Former Washington Gov. Dan Evans reflects on storied career, state of modern GOP, and more

Feb 9, 2022, 9:17 AM | Updated: Feb 10, 2022, 8:39 am

Dan Evans...

Daniel J. Evans served three terms as Washington governor, and six years in the U.S. Senate. He credits his father Les Evans, as well as his mother and other members of his close family, for much of his political success. Evans recently published his autobiography. (Courtesy Daniel J. Evans)

(Courtesy Daniel J. Evans)

Daniel J. Evans is 96 years old. He served three terms as Washington’s governor, and six years in the U.S. Senate. He also gave the keynote address at the 1968 Republican National Convention, and was on the shortlist of candidates President Gerald Ford considered when he chose a vice-presidential running mate in 1976.

So it makes sense that Evans – the de facto elder statesmen of the Evergreen State – has finally gotten around to publishing his autobiography. It’s called “Daniel J. Evans: An Autobiography,” and it has just been released by Legacy Washington, the history arm of the Washington Secretary of State’s office.

“I would have like to picked a sexier name than that,” Evans told KIRO Newsradio, chuckling. “I think I could have chosen one, but it’s not the title that makes any difference, it’s what’s in it.”

Dan Evans is a not-infrequent guest on Seattle’s Morning News and a dependable source of information about key moments in Washington’s history – because he has lived through so much of it, but also because he’s a reasonable guy who represents an earlier age of politics in the United States, and especially the Pacific Northwest.

He was governor during a pretty heady time of social unrest and economic upheaval – from January 1965 to January 1977 — and he was appointed by Republican Governor John Spellman to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant when Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson died in 1983.

Evans is an old-school Washington Republican – which means he’s an environmentalist and a social moderate, and he’s willing to reach across the aisle to get things done for the people of the Evergreen State. It’s not a stretch to call him one of the most widely respected political figures in the history of the state. More than 30 years after he held elected office, there is still a bit of an “Evans Mystique” among Republicans and Democrats who are fond of him. It’s been this way for decades, and even Dan Evans can’t quite explain why.

Part of it is surely related to political instincts and skill.

Starting conversations

When Dan Evans was governor, it was during an era of protests about civil rights and labor rights and against the Vietnam War. One particularly memorable visit to Pullman – for what was supposed to be a small gathering of campus Republicans at Washington State University – became something entirely different when 2,000 students showed up.

Evans scrapped the speech he had planned to give, and instead made the visit about asking questions of the thousands of students packed into a basketball arena, and then listening to their answers.

“’I don’t want to tell you what we’re doing, I want to hear from you what we should be doing,’” Evans told the students.

“And that started it off,” he recalls. “I was there for two hours, answering questions and getting really involved. It was one of the finest gatherings of any kind that I think happened while I was governor because they were intense, they were dismayed about what was happening in Vietnam.”

“They weren’t particularly antagonistic toward me, but they just wanted me to tell them what I thought we should be doing, and then they had some ideas of their own,” Evans said. “So it was a great gathering.”

Learning from his family

That ability to adapt to a changing situation and make the most of it takes political instincts and skill, and Dan Evans credits getting into politics as a 21-year-old college student fresh from military service – and the influence of, and example set by, his parents. His mom was gregarious and from a family with a long history in politics in Washington, while his dad was more lowkey and quiet, and worked for decades as a civil engineer.

“I learned a lot from my father, who was an engineer and [who] ultimately ended up as King County Engineer,” Evans said.

As King County Engineer, Dan Evans’ father Les Evans ran the road and other infrastructure-building part of King County government for 13 years.

“After I got back from service in World War II, I was finishing off the last two years of college at the University of Washington,” Evans continued. “I was in civil engineering, and I went with my father on occasion out to jobs that he was handling.”

He observed his father patiently listening to ornery county commissioners – when King County was run by a three-member board of commissioners – to hear about their desires to pave as many miles of roads as cheaply as possible. Their goal was to serve as many of their constituents as quickly as possible, and thereby increase each commissioner’s chances of re-election.

But Les Evans, his son Dan says, was successful in persuading the commissioners that building fewer miles of the right kinds of roads – more expensive, but longer lasting and made from concrete – was the right thing to do, if not the most politically expedient.

“I think I may have learned as much from him as I did from professors at the university,” Dan Evans said.

The modern GOP

A lot has changed in politics since the days of Les Evans and county commissioners, and even since the days of Dan Evans serving as governor and then senator – like that whole Republican National Committee “legitimate political discourse” brouhaha.

“That’s such a stretch,” Evans said. “I don’t see how anybody could say that (Jan. 6) was a legitimate part of discourse, for gosh sakes. Not when you’re talking about people getting killed. That’s not part of discourse, by any stretch of the imagination that I can feel.”

Evans doesn’t seem particularly concerned about what certain political types choose to say. He says the leaders of political parties can be pretty extreme in their sentiments. This was certainly true in 1964, he says, the year the fairly extreme Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president, which was also the year Dan Evans was first elected governor of Washington.

“One of the Republican National Committee women said, ‘Well, we’ll give that Evans a chance, but we know he’s part of the Ripon Society, and we all know that anybody from the Ripon Society is a Communist,’” Evans said, chuckling as he pointed out that the Ripon Society was actually pretty “middle of the road.”

Suffice it to say, the party leadership in those days could be “pretty wild,” Evans opined.

‘Bare-knuckle’ politics

It was also a pretty wild scene in Olympia in the early days of January 1965 as Dan Evans prepared to be sworn in to his first term.

Not many people remember that election anymore – in the national race, Democrat incumbent Lyndon Johnson defeated Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide – but in the Evergreen State, it led to some good old-fashioned “bare knuckle politics” as the incoming Republican Evans administration sparred with the Democratic Legislature and the outgoing Democratic Governor Al Rosellini.

Owing to a two-day gap between when the Democrat-led legislative session began on a Monday and when Republican Governor Evans would be sworn in two days later at noon on Wednesday, the Democrats went ahead with a rapid-fire plan to redistrict the state to their advantage while Democratic Governor Rosellini was still in office.

To try and shut down the Democrats’ efforts, Republican leaders came up with a plan to swear-in Evans just after midnight Tuesday night – rather than waiting until midday Wednesday.

“I called home and got my mother and dad and said, ‘Look, if you want to see me sworn in as governor, you’d better come right now,’” Evans said. “This is about 9:30 at night on Tuesday.”

Evans’ elderly parents were hustled into a State Patrol car in Seattle. While they sped south, the old-school politics were moving fast toward a possible head-on collision at the Capitol in Olympia.

“We had one of our members, one of our senior Republicans in the House, give a speech, just saying we would rather do this in the proper [way], but we do have a Justice of the Supreme Court waiting and we’re prepared to swear Governor Evans in at midnight,” Evans said. “And a couple of our guys went to see the [Democratic] Speaker of the House. And he looked at them, they told him the story, and he said, ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ [and they said] ‘Yes, we are serious.’”

“And [the Speaker of the House] said, ‘Well, what if we adjourned right now until noon Wednesday?’” Evans said. “And our guys said, ‘We think that would be just a marvelous idea.’”

They quickly radioed to that southbound State Patrol car, and the trooper at the wheel turned around and took Dan Evans’ parents back to Seattle. The next day, Evans was sworn at the regular appointed hour. With a Republican governor now in charge of the Executive Branch and the Democrats controlling the Legislature, it took 47 days to reach an agreement on redistricting.

But the negotiations paid off for the Republicans, Evans says, and in the next election, the Evergreen State GOP gained 16 seats in the House, taking control for the first time in 27 years – and hanging on to that House majority for six years.

Of course, that was a long time ago, and Washington has not had a Republican governor since John Spellman’s single term which ended in 1985.

Can Republicans recapture the governor’s office in Washington?

What does Dan Evans think it will take for a Republican to once again occupy the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia? A good candidate who can win a primary and a general election, Evans says. He’s not a fan of Loren Culp or other far-right candidates, but there are people who give him hope for a Republican future, such as state legislators J.T. Wilcox and John Braun, and Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.

Dammeier, Evans says, is “probably the leading Republican office holder, the highest Republican office holder we’ve got now in the state. That’s been a pretty good place for future governors – being a county executive is a job as close to being governor as we have in this state for an elected official.”

“That’s good training, good background,” he added.

In those three terms he served as governor, one of Dan Evans’ biggest political regrets is not passing tax reform – which would have included a state income tax, but also reducing the sales tax and eliminating the B&O tax.

And one more regret – in the “parallel universe” category – is imagining what might have happened if he, rather than Bob Dole, had been picked from the short list as President Ford’s running mate in 1976.

“The chances as vice president, if I did a pretty good job, of then being a candidate for president would’ve been pretty high,” Evans said, as he’d be logically next in line to follow a Ford presidency. “And as it turned out, it didn’t work, but I always thought that that was a longshot chance to begin with.”

A lasting legacy

Washington, D.C., aspirations notwithstanding, Evans has been honored with many places and things named after him here in the “Other” Washington.

Not long after a ceremony at Hurricane Ridge officially dedicating the Daniel J. Evans Wilderness within Olympic National Park, Evans was out for a hike.

“I went around the corner on the trail and here’s a big sign up there, saying ‘Entering the Daniel J. Evans Wilderness,’” Evans said. “When you see your name on something while you’re still alive — instead of a tombstone – that was pretty rewarding because I’d been hiking in the Olympics for years and years, and first started when I was a camper at Camp Parsons, the Boy Scout camp on Hood Canal, just two years after the [national] park was created.”

He’s grateful for and flattered by the honors, and is particularly pleased to be actively engaged with the work of the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.

“That’s been kind of fun because you get a chance to get involved with a lot of younger people, not just for a speech or anything like that, but for actually what they’re doing and how their education is going,” Evans said. “That’s been really rewarding.”

At age 96 and in good health, the former governor and former senator doesn’t see a film deal in the works for “Daniel J. Evans: An Autobiography.” But if the screenplay was optioned, who should play him in the film?

“I doubt if we’ll ever get to a movie version,” Evans said, laughing, “but that’s an interesting question I’ve never been asked before.”

My personal suggestion is that the role would require a trio of actors to portray Dan Evans at various stages in his career, and so, in chronological order, I’d suggest Andrew Garfield, Matthew McConaughey, and David Strathairn.

What about a sequel to his new book, and maybe this next time, one with a sexier title?

“I’m not sure that I want to write another book, that’s too hard,” Evans said. “But we can have a hell of a birthday party at 100.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Former Washington Gov. Dan Evans reflects on storied career, state of modern GOP, and more