democrats he ever formally endorsed in such a race.
In my view, when Dan Evans formally endorsed Referendum 74 days before this year’s historic election, the admiration of so many citizens, notably those who would not have been familiar with his era, was cemented along with Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson as our state’s ultimate political heroes.
In 1964, Democrats swept all statewide offices save the governor’s mansion, where civil engineer and part-time state House of Representatives minority leader Dan Evans ascended.
Like most in government, I have long admired Governor Evans. Until recently, however, my knowledge of his service was mostly gleemed from political warhorse stories.
State Rep. Mary Ellen McCaffree was first sworn into office in 1963 as a Republican legislator representing the 32nd Legislative District in Seattle’s Wallingford area. Last year she co-authored, along with Anne McNamee Corbett, a book titled “Politics of the Possible.” The enticing story of Washington state politics in the 1960s, which I recently found on and borrowed from the private bookshelf of the late Sen. Scott White, is a must-read not only for legislators today but for those who are fascinated by the inside game of our government.
Rep. McCaffree sheds light into the inside nuance of the political team that started with Dan Evans, Slade Gorton and Joel Pritchard. Outside of the personalities, styles and idiosyncrasies of the numerous players in her story of serving as a legislator during the upheaval of those times, there is a powerful lesson in why Dan Evans carries such moral authority to this day.
One of Dan Evans’ first major challenges–a turning point in setting the foundation of his service–was to tackle the rise of the John Birch Society within the Republican Party. He choose to engage directly, to question their core values and to push back against efforts to consume the Republican Party with extreme philosophical rage.
From the outset, his formal legislative agenda included the importance of instituting population-based redistricting, a (flat rate) income tax, affirmative action and civil rights legislation, building services for children with developmental disabilities, progressive environmental initiatives, creation of the community and technical college system, creation of Evergreen State College and so much more.
Reading an inside account of the nuance of the legislative packages and efforts advocated by Governor Evans is humbling today as so many feel constricted by 7×24/365 media, on-going campaigns and demands of ideological purity.
I assume I wear slightly tinted rose colored glasses about Evans’ service. But in today’s time of cynicism, partisan resentfulness and influence of campaign cash, I’m more than pleased to enjoy a little political fantasy about a leader who made big ideas came alive. Perhaps I enjoyed the book so much because it validated nearly all of my existing biases and perceptions of the dignity of service from Governor Evans.
In my view, what made Evans’ service so extraordinary was his simple willingness to break with ideological orthodoxy and fixed perceptions. I treasure that conviction and courage, belief and dedication. If that one quality alone could be broadly instilled in our politics today, we could engage on a different level.
Regardless of the clarity of my lens, I am not shy in believing that Governor Evans was then and is to this day a courageous progressive in the mold of the noble ideal of those who do not accept the status quo. Fiscally responsible, socially and environmentally progressive and passionately dedicated to good government that is responsive to and connected to the people it serves.
I do not know if the Republican Party of today has room for a Dan Evans Republican. I don’t know if Dan Evans would even be a Republican in active party politics today. I do not know if the Republican Party or the Democratic Party of today has the courage, will or even desire to break with the orthodoxy of ideology. But I do know that there was a time when big ideas inspired a public service that looks different than the money-driven politics unleashed by Citizens United and a mad-dash for campaign cash that seems almost unstoppable.
There is no doubt in my own mind that the reason Dan Evans Republican carries such moral authority years after he left public office is that real people living real lives hunger for the politics of big thinking and bold ideas.
Your partner in service,