Duane Berentson and John Bagnariol are elected co-Speakers of the state House of Representatives on January 8, 1979.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 7/20/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9086
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On January 8, 1979, state representatives elect both Republican Duane Berentson (b. 1928) and Democrat John Bagnariol (ca. 1932-2009) to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. The novel arrangement of two co-Speakers presiding over the legislative session results from a tie in membership: there are 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats in the House, so neither party has a majority. As a result, the parties have to work out procedures for sharing power, a process made easier by the cordial relationship between Berentson and Bagnariol, who are longtime legislative colleagues.

For many years a tie for control of the Washington House of Representatives would have been impossible because that body had an odd number of members -- 99 since 1933. However, in 1972 the United States District Court redistricted Washington's legislative boundaries to comply with the United States Supreme Court's "one person, one vote" rule, which mandated that electoral districts have approximately equal populations. The court-imposed redistricting plan reduced the number of seats in the House of Representatives from 99 to 98 (two representatives elected, along with one senator, from each of 49 districts).

No Majority, New Rules

In the 1972, 1974, and 1976 elections, Democrats controlled the 98-member House by comfortable margins. As the majority party, the Democrats held the Speaker's post and chaired all the committees, controlling what bills were voted on. In the 1977 session, John Bagnariol, a Renton insurance agent who had represented the 11th District since the 1966 election, was chosen House Speaker by his fellow Democrats.

Democrats were expected to retain their House majority in the 1978 election. However, Republicans mounted an aggressive effort to gain control of the House and, in the words of State Democratic Party chair Joe Murphy, "[t]hey sneaked up on us" (Larsen, "GOP Sneaks Up ..."). When all 98 races were decided, the Republicans had picked up 13 seats, reducing the Democrats' previous 62-to-36-seat majority to a 49-49 tie. The unprecedented situation left observers and legislative leaders uncertain how the evenly divided House of Representatives would function.

Normally the majority party elects the Speaker to preside over the session, designates the committee chairs, and appoints non-member employees such as the chief clerk. Lacking a majority, neither party could do so in the 1979 session. Various options were suggested, including bringing in a non-member to preside as Speaker, before the co-Speaker arrangement was agreed upon.

Berentson and Bagnariol

Working out how to share power was made easier because Bagnariol and Duane Berentson, the Republican House leader from Burlington, Skagit County, who had represented the 40th District since 1962, had served together for many years and were on good terms. Vito Chiechi (1925-2011), who was the Republican co-chief clerk under the co-Speakers, said years later of Bagnariol and Berentson, "Sitting there with those guys was just a lot of fun ... . They could fight with one another and still be friends. It's not like that today when [the parties] fight and become enemies" (Turner and Callaghan).

Chiechi's Democratic counterpart, co-Chief Clerk Dean Foster, recounted that "Baggie" (as Bagnariol was often known) and Berentson, joined by other legislative leaders and the chief clerks, reached agreement over drinks at the Thirteen Coins restaurant in Seattle. In late December 1978 Bagnariol and Berentson announced that they would serve as co-Speakers, presiding over the House on alternating days. Under the carefully negotiated arrangement, each party would also name co-chairs of seven of the most important House committees. Chairs of the remaining 14 committees were divided evenly between the parties. Procedural rules ensured that no significant action could occur without participation by both parties.

With the agreement in place, the formal election for Speaker on January 8, 1979, took place in an upbeat and friendly atmosphere. Bagnariol and Berentson each received 49 votes and were each sworn in as Speaker. Republican Representative Irv Newhouse contributed to the festivities by presenting Berentson and Bagnariol with a special gavel that had two separate handles set 90 degrees apart, so that the co-Speakers could jointly the gavel session to order.

Reflecting the amiable spirit of the day, which concluded with dual champagne receptions for the co-Speakers, the official House Journal dutifully recorded Bagnariol's assurances of co-operation:

"I would like to point out just a few similarities -- we purposely wore suits that were very close to being the same; we both wear the same kind of glasses. Duane and I are both salesmen; we both drive reddish-brown Lincolns -- his is a little faster than mine [Berentson had recently been stopped twice for speeding]. We're going to work well together" (Journal).

Co-operation Continues

By all accounts the co-operative spirit largely endured through the 1979 legislative session. Controversial matters were generally avoided and much of the legislation that passed did so unanimously or by large margins. The one big exception was the budget, which could not be put off and on which the parties were deeply divided. As in most years, the Legislature did not agree on a budget during the 60-day regular session and was called back into a special session, which this time dragged on for months. Berentson finally ended the stalemate by reluctantly voting with the 49 House Democrats for the Democratic-supported budget, allowing the House to adjourn for the year.

Berentson and Bagnariol presided jointly over a much shorter House session in the spring of 1980, before that fall's election ended the membership tie. Propelled by the scandal surrounding the arrest and eventual conviction of Bagnariol and Senate Democratic Leader Gordon L. Walgren on racketeering charges and by the nationwide Republican landslide led by Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), House Republicans claimed a 56-to-42-seat majority and elected Bill Polk of Mercer Island as Speaker.

By then both former co-Speakers had left the House. Bagnariol lost in the primary after his arrest. Berentson ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor; in 1981 he was appointed head of the Washington State Department of Transportation. Bagnariol and Berentson were not the last duo to serve as co-Speakers. Republican Clyde Ballard and Democrat Frank Chopp reprised the roles when the elections of 1998 and 2000 produced consecutive membership ties in the House.

Sources: House Journal of the Forty-Sixth Legislature of the State of Washington (Olympia: Washington State House of Representatives, 1979), pp. 19-21; "Turning Points Timeline: House of Representatives Members in a Tie," Washington Secretary of State website accessed July 8, 2009 (www.secstate.wa.gov/legacyproject/TurningPointsTimeline.aspx?t=4); "State of Washington Members of the Legislature: 1889-2009," Washington State Legislature website accessed July 7, 2009 (www.leg.wa.gov/documents/common/historypage/Members_of_Leg_2009.pdf); Don Brazier, "History of the Washington Legislature: 1965-1982," pp. 36-39, Washington State Legislature website accessed July 7, 2009 (www.leg.wa.gov/documents/common/historypage/HistoftheLeg1965-82.pdf); Richard Larsen, "GOP Sneaks Up on House Majority," The Seattle Times, November 8, 1978, p. A-14; Larsen, "United They Stand, Tied They May Fall," Ibid., January 9, 1979, p. A-4; Peter Rinearson, "House Opens in Co-operative Spirit," Ibid.; Rinearson, "House Tie Wasn't a Bomb After All, Say Lawmakers," Ibid., March 18, 1979, p. A-14; Rinearson, "House Republicans Allow Demo Budget," Ibid., June 1, 1979, p. A-1; Mike Layton, "Legislature Winds It Up," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 3, 1979, p. A-1; Joseph Turner and Peter Callaghan, "Shared Power May Test Wills and Patience: As in 1979, Legislators Must Learn How to Craft a State Budget with a 49-49 Tie," The News Tribune, November 22, 1998, p. A-1; HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Legislative leaders John Bagnariol and Gordon Walgren are charged in Gamscam case on April 2, 1980" (by Kit Oldham) http://www.historylink.org (accessed July 8, 2009).
Note: This essay was updated on October 24, 2011, and on July 10, 2013.

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