Hurley, Margaret (1909-2015)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/17/2013
  • Essay 10687
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Margaret Hurley, a teacher, mother, and elected official, represented the 3rd District in Spokane in the Washington State Legislature for 32 years. She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, winning a seat vacated when her husband, Rep. Joseph E. Hurley (1910-1968) decided not to seek re-election. She then served 13 terms in the state House of Representatives, from 1953 to 1979, and one term and part of another in the state Senate from 1979 to 1984. She came from Irish Catholic stock and was a lifelong Democrat, but had a reputation as a fiscal conservative who rarely toed the party line. She vigorously opposed new taxation and said that she was simply representing the interests of her working-class constituents. Her vote was often a swing vote and she played key roles in electing Speaker of the House John O'Brien (1911-2007) in 1955, and then deposing him in 1963. In the latter part of her career, she became increasingly concerned with environmental issues, battling the route of a north-south freeway in Spokane and warning of the dangers of radioactive contamination at Hanford.


Margaret Ellen Hurley was born Margaret Ellen Morse on September 10, 1909, on a farm in Winnebago, Minnesota. She was the eighth and final child of David Hall Morse and Margaret Morse. When Margaret Hurley was 2, her father went to a fair in Spokane and fell in love with the city. He immediately moved the family to a small house in northeast Spokane. He started his own business selling lumber and firewood. Hurley later described him as "sort of a fly-by-night type of person, sort of irresponsible and handsome" (Hurley, p.4).  Her mother was a strong and beautiful second-generation Irish-Catholic, "a very refined person" and "elegant in her manners," who was determined to raise strong, capable, educated children (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 1).

When Hurley was 5, her father moved the family to a farm in the Methow Valley, which produced alfalfa and apples. Margaret remembered it as an idyllic time. "We had so much freedom," she said. "We didn't have to watch for traffic. We didn't have to worry about anybody hiding in the bushes" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 16).

The ranch had no electricity and no running water, yet there was a garden and plenty of milk from their own cows. Yet times later became tough --  she went barefoot all summer because her father didn't have enough money to buy them shoes for both winter and summer. Later, Hurley would say, "I was destined to be poor" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 1).

When Hurley was about 10, her brother and favorite playmate, Maynard, died after a long illness and "drastically changed this happy life" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 18). The next year, disaster struck again. One night, a kerosene lamp blew over in the house, starting a raging fire. They had to race from the burning house and into the neighboring orchard. They had to move in with one of her older brothers on his nearby ranch. They were eventually able to rebuild the house but "things declined after that" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 20). At one point, her father disappeared for months, leaving her mother to provide for the family as best she could.

Her mother brought the children up with a powerful Catholic faith -- despite their father's indifference. "He had become baptized a Catholic before he and mother were married," she later wrote. "He knew mother would never marry him if he didn’t. But he was not sincere about practicing his religion, and never accompanied us to Mass" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 7). When Margaret was about 12, her mother was determined to get her daughters back to the city and into a Catholic girl's school. She believed the Methow Valley was no place for girls.

"She meant that all the girls were having sex at age 13 and 14, you know, out there rolling in the hay," Hurley said. "She knew what was going on ... She didn't want us to marry a cowhand. She had something better in mind for us" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 22).

Thriving at Holy Names Academy

Hurley had been attending the one-room schoolhouse in the Methow Valley, but when she turned about 13, she and her mother convinced her father to sell the farm, which had become a marginal economic proposition. They moved back to Spokane so that young Margaret could attend Holy Names Academy, one of Spokane's Catholic schools for girls. They moved into a little house north of Mission Park, near the school. During those first weeks, Margaret felt intimidated by her new classmates.

"I thought, here I am just a country girl, and I had an inferiority complex about that," she said. "I hadn't ever felt inferior before. ... I'd gone to this one-room school, and I didn't even want to tell anybody" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 23). She was one of only three other girls who had to work their way through Holy Names, waiting tables in the school dining room. She felt like "kind of an outsider" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 23).

Yet soon she began to thrive at Holy Names. She loved the rigorous academic competition, the camaraderie, the discipline, and the dedication of the nuns on the faculty.

"We were taught about propriety, concern for privacy, gentleness and manners," she later said. "I look back on those years gratefully. I came so close to not being able to grow and change that I was relieved and happy and thankful that I had a chance to get out of the valley ... . I really, really loved it all. I really did" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 23-24).

Hurley sometimes felt put down by the rich girls in the school, but she quickly began to gain self-confidence. The fact that she was an honor student "was a kind of leveler" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 26). Before long, she was elected class president, which she said was a "source of amazement to me" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 26).

When she was a senior, she took night school classes in shorthand and typing, but "I guess I just never was meant to be a secretary, because it just didn't work out that well for me" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 29). Instead, she decided to continue at the "normal school" at Holy Names, which offered a two-year program to obtain a teacher's certificate. She knew, she said, that she was going to have to "make my own living, going to have to get out there and finally produce" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 32). She had no money, so one of her sisters, already a teacher, paid her tuition.

Teaching and Dating Joe

When she graduated, she landed her first teaching job in Uniontown, in the Palouse, and learned that she loved it and "really, really liked the kids" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 32). She also met a young man named Joseph E. Hurley (1910-1968) and started dating him. She was attracted to him because he was well-read, well-informed and "extremely intelligent" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 48). The next year, she got a job in one-room school in Lind, yet she and Joe continued to see each other on weekends.

The year after that, she got a job in the two-room Glenrose schoolhouse, just south of Spokane, followed the next year by a job in Mica, another two-room schoolhouse not far from Spokane. From there, she went to the Mead School, a bigger school just north of Spokane. At Mead, she taught her first- and second-graders all of the academic subjects -- and plenty more. Every year, the music-loving Hurley staged a big "Christmas operetta," complete with Santa and little elves (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 33). She also organized the kids into a rhythm band, which would play in public. The Great Depression had taken hold of the region by this time, so few of the kids could afford costumes. So Hurley made little red capes for all of them to wear.

By 1935, she had been going steady with Joe Hurley for five years. He was going to his third year of night school at Gonzaga Law School. That year, they finally scraped up enough money to get married. Yet there was a catch. Schools in those days would not employ married women, because -- as the thinking went -- married women had a husband to support them. Yet Margaret Morse, soon to become Margaret Hurley, very much needed the job. So they got married in a church at 7:15 a.m., to better keep the marriage a secret, and she didn't tell the school. She managed to keep the secret for two years, probably because they lived in Spokane, and not in Mead where she taught. But then somebody must have spilled the beans, because one day she got a phone call from someone asking if she was Margaret Morse. She said yes. Then the caller said, "Oh, Mrs. Hurley?" to which she instinctively answered, "Well, yes" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 40). It was the chairman of the Mead school board, and she was nabbed.

However, the district allowed her to teach one more year since it was too late to replace her. By then, Joe Hurley had graduated from law school and had passed the state bar exam. He went to work for a Spokane mining attorney named Joe McCarthy (no relation to the infamous senator from Wisconsin) and through that work, got to know State Senator Fred S. Duggan (ca. 1880-1960), who hired Joe Hurley to be his law clerk in Olympia. Margaret, however, had to stay home -- she was still teaching at Mead.

Running to Win

The Olympia experience put some ideas into Joe Hurley's head. When he returned, he told Margaret that he was thinking of throwing in his name for legislature. Win or lose, he said, it was a good way for a lawyer to get his name out in the public. Margaret informed him that losing was not an option:

"If you throw your name in there, you're going to go out to win ... We're not just going to use it for advertising purposes. I'm not going to be married to a loser, someone who puts his name in and does nothing about it" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 44).

She already had acquired a taste for campaigning. A teacher friend of hers had talked her into campaigning for a judge in Tekoa. She enjoyed knocking on doors. Then she campaigned for a judge, an acquaintance of theirs in Spokane, and for a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. All of her candidates won, and she "felt like a little kingmaker on my own turf" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 43).

So she threw herself into her husband's campaign for state representative in the Third District, running as a Democrat, in the fall of 1938. She gathered together many of her friends and school colleagues to help.

"The whole thing rested on me," she later said. "I guess it's because I took it all on. I'd go door to door from morning until night, or from noon until 9 o'clock at night with this big crew. I had the map and I planned it all out and designated the area to be covered each day. And when they got through with their street, we'd all meet at my house and I'd have something on the table" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 44).

Life in Olympia

Joe Hurley easily won his election. He and Margaret closed up their little house in Spokane and moved to Olympia for the 1939 session. Joe Hurley immediately made a name for himself in the legislature. When Hurley ran for re-election in 1940, she again ran his successful campaign. Yet she wasn't particularly drawn to the legislative process.

"I would look down from the gallery at the legislators who were in the arena down below and I would think, 'Oh, let them have it. I would never want to be part of that procedure. But it's wonderful to be up here in the gallery and ... in my own mind, to criticize and evaluate ..." (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 62).

Joe Hurley found it increasingly difficult to commit so much time to the legislature and run his own law practice. In 1942 he chose not to run.

Family Life

By this time the Hurleys were  starting a family. Margaret had five children in seven years: a daughter (who did not survive) in 1939, followed by Patrick (b. 1942), John (b. 1943), Steve (1944-2007), and Mary Margaret (b. 1947). 

At the same time her husband was developing a drinking problem, exacerbated by the culture prevailing in Olympia, "the worst place in the world for anybody who has a tendency to drink" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 49). She was left with virtually all of the childraising chores, "which almost got me down, but my Irish nature wouldn't let me give up" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 49).

In 1950, he decided to run for his state representative position again, and in 1951, he headed back to Olympia -- without Margaret, this time. "It was a terribly hard year for me," she later said (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 49). She would later look back at this time as kind of "foggy," a treadmill of raising children and managing an increasingly hard-drinking husband (Hurley, "Oral History,"  p. 50). She was "a dishrag" by the time Joe came home (Hurley, p. 49-50). One of her few solaces was in singing -- she was known all of her life for gathering people together at parties, organizing them into groups and harmonizing to nostalgic tunes.

A Fateful Turn

Then, in 1952, Margaret Hurley's life took a new and fateful turn. Her husband decided not to run for another term. As they sat around the kitchen table, looking at the people who had announced for his vacant seat, Joe turned to her and said, "Maggie, why don't you run?" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 66). She replied, "Me? You must be out of your mind" (Hurley, p. 65). She later said that her first reaction was, "Oh no, not me," followed immediately by, "Well, why not?" (Hurley, Hirsch interview, p. 7).

The arguments in favor were compelling: She knew the system, she knew many of the legislators, and she knew how to campaign -- and actually enjoyed it. The arguments against were, mainly, that she had four small children to raise. However, a family friend who often baby-sat for the Hurleys agreed to come along Olympia as a live-in babysitter. So Margaret Hurley decided to forsake a perch in the gallery and attempt to join the arena down below.

Her campaign was complicated by the fact her husband had also talked his sister, Loretta Little, into running at the same time. In that era, it was possible for both to win, since two representatives were elected from each district and every candidate ran at large. The two women printed up campaign brochures with both of their names and photos on them. Hurley's platform, in its entirety, was, "A balanced budget without additional taxation" (Questionnaire).

Hurley decided that she would pour most of her energy into doorbelling. She said that sometimes a woman would answer the door and ask if she were campaigning for her husband again. When Hurley replied she was campaigning for herself this time, the woman would say, "Isn't that nice? Finally it's your turn, isn't it?" (Hurley, "Oral History,"  p. 67).

The men, on the other hand, would come to the door "with a can or bottle of beer in his hand and he'd have to be the one who would ask me the tough questions and see if he could trip me up" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 67). Her overall strategy was to ask people to simply give her one of their two votes, to which the women, at least, usually said, "Of course, I will, deary" (Hurley, Hirsch interview, p. 10).

By the conventions of the day, she was identified in news stories -- and even on the ballot -- as Mrs. Joseph E. Hurley. This at least gave her the benefit of name recognition. In the primary election, she edged out her sister-in-law -- who hadn't doorbelled as much.

Then Hurley faced a stiff battle in the general election on November 4, 1952. She hosted a huge election-night party in her house, with spaghetti and drinks. The race kept seesawing as new precincts reported, which meant the partygoers went from despair to euphoria to despair. Finally, she ordered all of the radios turned off because "if I've lost, I'm not going to kill the party" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 66). She was doing the dishes at 3 a.m. when she finally learned that she and incumbent Democrat Bernard J. Gallagher had come out on top, beating both Republican challengers -- although Hurley ended up with only about a 600-vote victory margin.

A Woman in Politics

"I thought, 'Here I am, the mother of four little ones, and I am going to the legislature to start a whole new existence," said Hurley (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 67). She arrived at Olympia determined to represent the attitudes of her neighbors in her conservative, hard-working district -- and that meant, above all else, fiscal conservatism. Her platform for her entire career could be summed up as: A balanced budget without additional taxation. Hers was a district of large families -- it contained eight Catholic parishes -- and people were struggling just to get their kids through school. This was something that Hurley understood instinctively.

"I suppose it was because I'd always been so poor," she said. "And I had such a respect for money. When you don't have any of it, why, it becomes terribly important to you not to waste it" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 69). 

When she arrived in Olympia for her first session in 1953, kids in tow, she was told that freshman representatives were supposed to "sit still and keep your mouth shut" (Hurley, p. 68). She had no intention of keeping her mouth shut. Early in the session she jumped up and made a motion, because "my idea was that you jump in with both feet ... or the next term you're going to be too ashamed to start out making your maiden speech" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 68). It was not a successful motion, but "everybody knew I was there after that" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 68). She was one of only nine women in the legislature.

In an article she wrote for The Spokesman-Review's Woman's section in 1954, she listed the reasons why a woman should want to be in politics. "Because she is the most numerous, perhaps the most important, and surely the most unrepresented member of society. Helping to make the laws of the state is but a simple progressive step from the active part women now take in parent groups, fund campaigns and civic activities. The 'hand that rocks the cradle' has finally come into its own; and though we may never rule the state (or even want to), still a constructive interest in the welfare of all is to be expected of the modern woman" ("State Legislator Tells").

The Accident

Her first session went sufficiently well for her to run again in 1954 as the incumbent. This time, she won easily, finishing first in the four-person general-election field. The Democrats had won only a one-vote majority in the state House that year, and just before the session started, that majority seemed threatened because of a serious accident near Cle Elum involving the entire Hurley family. Joe was driving the family to Olympia over Snoqualmie Pass when a car strayed over the centerline and hit them head-on. Everyone in the family was injured and required hospitalization, but Margaret continued on to Olympia, despite a broken foot. If Democratic state Representative John L. O'Brien (1911-2007) was to be elected Speaker of the House, Hurley's vote was essential. She was wheeled into the Capitol in a wheelchair amidst popping flashbulbs, and she cast the deciding vote for O'Brien. In his acceptance speech, he vowed his "undying gratitude" to Hurley (Guthman).

She immediately flew back to Spokane to care for her family, but was able to return to Olympia a few weeks later. She was named the chairman of the Banks and Banking Committee. She also arrived with a new public-policy crusade. She introduced a bill requiring Washington drivers to have mandatory auto insurance. The Air Force airman who hit their car had practically none. The insurance lobby quashed her bill, and the state would have to wait many more years before a mandatory auto insurance law was passed.

The accident also helped make her a household name in Spokane. Just a few months later, she was named "Spokane's Outstanding Citizen of the Year" by the Central Committee of Civic Clubs. The presenter mentioned her perseverance through the accident, but the award was given mainly for her stand against taxation. The club cited a Spokesman-Review political commentary that called her "the heroine of the House" because she "courageously stood alone on the Democratic side of the aisle to vote against a budget $89 million out of balance" ("Lawmaker").

Toeing Her Own Line

This unwillingness to toe the Democratic Party line would become an ongoing theme of her legislative career. In 1957, she told an interviewer, "I spoke against a Democratic party bill a short time ago and caused a little storm, but I'm not the kind to shut up because some people think I should be a good girl" ("No Rubber Mat"). She said she "wouldn't vote for taxes and wouldn't vote for any of the things that mainly the Western Washington people" -- the party leadership -- wanted (Hurley, p. 83).

"I'd just tell them, 'My district doesn't want this." And they'd say, 'We need your vote.' And I'd say, 'Well, too damn bad!'" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 83). She said they discovered she was not a team player and they began to punish her. The Democratic leadership began to say (in her telling), "Find out what Margaret Hurley wants and we’ll see she doesn't get it" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 83).

Holding the Family Together

She had earlier said that her plan to take her entire family (plus two cats) to Olympia every session had "turned out to be more successful than I had any right to expect" ("State Legislator Tells"). However, it became more difficult as she was elected to session after session. After they got into high school, she didn't take them to Olympia because it would disrupt their education too much.

Through the 1950s, she also began going back to school to get a four-year teaching degree because her husband's drinking problems made him increasingly unable to support the family. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Holy Names College in 1959. In 1961, she returned to teaching at the Trent School near Spokane. "For three or four years there I was coming home from teaching, hurrying up getting food on the table, getting the kids settled with their books, going to night school, coming back after 9 o'clock ... . I don't know how I ever did it, it's one of those things that you do because you have to," she said (Hurley, Hirsch interview, p. 23). During this time, music remained her emotional outlet. She sometimes organized her famous harmonizing sessions right on the House floor.

"You see, the place was not so strong on decorum," she said. "We used to be working late at night, waiting for bills to come back from the Senate during the last days of the session. And we'd make no bones about going off of the floor and getting a mixed drink and bringing it back on. I was always the one going up to John O'Brien and saying, 'It's about time we bring the piano out on the floor and have a little fun.' ... And so the piano was in the ladies lounge. I'd get the sergeant at arms and unlock the ladies lounge. We'd bring the piano out down on the floor of the house up there at the front ... and we'd all sing. And the gallery would join in" (Hurley, Hirsch interview, p.40-41).

Power Struggles

Yet her relations with her own party were not exactly harmonious. Once, she tried to delay a vote on a Democrat-backed collective bargaining law she opposed by bolting from the House chambers -- something not allowed under House rules -- and attempting to run out of the Capitol in high heels. It took a whole team of her fellow Democrats to chase her down in the hallway. They finally convinced her to go back into the House. She later explained, "I couldn't get away anyway, now that I was caught," (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 134).

Her long-running refusal to toe the party line reached a dramatic crisis in 1963, when Hurley played a key role in ousting John O'Brien from the House speakership -- the same speaker she had gone to so much trouble to elect. In the previous session, O'Brien had angered Hurley and several other Eastern Washington representatives when he refused to bring Hurley's "right-to-vote" bill to a House vote. The bill was part of a long-running battle over public power versus private power. Most Democrats supported publicly owned power, but Hurley believed her constituents were happy with Spokane's private power company, Washington Water Power. Her bill would have required a vote of the people before private power facilities would be condemned by the state and converted to public power. Hurley believed she had the votes to pass it, but O'Brien, on the rostrum, declared that a voice vote on the bill had failed. Hurley demanded a roll call vote, but O'Brien simply declared the House adjourned, banged down the gavel, and left.

"The next day, I went up to the rostrum and I said, 'John O'Brien, I will never vote for you for speaker again as long as I live'" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 100).

She took that threat even further. She and fellow Spokane Democratic legislator William S. Day (1923-1984) put together a secret group of eight Democrats willing to side with Republicans in ousting O'Brien and installing Day as speaker instead. They had a secret meeting with the Republican caucus -- in Portland, not in gossip-filled Olympia -- and came up with a plan.

"It was a dangerous thing for a woman to buck leadership, you know, and put the legislature in a turmoil," she said. "Politically it was a frightening thing to do. It had never been done before. But I didn't have a second thought about it. I said, 'Well, we're going to get rid of O'Brien because he just isn't fair and he's a dictator and he won't do what's right. And we'll put in somebody who will'" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 101-102).

When the legislature opened up again on January 14, 1963, they launched their secret plan. O'Brien and a Republican were each nominated for the speakership. Then Hurley stood up and nominated Day for the speakership, which raised some puzzled eyebrows. Then there were two inconclusive ballots in which nobody won a majority, part of the group's plan to give the Republicans and the dissident Democrats political cover for what was about to happen next. The Republicans switched their votes to Day, and that, along with the eight Democratic votes, was enough to elect Day. The Seattle Times said she had "pulled the rug" out from under O'Brien (Duncan). By her own account, O'Brien was well aware of her role: "John turned around and looked at me and he said, 'For God's sake, Maggie, what do you think you are doing?' And I said very sweetly, 'We're voting you out, John O'Brien'" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 102).

This inaugurated a legislative session widely termed a coalition session, but Hurley always bristled at being called a "coalitionist." She said the Republicans were coalitionists because they crossed party lines to elect a Democratic speaker, but "we were not coalitionists," because we "voted for a Democratic Speaker, we just didn't vote for the caucus' choice" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 104).

Hurley became one of Day's floor leaders -- her first and only such appointment -- and helped run the 1963 session. She later called it a "good session" because we "stayed within our means, we didn't raise any taxes" and "it ended on time" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 104). Yet she was shunned by her own party, whose members wouldn't even eat lunch with her in the cafeteria. As a result, she faced stiffer than usual opposition from other Democrats in the primary for her seventh term in 1964. She still won re-election easily.

Staying a Democrat

Yet the next few years were "not a happy time" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 107). Her husband, Joe, died in 1968 of cancer. Meanwhile, she and her fellow Democrats were increasingly at odds. However, she had no interest in becoming a Republican. The Republicans invited her to join their caucus, but she refused because she disagreed with Republicans even more vehemently.

"I could never support industry being favored by special legislation such as tax relief and relaxed environmental requirements," she said. "It was the working men and women and their families who were my main concern, and their health and safety. ... I didn't for a single minute consider becoming a Republican" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 107).

Opposing the Freeway

All of these issues were key to another prominent Hurley fight in 1971 -- her public crusade against the state Department of Transportation and its proposal to run a north-south freeway right through her working-class district. Hurley believed this freeway plan was "outrageous because it would have bulldozed out 650 homes," along with schools, retirement homes, and city parks (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 136). She introduced a number of bills aimed at blocking the freeway, including one in 1971 that would have required the Department of Transportation to submit all freeway plans to the Department of Ecology for review, to assess impacts to air quality and ground pollution.

She then charged that, during a committee hearing, the Department of Transportation had "presented an entirely new bill," written themselves, which effectively gutted her bill ("Mrs. Hurley Rips"). After she took steps to counter that bill, she walked into the next committee meeting and "found another substitute" bill, unrecognizable from her bill ("Mrs. Hurley Rips"). She countered that one, too. And then came one more committee meeting.

"What did I find yesterday?" she angrily told the House. "You guessed it, another surprise. I don't think any of you have seen anything like this before. I hope nothing like it happens to you" ("Mrs. Hurley Rips").

A subsequent headline in The Daily Olympian blared, "The Wrath of the Irish Descends on Highways" (Fox). Hurley had written up a formal "remonstrance" -- a public rebuke -- in which she declared that the Department of Transportation had "achieved a position of arrogant and scornful regard" for the people's representatives (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 197). She accused the department of "consuming huge sums of tax money, rooting up whole communities and covering them with concrete and asphalt" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 198). The Republican speaker ruled her "remonstrance" out of order, but she took to the floor and accused the Department of Transportation of being "devious, domineering and arrogant" ("Mrs. Hurley Rips").

Her bill eventually passed. She and other opponents of the freeway plan would eventually cause the project to be delayed for decades. In 1995, she would say that she spent "27 to 30 years fighting this freeway" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 136). Groundbreaking did not take place until 2001, and by 2013, the freeway was about half-completed. Yet the Hamilton-Nevada street corridor -- the route so adamantly opposed by Hurley -- remained untouched. The eventual route was two miles to the east.

Winning and Voting

Hurley never received – or even asked for -- much in the way of campaign support from her party. She hardly needed it. She routinely won reelections by landslides. In 1974, she won her primary against two Democratic challengers with 72 percent of the vote. She skated unopposed through the general election. Yet she later got so discouraged by her ongoing difficulties with the Democratic caucus, she almost decided not to run again. Day and other Democratic allies convinced her to remain. In the 1979 session, she found herself once again in a familiar position -- the swing vote.  

The House was evenly divided between the parties, 49-49, and Hurley voted with Republicans on many major issues. The Democratic leaders said her "independent ways are well-known and tolerated" (Rinearson). Her party's leaders were quoted as saying, "We're happy just to get her vote on some procedural issues" and "We're shocked the few times she comes around" (Rinearson). They also said they lost some major issues "because we didn't want to drive her against the wall" (Rinearson).

Later in 1979, state Senator James Keefe of Spokane died, opening up a 3rd District state Senate seat. Hurley was reluctant to give up her House seniority, but a woman Republican colleague in the state Senate advised her that as a senator, she would be treated "as an individual" and "with respect" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 161).

Senator Margaret Hurley

She decided to run, and easily brushed aside other Democratic hopefuls in the primary. The Spokesman-Review endorsed her for the 1979 general election (which was for finishing out Keefe's term), by saying she "has served her constituents well" and "has been alert to their needs for almost three decades" ("Hurley Qualified"). She swamped her Republican challenger with 75 percent of the vote in the 1979 election and then easily won again in 1980 for a full four-year term. When she arrived in Olympia in early 1980 she learned that the Senate did, indeed, have a different atmosphere.

"I was given my say-so," she said. "I was never gaveled down and nobody ever ridiculed me. ... I really liked being in the Senate" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 161). She also believed the party leadership was more reasonable than in the House.

In 1979, a Seattle Times reporter wrote that her age was one of the "great mysteries of Olympia -- people guess, but all they know is that she is a lot older than she looks" (Rinearson). In fact, she had accurately supplied her birth date to reporters in her first election back in 1953. She turned 70 in 1979, not 29 as one of her colleagues playfully guessed. As she aged, something surprising happened to this most conservative of Democrats. "I became more liberal," she said. "I became more accepting of different opinions and different points of view. ... And I think I became more socially conscious" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 193).

Becoming an Environmentalist

Her lifelong commitment to tax hikes and a balanced budget remained intact, but she became increasingly focused on environmental causes.

"I think I was guilty of calling them environmental kooks a long time ago when I didn't know what type of work they were really doing," said Hurley. "And I didn't know what I was talking about. But a person does change" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 171).

She became an adamant opponent of clear-cutting, which she called "very destructive" and the "worst thing that ever happened to this state" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 168-169). She also become passionate about two issues, both centered on Hanford, which arose through her positions on the Senate's Ecology and Energy committees.

First, she became aware of a developing scandal about construction of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) facilities at Hanford. Some whistle-blowers had come forward to expose shoddy and dangerous construction standards at the Hanford sites. Hurley stepped up at a public forum in Spokane and detailed some of the problems the committee had learned about the dangers of radioactive release. She said the audience "sat there with their mouths open" and launched a "tremendous uproar of questions" (Hurley, p. 165). It was among the first airings of what would become a decades-long story of environmental problems plaguing Hanford.

She also adamantly opposed a plan in the early 1980s to build a nuclear waste dump near Hanford to handle all of the nuclear waste from the United States and "some from foreign countries, too" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 166). She was involved in a successful Senate push to prevent the governor from signing a contract for what "we considered the destruction of our state environment" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 166). The waste dump was never built.

At the end of her Senate term in 1984, the 74-year-old Hurley decided to call it quits after 32 years in the legislature. She cited various reasons: back problems, the pressure of constantly being on duty, and, just generally, "emotional and physical burnout" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 192). She later said, "It was time for me to go" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 192).

Maggie's Leaving

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer supplied an apt goodbye headline with, "Good Old Boys Can Relax Now, Maggie's Leaving" (Layton). Political columnist Mike Layton called her "a conservative Catholic who fought against abortion and thought that voting for a tax increase was almost a mortal sin" (Layton). Yet he noted that she had become an environmentalist, and had the "peculiar notion that the ocean beaches of Washington belong to the people, not just to the resort owners of Moclips." Good old boy legislators, he wrote, "learned to tremble at her sweet smile" (Layton).

"She's just Maggie Hurley, a mother, schoolteacher and citizen legislator, who takes a traditional view of most things in this world, but doesn't let ideology blind her when she sees an outrage being perpetrated," wrote Layton. "The people of Spokane were better served, probably, than they ever knew" (Layton).

The people of Spokane knew it quite well, according to The Spokesman-Review's editorial board. Upon her retirement, the paper ran an editorial about Hurley headlined, "The Voters Came First," in which it noted that she had served her district so well that they had elected her 15 times ("The Voters"). She had amassed a number of civic honors, as well as the Marian Medal, the highest honor from her alma mater, Holy Names College.

Life After the Senate

Layton also called her "the best-preserved 74-year-old in the Western Hemisphere," with "legs any chorus girl would envy" (Layton). She took that as a compliment, a recognition, she said, that she strived to be "a person who kept up her appearance, and didn't get fat, didn't get slovenly, didn't use four-letter words, always careful of decorum, careful of courtesy and respect" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 192).

She retired to Spokane and took up painting watercolors. In 1991, she married Leonard "Pete" Peterson, whom she'd met on a cruise. She called it a "very, very happy relationship" (Hurley, p. 194). A few days before the wedding, the state Senate passed a resolution, No. 1991-8701, "wishing the newlyweds all the best" (Hurley, "Oral History," p. 204). Peterson died in 2012.

By the time she turned 100 in 2009, she had moved to a retirement facility in Tacoma "to be closer to my children" (Kershner interview). She attributed her longevity to taking vitamins, living a spiritual life, and "doing everything with your whole heart and soul" (Camden).

Margaret Hurley died in August 2015, less than two weeks before her 106th birthday.


Margaret Hurley: An Oral History, Hurley interviewed by Laurie Mercier, Washington State Oral History Program (Olympia: Office of the Secretary of State, 1995); "Margaret Hurley, Oral Interview, 1983," interviewer Kathryn Hirsch, conducted by Washington Elected Women, Women in Washington Legislature Oral History Project, Washington State Archives, Washington Secretary of State's office, Washington State Historical Society website accessed December 5, 2013 (; "Candidate Questionnaire," submitted to Spokane Daily Chronicle for the 1952 primary, August 9, 1952,  "Margaret Hurley" folders archives of The Spokesman-Review, Spokane; "Solon to Leave Despite Hobble," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 27, 1955, p. 3; "Lawmaker Wins Service Plaque," The Spokesman-Review, April 22, 1955. p. 1; "No Rubber Mat Is Mrs. Hurley," The Spokesman-Review, March 14, 1955, p. 14; Margaret Hurley, "State Legislator Tells Why She Likes Politics," The Spokesman-Review, January 12, 1954, p. 8; Don Duncan, "Mrs. Hurley -- She's a Rug-Puller," The Seattle Times, January 27, 1963, p. 12; "Mrs. Hurley Rips Handling of North-South Freeway Plan," The Spokesman-Review, February 11, 1971, p. 16; Clayton Fox, "The Wrath of the Irish Descends on Highways," The Daily Olympian, February 11, 1971, p. 1; "Hurley Qualified for Senate," The Spokesman-Review, November 1, 1979, p. 4; Peter Rinearson, "The Odd Couple," The Seattle Times, April 5, 1979, p. A-17; Mike Layton, "Good Old Boys Can Relax Now, Maggie's Leaving," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 3, 1984, p. C-2; Jim Camden, "Maggie Hurley Joins Ranks of Centenarians," The Spokesman-Review, September 12, 2009, p. B-3; "The Voters Came First," The Spokesman-Review, June 28, 1984, p. 4; Jim Kershner telephone interview with Margaret Hurley, December 10, 2013; Ed Guthman, "Luck Has Part In Election of House Speaker," The Seattle Times, January 11, 1955, p. 20; Jim Camden, "Margaret Hurley, 'Tenacious' Spokane Lawmaker, Dies at 105," The Spokesman-Review (, September 10, 2015. Note: This entry was updated on September 11, 2015.

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