Durkan, Martin J. Sr. (1923-2005)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 12/26/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9674
See Additional Media

Martin J. Durkan was a Seattle-area lawyer, Democratic legislator, and lobbyist. He wielded considerable power during 16 years in the state Senate, where he served as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee for nearly a decade. He made two unsuccessful runs for governor before retiring from the Senate in 1974. He made a final try for higher office when a seat in the U.S. Congress opened in 1977, but again lost in the primary. He still had clout, however. He became one of the state capital's top lobbyists, working on behalf of horse racing, cigarette manufacturers, optometrists, timber, garbage haulers, and other clients. His legacy includes an extraordinary family, with lawyers, lobbyists, and political consultants among the eight children.

Drawn to Politics

Martin Durkan was born on June 30, 1923, in Great Falls, Montana. His father was an Irish Catholic immigrant who became a state legislator. His mother was a schoolteacher. He loved fishing but seemed destined for politics. As he said later, when he ended a brief political retirement to run for Congress, "I'm Irish, you know. It's in the blood" (The Seattle Times, April 6, 1977).

Durkan attended Gonzaga University, then went to Marines Officers Candidate School and served as an underwater demolition expert in the South Pacific during World War II. He earned his law degree at the University of Washington, where he met the love of his life, Lorraine "Lolly" Noonan (1924-2008). She graduated in 1947, toured Cuba with a friend, spent two years with the United States Special Services in Germany, where she ran an officers' club, and then returned to Seattle to marry Durkan in 1951.

While practicing law in Seattle, he was elected to the state House of Representatives, 31st District, in 1956. He was 33, part of a wave of World War II veterans who were successful in business or professions and had, as he wrote in a foreword to an oral history about Sen. William A. Gissberg, "a strong desire to make up for time lost." Durkan served a single term in the House before being elected to the state Senate, 47th District. Throughout his Senate career, he was described as an Issaquah Democrat, referring to his family's place of residence. But the Legislature went through redistricting in 1956-1957, 1962-1964, and 1971-1974, each time putting Durkan outside his district. Each time he moved and was re-elected.

In 1961, he was a candidate to head the Democratic State Central Committee. He was top vote getter on the first ballot of a three-man race, but lacked the necessary majority. Incumbent chairman Luke Graham, who had finished third, asked his supporters to vote for Olympia attorney Herb Legg on the second ballot, giving Legg the chairmanship.

Ways and Means Chairman

In the early 1960s, Durkan moved through a succession of leadership positions dealing with budgetary matters. He chaired the Revenue and Regulatory Agencies Committee, the Legislative Budget Committee, and the Senate Revenue and Taxation Subcommittee. By late 1965 he was chairman of the Senate's most powerful committee, Ways and Means. It essentially meant he would be writing the state budget.

As explained by Edward D. Seeberger in his book Sine Die: A Guide to the Washington State Legislative Process, Ways and Means is the chief revenue and appropriations committee in the Senate. It is one of two committees, along with Rules, that must pass the budget before it can get to the Senate floor. Roughly one quarter of all bills passed out of policy committees must go to Ways and Means in the Senate or to a fiscal committee in the House before going to the Rules Committee. Bills can live or die in Ways and Means, depending on funding. The committee decides the "ways" in which state monies will be spent and the "means" that will be used to raise the tax revenues (p. 240). [Sine Die, literally "without day," is a phrase meaning the end of a legislative session.]

Some consider the Ways and Means chairman to be, after the governor, the state's second-most powerful official. Even before Durkan took that post, observers believed he was aiming for the higher one. In the spring of 1965, as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on revenue, he called a tax program hearing in Spokane. By scheduling it there, he would make himself better known to a part of the state generally opposed to higher taxes; he would also generate publicity against the tax policies of Republican Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925). The Seattle Times called the hearing "the first move in Durkan's 1968 campaign for governor" (March 25, 1965).

Running for Governor

Durkan opposed Evans regularly in legislative sessions leading up to the 1968 campaign. There was speculation that Durkan would run for Attorney General if the current Attorney General, John J. O'Connell, decided to run for governor. O'Connell did, and, undeterred, so did Durkan. He listed crime as one of the state's most serious problems and favored more rigid law enforcement. He also aimed past O'Connell, at Evans, saying the state's citizens were over-taxed. He singled out a sales tax increase approved in the previous session. Durkan sought to make taxation the major issue in the campaign and ran with the slogan "Responsible Progress." It almost worked. O'Connell defeated his lesser-known opponent by fewer than 3,000 votes in the Democratic primary. With most precincts reported, O'Connell had 45,049 votes to Durkan's 42,688. In November, Evans beat O'Connell to gain a second term.

The closeness of the primary encouraged Durkan and his campaign workers to keep their eyes on the governor's chair. Meanwhile, Durkan's reputation grew in and out of Olympia. He was a cigar-smoking, deal-making, old-style politician. "He got a tremendous amount of legislation passed and he did it by taking people out in the corridors and putting his arm over their shoulder and whispering something in their ear, and amazingly, they would change their mind," said Tom Hujar, a consultant who worked on Durkan's campaigns (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 31, 2005). Shelby Scates (1932?-2013), a Seattle Post-Intelligencer political reporter, wrote that Durkan "moves on alligator shoes, from the Senate office to his overcrowded office above it with good humor and a keen knowledge of what is happening. It is a small marvel of intellect and political instinct" (April 4, 1971).

Although he continued battling Evans on several fronts, Durkan also worked with the governor on occasion. Together they helped pass landmark environmental legislation in 1970 that established the state Department of Ecology. Durkan was working on cultivating a greener image. He ran as a tough-on-crime candidate in 1968; reached out to liberals in 1972, expressing concern about welfare cuts in Evans' budget. The battle lines were drawn. Durkan's campaign for governor in 1972 was well organized and well financed. Future governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017) was campaign manager. Durkan seemed poised to triumph.

What Went Wrong

Unexpectedly, a former Democratic governor tripped him up. Albert D. Rosellini (b. 1910) had assured Durkan he would not run for governor in 1972. By July, however, Rosellini had changed his mind. His decision cost Durkan supporters whose first loyalty belonged to the former governor. Also hurting Durkan, although not nearly as much, was the candidacy of future Congressman Jim McDermott, then a freshman state senator. McDermott took some of Durkan's hoped-for liberal backing. Durkan, who was known as a conservative but had more recently acted liberal, ended up as an ill-defined character, especially compared to folksy and popular Rosellini. Rosellini  beat Durkan by more than 80,000 votes in the primary.

Durkan later surmised that some of Governor Evans' supporters voted for Rosellini in the primary because they perceived him as a less formidable foe for their man than Durkan. And indeed, Evans did win in the general election. Whatever the case regarding the primary, three years later Durkan told a reporter that Rosellini's surprise decision to run still rankled him (P-I, July 31, 1975).

Former Democratic Senator Ray Moore had worked on McDermott's campaign. He regretted it, he said in an oral history published in 1999, because he believed McDermott cost Durkan the election, and that Durkan would have beaten Evans in the general election. "He was the ultimate politician -- served the state well," Moore said about Durkan. "After the nomination, I was really bothered that I had helped kill Martin's future. He was a comer, smart enough to be a good governor" ("Ray Moore, An Oral History," 57-58).

A Final Try -- for Congress

Disappointed, Durkan went back to the Senate where lawmakers were facing unprecedented scrutiny. A new public disclosure law required legislator/lawyers to disclose their firms' clients. Some legislators chose to quit instead. Durkan complied. He reported that his and law firm partner Theodore P. Cummings' clients included Puget Sound Power & Light Co., Grange Mercantile, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77, the Association of Washington Gas Utilities, Cascade Natural Gas, TransAmerica Financial Insurance Co., the Refuse Removal Association, Seattle-First National Bank, Health Services Management, and the Association of Washington Industries, Inc. Although Durkan reported that he had not created, supported or opposed legislation for any of them, The Seattle Times observed that his list of clients "reads like a register of lobbyists who roam ‘Ulcer Gulch,' the hallway between the State House and Senate" (February 6, 1974).

On July 25, 1974, Durkan announced that he would not run again for state Senate. Asked about another race for governor, he said, "I'm not hungry for it anymore" (P-I, July 31, 1975). He concentrated instead on working to pay off his campaign debts. His 1972 run for governor reportedly cost him nearly $170,000 -- about $875,000 in 2010 dollars.

After the Democrats nominated Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) for governor in 1976, a rump group called the Washington Independent Party led by Lowry asked Durkan to run. He declined. But when Congressman Brock Adams (1927-2004) resigned his 7th District seat to become Secretary of Transportation under President Jimmy Carter, a special election was called, and Durkan decided to make one more try for higher office.

In a crowded field of 14 other candidates actively campaigning to replace Adams, Durkan's principal opponent was Marvin Durning (1929-2013), a Seattle lawyer and conservationist who had lost to Ray just a year earlier in the gubernatorial primary. He and Durkan had similar sounding names but differed on some key national issues. Durning thought abortion should be legal; Durkan opposed it. Durning favored a national health care system; Durkan maintained that health care should be a private matter. Durkan also voiced serious reservations about the United Nations as a viable body. Durning thought U.S. troop levels in West Germany should be maintained; Durkan favored reducing the number from 200,000 to 80,000 because he didn't believe the troops provided a military deterrent.

Durkan was considered the early favorite but Durning triumphed in the end, getting 19,440 votes to Durkan's 14,859. It was a decisive defeat for Durkan, who announced he had run his last race. (Durning went on the lose to Republican John E. Cunningham in the general election and took a job with the Environmental Protection Agency.)

"King of the Lobbyists"

Although he was no longer a member of the state legislature, Durkan was still a powerful presence in Olympia. He became one of the capital's most influential and highest paid contract lobbyists. In 1981, a Seattle Times survey listed him as one of Olympia's top 12 lobbyists. "People will be pulled out of meetings when he calls," a legislative staffer said. "I don't know why Martin Durkan makes people jump so high, I don't know if he knows where every skeleton is down here, but I suspect he does" (June 21 1981).

For a period in early 1986, after Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) announced a plan to finance water-quality projects with a cigarette tax increase, Philip Morris Co. paid Durkan $1,000 a day (nearly twice that much in 2010 dollars) to oppose the increase. According to Public Disclosure Commission reports, in 1987 he received lobbyist fees of $265,000. His compensation for 1990 was $364,750, prompting the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to call him "the king of the lobbyists" (June 21, 1991). During the four-month 1991 session, with his daughter Kathleen as his only partner, Durkan billed clients for $161,508.

Senator Ray Moore described him as a lobbyist "whose effectiveness was a legend" ("Ray Moore: An Oral History," 58). Durkan helped kill a penny-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes that would have paid for anti-smoking ads. And he won a multimillion-dollar tax break for the operators of Emerald Downs, a new horseracing track in Auburn after Longacres, the Seattle area's longtime racetrack, was sold and demolished. Durkan had argued that if Emerald Downs didn't get the tax break, the state's horse racing industry was finished. "What Martin was about was that old-world kind of political class and style," said Ken Alhadeff, whose family sold Longacres. "When Martin Durkan stepped into the room you knew something was going to happen" (The Seattle Times, May 31, 2005).

Durkan suffered a rare setback in 1993 when the state Department of Retirement Systems ordered him to repay $101,740 in pension benefits related to his eight-year association with the Public School Employees of Washington union, 1980-1987. The retirement agency determined that he should not have received the money because he had served as an independent contract lobbyist for the union, not a permanent employee. The $101,740 was believed at the time to be the largest repayment ordered in the history of the state pension system.

Durkan Family Politics  

Martin and Lorraine Durkan raised eight children -- David Grant, of Olympia; Jenny Durkan, Kathleen Durkan, Martin "Jamie" Durkan Jr., Ryan Durkan, Tim Durkan, and Megan Durkan, all of the Seattle area; and Matt Durkan, of Los Angeles. Several became prominent. Jenny was appointed United States Attorney for Western Washington in 2009 and elected mayor of Seattle in 2017. Kathleen was an NBC News foreign correspondent before working for her father. Martin Jr. became a well-known lobbyist in Olympia. Matt worked as a grant writer for gay and lesbian issues. Tim was a special assistant for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) and worked for the city on South Lake Union issues and as Fremont-based district coordinator in the city's Department of Neighborhoods under Mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959). Ryan became one of the area's leading land-use attorneys, working for the University of Washington and the state convention center among other clients.

Family members occasionally found themselves on opposite sides. Jenny Durkan was executive counsel for Governor Mike Lowry, her father's former chief of staff, but resigned in February 1995 after an aide accused Lowry of sexual harassment. She later represented the Democratic Party in the contested 2004 governor's race eventually won by Chris Gregoire (b. 1947). Jamie Durkan was a close friend of Gregoire's opponent, Dino Rossi, and contributed $50,000 to help the Republicans finance the recount. On abortion rights, all the Durkan offspring except Jamie supported a woman's right to chose. Their mother, a devout Roman Catholic, opposed abortion and convinced her husband she was right.

So how did the family get along? There was some good-natured teasing during the seesaw governor's race, but generally they stayed courteous or tried to avoid dangerous conversational territory. "In the old West they were able to ensure civility by checking weapons at the door," Jenny Durkan said. "Our family tries to check politics at the door" (The Seattle Times, December 18, 2005). Martin Durkan maintained that he was proud of his children's opinions, dissenting or otherwise. "We taught our kids to be independent, to do what they thought was right. We don't agree sometimes, but we respect what they do," he said (P-I, June 30, 1992).

Death and Legacy 

Durkan suffered a heart attack on November 18, 1996, at the San Francisco airport, where he and Lorraine were switching planes en route to their vacation home in Maui. He had successful bypass surgery. He was still involved in state politics at the time, as mentor of outgoing Governor Lowry and a campaign fundraiser for Governor-elect Gary Locke (b. 1950). He also worked as a lobbyist for the Seattle Seahawks football team when owner Paul Allen (b. 1953) was trying to get public money for a stadium to replace the Kingdome. But Durkan's health gradually deteriorated and he faded from public life. He died in May 2005 at Maui Medical Center in Hawaii at age 81.

Durkan was widely remembered as a top lawmaker who was conservative on social issues but liberal on environmental and economic matters. He was credited with legislation to improve housing for farm workers and control oil spills. Although known as a political powerhouse, and later a hired gun for big tobacco and others, his children remembered Durkan's softer side. "He was one of the kindest, most compassionate people I've ever known, and he was also one of the most perceptive people," Jenny Durkan said. "He could cut through a vast amount of details and hone in on what was important" (The Seattle Times, May 31, 2005).

His ambitions for higher office were never realized, although not for lack of qualifications. Former state Representative Denny Heck described Durkan as "one of the best governors we never had" (Seattle Times, May 31, 2005).


Richard W. Larsen, "Durkan, A Good Loser, Has Lost His Last," The Seattle Times, April 6, 1977, p. B-1; Jennifer Langston, "Martin Durkan Sr.: 1923-2005; Ex-State Senator was ‘Old-Style Irish Pol’," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 31, 2005, p. B-1; Emily Heffter, "Former Lawmaker Was Political Giant," The Seattle Times, May 31, 2005, p. A-1; Christine Willmsen, "Lorraine Durkan, 83, ‘Always Willing to Listen,’" Ibid., February 26, 2008, p. B-4; Martin Durkan, Forward to "William A. Gissberg: An Oral History," interviewed by Sharon Boswell, Washington State Oral History Program (Olympia, Washington State Oral History Program, 1996) (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/gissberg.pdf); Edward D. Seeberger, Sine Die: A Guide to the Washington State Legislative Process (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 42, 56, 240; Ross Cunningham and Lyle Burt, "Congressional Districting Fight Threatened," The Seattle Times, March 25, 1965, p. 11; Joel Connelly, "State Lost Two of the Best in Their Fields Sunday," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 1, 2005, p. A-2; Shelby Scates, "Now It’s ‘Up or Out,’ Durkan says of Political Career," Ibid., April 4, 1971, p. 9; "How Durkan Lost," Argus, September 29, 1972, p. 1; Michael Flynn, United Press International, "Durkan: Why I Quit Being a Candidate," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 31, 1975, p. B-12; "Ray Moore: An Oral History," interviewed by Sharon Boswell (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 1999), 57-58, 140, (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/moore.pdf); Shelby Gilje and Dee Norton, "Durkan, Who Holds Public Purse String, Discloses His Own," The Seattle Times, February 6, 1974, p. 27; "The Demise of the Democrats," The Weekly, September 29-October 5, 1976, p. 5; Duff Wilson, "Seventh District Democrats: And Now a Few Words About the Issues," Argus, March 4, 1977, p. 1; Peter Rinearson and Doug Underwood, "Survey Ranks 12 Top Lobbyists," The Seattle Times, June 21, 1981, p. A-29; Walter Hatch and Underwood, "Clout for Sale," Ibid., January 21, 1987, p. B-2; Ed Penhale, "Wealth of Influence Pays Off For Pack of Business Lobbyists," P-I, June 21, 1991, p. A-1; Dick Clever, "Durkan Loses Pension Money," Ibid., August 5, 1993, p. A-1; Connelly, "Mom, Daughters Agree to Disagree," Ibid., June 30, 1992, p. A-6; Florangela Davila, "How to Survive Holiday Gatherings With Your Political-Opposite Relatives," The Seattle Times, December 18, 2005; "Former Sen. Durkan Has Bypass Surgery," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 4, 1996, p. B-2.
Note: This feature was updated on August 1, 2018.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You