Governor Albert Mead vetoes a proposal to move the state capital from Olympia to Tacoma on February 27, 1905.
On February 27, 1905, Governor Albert Mead (1861-1913) vetoes legislation that would have placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 1906 ballot to move the state capital from Olympia to Tacoma. The bill is driven more by political gamesmanship than a genuine desire for a change, which Mead points out in his message accompanying his veto. It is the last serious attempt in the state’s history to move the capital.
A Sudden Bolt
There had been attempts to move the capital from Olympia before, including a well-known effort in 1890 that went to the voters, and a lesser-known effort in 1901, which failed to pass the legislature. But the 1905 attempt was different. It appeared out of the blue, a sudden bolt that burned brightly in state politics for a brief moment before disappearing as quickly as it had come.
United States senators were chosen by state legislatures before the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution established direct elections in 1913. Addison Foster (1837-1917) of Tacoma had served one term in the US Senate as 1905 began, but he was up for reelection in the legislature that January. He was challenged by several other candidates that included Charles Sweeny of Spokane and Samuel Piles (1858-1940) of Seattle. Sweeny hired George Stevenson, a notorious but powerful lobbyist who also moonlighted as a campaign manager for US Senate candidates, to work deals with legislators to get their votes for Sweeny. However, after a contested process that lasted two weeks and included 13 ballots, the other candidates, including Sweeny, gave their votes to Piles. He was duly elected on January 27.
Stevenson did not take the defeat well. Moving with lightning speed, he induced various business interests in Tacoma to encourage their legislators to submit a bill to move the capital from Olympia to Tacoma. At first, this was met with a receptive ear. Tacoma was easier to reach by rail or steamer than Olympia, and it was a far larger city with more amenities; one legislator said that he would support the bill because he had had to sleep in a cold room when he had last been in Olympia. On February 1 – five days after Piles’s election – a bill was introduced in the Senate by George Baker (a Stevenson ally) providing for the removal of the capital from Olympia to Tacoma. The next day, it passed by a vote of 26 to 12.
Not So Fast
Whatever public support there may have been initially for such a move vanished as people began to realize how costly it would be. For the most part, the state’s press also disapproved. The Snohomish County Tribune wrote, “it looks as if Tacoma, having lost the senator, wanted to get even by stealing the capital,” while the Yakima Democrat concurred with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, writing that “the capital removal bill is a scheme for revenge against Olympia hatched by that loathsome and irresponsible lobbyist, George Stevenson, aided by his loyal henchman, Baker of Klickitat” (Newell, 198). There was a little more debate and a few more machinations in the House over the bill than there were in the Senate, but to no avail. On February 17, the House passed the capital removal bill by a vote of 55 to 37. Three days later, it went to Governor Mead for his signature.
There was debate over whether Mead’s participation was necessary. Even if he approved the bill, the next step would be for the removal question to appear on the November 1906 ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment. Washington’s constitution requires only that the legislature submit the question of removal to the people; there was no requirement that it be done by a bill that needed the governor’s signature. But the die was cast, and the state waited with baited breath for a week before Mead issued a firm veto on February 27.
Mead noted that the constitution required a two-thirds majority of the voters to pass a constitutional amendment, and said that it followed that both houses of the legislature should pass the bill by an identical margin. The Senate vote had reached the two-thirds threshold, but in the House the margin was lower, just shy of 60 percent. He pointed out that the removal question had been presented to the people before and that Olympia had been chosen, and he argued that the move would be expensive and bordering on pointless, especially since legislators already had a newly remodeled and enlarged building in Olympia which was fully adequate for their needs. And he questioned the good faith of the proponents of the bill, observing:
“… I am not convinced that the passage of the bill herewith returned was the result of the calm mediation and deliberation of each and all the members who voted for it. From the inception of the consideration of this measure, evidence has been constantly accumulating that this bill was forced through the legislature by a practice bordering close to the line of intimidation and coercion … I believe that the [question should be postponed] until such time as the legislature can submit therewith a statute that will set forth a line of policy that will commend itself to the judgment of the people and give them an intelligent comprehension of the probable expense involved in ordering such a change, the benefits they are to receive and the sources from which funds are to be provided for the construction of [a new capitol] building” (“Governor vetoes …”).
The Senate immediately voted to sustain Mead’s veto by a tie vote of 19-19. Baker then introduced a resolution for capital removal which did not need Mead’s signature, but four days later the Senate voted to indefinitely postpone it from consideration. It was the last serious attempt to move the capital from Olympia. There were occasional rumblings and rumors in the 1910s, but these went nowhere, and even this sporadic loose talk was over by the early 1920s. The completion of new and attractive buildings in Olympia for the state government by the end of the same decade further cemented the city’s place as Washington’s capital.
Gordon Newell, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1975), 193-195, 198-200; “To Move Capital,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 3, 1905, pp. 1, 10; “Governor Vetoes Capital Removal,” Ibid., February 28, 1905, pp. 1, 11; “Removal Is Killed,” Ibid., March 4, 1905, p. 10; “Sweeny Drops Out for Piles!” The Seattle Times, January 27, 1905, p. 1; “Capital Removal Bill Passes Senate,” Ibid., February 2, 1905, p. 1; “Seattle Favors Tacoma for Capital,” Ibid., February 2, 1905, pp. 1-2; “Right of Veto on Capital Bill Denied,” Ibid., February 16, 1905, p. 4; “Capital Removal Bill Passes House,” Ibid., February 17, 1905, pp. 1, 4; “Capital Removal Bill Vetoed by Mead,” Ibid., February 27, 1905, pp. 1-2.
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