For a man who has been dead for 16 years, Warren G. Magnuson has been involved in some lively politics lately. His legacy has been toasted...

Share story

WASHINGTON — For a man who has been dead for 16 years, Warren G. Magnuson has been involved in some lively politics lately.

His legacy has been toasted and his name invoked in debates over the Endangered Species Act, environmental protections of Puget Sound, even an effort to break up the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Much of the talk has burbled up as the Republican-controlled Congress has taken aim at environmental laws the liberal senator from Seattle once championed.

This fall, Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, both cited Magnuson in discussing the need to protect the Sound from potential oil spills. Aides to Republican and Democratic congressmen, as well as several environmental groups, have mentioned Magnuson while defending legal protections for endangered species.

“They are taking on the Magnuson mystique and Washington state lore here,” said Douglas Clapp, the state’s official lobbyist in D.C.

This month, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, one of Magnuson’s protégés, introduced legislation that would overturn a 1977 amendment that Magnuson designed to limit the number of oil tankers entering Puget Sound. The limits were intended to protect the Sound and its marine-mammal life from oil spills.

Warren G. Magnuson


Born in Moorhead, Minn., in 1905; graduated from the University of Washington in 1926 and from the UW School of Law in 1929.

Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937 as a Democrat representing Seattle. Appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1944, where he won re-election until his defeat in 1980 by Republican Slade Gorton.

Legacy includes building Columbia River dams, helping win federal contracts for Boeing and Todd Shipyards in Seattle, steering federal research grants to UW, strengthening environmental protections and supporting the public radio and television networks.

Died in Seattle on May 20, 1989.

Source: Seattle Times archives

Stevens’ bill would let BP oil company expand production at its Cherry Point refinery near Bellingham. A similar attempt to overturn the Magnuson Amendment failed in the House in October.

Magnuson would have turned 100 this year. He died in 1989, nine years after his defeat by Republican Slade Gorton. He spent 43 years in Congress.

That lawmakers invoke his name in today’s legislative battles isn’t surprising, considering his broad and lasting impact on Capitol Hill a generation or two ago. His legislative history is so long that Magnuson’s name was mentioned 75 times in the Congressional Record in the past seven months.

“Conservatives are going after social, consumer-protection, health and environmental programs,” said Ed Sheets, a former Magnuson staffer. “He was deeply involved in creating some of these core programs they are targeting.”

Magnuson has been credited for pushing Congress to, among many things, support and enforce civil rights, create the public television and radio networks, strengthen consumer protections, fund science-based health research and pass numerous environmental laws.

At the centenary celebration for Magnuson in Seattle last April, Stevens, his longtime friend, delivered an emotional speech.

Magnuson had given Stevens his desk and his couch as he cleared out his office in 1980. Stevens noted that he owed Magnuson and his Senate partner, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, because the two giants of Washington politics helped him and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, when they and their states were newcomers.

“When you think back to the days we were there … really, both of our states were new and in the same year, we had so many problems with the federal government. If we hadn’t had friends like Senator Magnuson and [the late] Senator Jackson, I don’t think we really would have made it through,” Stevens said in a speech that night.

“As I sit at that desk, Warren Magnuson is still with me in spirit,” Stevens said.

What would Magnuson say to Stevens now, after his push to overturn the Magnuson Amendment?

“I think he would understand what Senator Stevens is doing for Alaska, but he’d be trying to stop it,” said Dicks, who was Magnuson’s top aide until his own election to Congress in 1976.

Stevens’ spokesperson said he was not available to comment for this story.

Inouye, who is Stevens’ best friend in the Senate, still feels the tug of loyalty toward Magnuson. And that has put him in an awkward position.

In an interview in September, Inouye said he owed much to Washington state because of the help Magnuson provided him and his state over the years. Inouye is now a mentor to Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who is leading the Senate effort against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Stevens is a strong supporter of arctic drilling, and Cantwell has become the focus of his personal and professional ire in recent weeks. Inouye, a gentleman of the old school of congressional behavior and loyalty, finds himself between two warring friends.

On judiciary issues, conservatives and pro-industry groups have attached an amendment to a House Judiciary Committee bill to split up the 9th Circuit. The White House recently endorsed the bill.

The 9th Circuit — called the “Nutty Ninth” by some critics — is viewed as eco-friendly because of rulings its made on logging, fishing rights and other environmental issues.

Now, Magnuson’s name is being invoked by some who support breaking up the court, which covers seven Western states along with Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Magnuson introduced his own legislation to split the 9th Circuit in 1941, a fact court opponents point out.

But he did so only as a threat to force the court, which sat mostly in California, to hold hearings in Seattle and Portland as well, said Steve Calandrillo, a professor with the University of Washington School of Law.

“With his environmental advocacy, I don’t think he’d support splitting this court now,” Calandrillo said.

Don’t expect Magnuson and his legacy to fade any time soon.

Next year brings crucial midterm races for both parties in Congress. His name won’t be on the ballot anywhere, but he and the causes he supported will be part of the debate.

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story. Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com