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Tuesday, May 31, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Former lawmaker Martin J. Durkan Sr. was political giant

Seattle Times staff reporter

Martin J. Durkan Sr., a former chairman of the Washington state Senate Ways and Means Committee and once one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, died Sunday. He was 81.

Sen. Durkan, who ran twice for governor, was remembered as a giant in state politics because of his influence in the state Legislature during the 1960s and 70s. He served a two-year term in the state House of Representatives before being elected to the state Senate in 1958.

He served 18 years in the Senate and eventually became chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where he held sway over the state budget.

But Sen. Durkan's ambitions for higher office never panned out. In 1968 and 1972, he ran for governor, losing both times in the Democratic primary. He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1977.

Former state Rep. Denny Heck, a Democrat, described Sen. Durkan as "one of the best governors we never had." Heck added that Durkan's family "never quite became the Washington version of the Massachusetts Kennedys, but came about as close as you could get."

A son, Martin Durkan Jr., is a well-known local-government lobbyist, while one of his daughters, Jenny, is a prominent Seattle attorney who is representing the Democratic party in the lawsuit challenging the governor's race last November. Daughter Kathleen is a former NBC News foreign correspondent; a son, Tim, is a special assistant to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and another daughter, Ryan, is one of the area's leading land-use attorneys.

Jenny Durkan said her parents always encouraged their children to get involved in civic life and give back.

"He was one of the kindest, most compassionate people I've ever known, and he was also one of the most perceptive people," she said. "He could cut through a vast amount of details and hone in on what was important."

That trait aided him in his political life, where he was known for sticking up for "the little guy and the underdog," Jenny Durkan said, and "those who otherwise would have been disenfranchised."

Don Brazier, a former Republican lawmaker who served with Sen. Durkan in the 1960s and has written extensively about the history of the state Legislature, said he ranks Sen. Durkan among the top lawmakers that he has known.

"I treasured his friendship. ... He's always been a favorite of mine, even though back in those days I was a Republican and he was a Democrat."

The late Sen. Ray Moore, a Democrat, said in an oral history published in 1999 that Sen. Durkan would have been the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1972 except that then-state Sen. Jim McDermott ran in the primary and split the vote with Durkan, giving Al Rosellini enough votes to win the nomination.

Moore believed if Durkan had gotten the nomination, he would have beaten Republican Dan Evans. Despite those losses, Moore said, Sen. Durkan always maintained great access to the governor's mansion.

"It seemed to me that whoever was governor, Martin always had access," Moore recalled. After Sen. Durkan left the Legislature, he became one of the most-influential and highest-paid lobbyists — one of two lobbyists in Olympia, Moore recalled, who "could perform miracles."

He was best known as the representative of the state's horse-racing industry, which he represented for more than two decades. Ken Alhadeff, formerly senior vice president of Longacres racetrack, said Sen. Durkan helped craft legislation about taxation and regulation that allowed horse racing to survive.

"What Martin was about was that old-world kind of political class and style," said Alhadeff. "When Martin Durkan stepped into the room you knew something was going to happen."

Sen. Durkan died at Maui Memorial Medical Center in Hawaii, where he and his wife had a vacation home. He had been in failing health for some time and had recently suffered a heart attack, said daughter Jenny.

Sen. Durkan was born in Great Falls, Mont. His father was a state legislator; his mother was a schoolteacher.

He attended Gonzaga University before joining the Navy during World War II and serving with an amphibious team in the South Pacific. After the war, he earned his law degree at the University of Washington.

He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Lorraine "Lolly" Durkan, of Seattle and his eight children: David Grant, of Olympia; Jenny Durkan, Kathleen Durkan, Martin Durkan Jr., Ryan Durkan, Tim Durkan and Megan Durkan, all of the Seattle area; and Matt Durkan, of Los Angeles.

Plans for a funeral service are pending.

Seattle Times staff reporter Ralph Thomas and staff researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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