This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
NEWS FROM OLYMPIA
‘Great power, great responsibility’
A day at the Legislature with Rep. Bill Hinkle
by Tiffany Vu
WNPA Olympia News Bureau Reporter
“We’re dealing with real issues and principles that affect everybody…”
It’s 5:30 on a Thursday night, the Washington State House of Representatives has recessed for a dinner break and Rep. Bill Hinkle needs his toothbrush. The previous night, March 2, the House had remained in session from 1:30 in the afternoon to nearly 11 at night without a break. Tonight’s session threatens to run nearly as long. On top of that, the next morning’s meetings are scheduled to begin promptly at 8 a.m. There would be no rest for Washington lawmakers as they raced the clock to March 7, the last day to pass House bills in the House and Senate bills in the Senate. Despite all the late-night sessions during this week, the sheer number of bills and amendments left to be debated make the threat of a weekend session, which might prevent Hinkle from driving home to Cle Elum, look more and more likely. The more business they finish tonight, the earlier he might be able to go home on Saturday. Thus Hinkle retreats to the wings of the House chamber, texting his legislative assistant, Vicki Angelini, with a request to bring him a toothbrush. She arrives about five minutes later as he’s chatting with colleagues, empty mug and toothbrush in hand, prompting a sigh of gratitude. “No shame, huh?” Angelini says to him, teasingly. No, none. It’s going to be a long night at the Capitol. Where changes have to take place “It’s like drinking from a fire hose, to be honest,” Hinkle says, laughing. “You’re trying to get your hand on the bail to shut it down. But it’s pretty high pressure; I don’t think people realize how intense it can be.” After eight years in the House he has come to know what to expect: early mornings, late nights, seemingly nonstop meetings with constituents and lobbyists, constant negotiations, drawn-out debates, and a continual struggle to represent his own district’s interests in the frenetic swirl of Olympia politics. It was the latter that drew him to the state Legislature: the desire to change policy at the state level to make things easier for people back home. “When you’re in local government you understand where changes really have to take place,” Hinkle says. They have to take place at the state level “if you’re going to take the burden of state mandates off local governments and decrease regulatory structures back home.” Hinkle served on the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners from 1996 to 2002, the year he was elected to the House of Representatives. He hadn’t planned to run for state office at the time, believing that a campaign for a seat in Olympia lay farther into the future, but he says he received several phone calls asking him to run for Gary Chandler’s seat when the latter stepped down in 2002. “If the opportunity’s there and you feel that you have something to bring to the table,” he says, “you jump up.…I just felt I had enough experience and understanding of government.” A day in the life The day starts at 6 a.m. with morning prayers, followed by a gym session, then off to the Capitol for committee hearings, floor sessions,
caucuses and constituent meetings. Hinkle sits on three House committees: Health Care and Wellness, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Ways and Means, which helps write the state budget. Committee meetings normally last for two hours, consisting of public hearings on various bills and topics before the committee votes on whether to pass bills to the floor. Sometimes Hinkle has to briefly excuse himself for meetings with constituents and lobbyists, which, due to a legislator’s crammed schedule, usually won’t exceed 15 minutes. Each day’s schedule is neatly laid out by Hinkle’s legislative assistant on a long blue sheet of paper, which Hinkle keeps with him throughout the day. Usually a number of constituents come in during session from Cle Elum to visit Hinkle, often to complain about regulatory actions by the state or of being mistreated by state agencies. “There’s a lot of concern expressed over where we’re putting our money,” Hinkle adds. Committees convene as early as 8 a.m. or as late as 6 p.m., but normally the day’s business is concluded about 5:30 p.m. For most of the week, Hinkle then meets with lobbyists, constituents or other legislators at a restaurant downtown or in someone’s home. By 9 p.m. he goes home to prepare for the next day’s business – not to a rented room or an apartment like most other legislators, but to his trailer, parked at his brother’s house in Olympia. On Fridays, Hinkle usually leaves the capital and drives straight home to Cle Elum to meet with constituents and spend time with his wife, Debra, and their two teenage children. Though he spends most of his week in Olympia during the session, Hinkle puts his time away from home into perspective by pointing out that the session usually takes up less than a quarter of any given biennium. “If in politics you want to be effective and you actually want to make a difference for people, you have to spend some time” at the capitol, Hinkle says. “Sometimes your best-laid plans don’t always work out.” Indeed, no lawmaker can count on regular hours while the Legislature is in session, particularly when the state has a massive budget hole to patch. In particular, mid-session floor debates can upend a schedule altogether. Sergeant-at-arms Floor sessions convene at 10 a.m. or noon and normally last no longer than two hours. However, the first week of March saw marathon sessions that stretched late into the evening so that legislators could pass bills before the cutoff date. Even then, there was still so much unfinished business that Hinkle was unable to go home that weekend; the floor session on Saturday, March 5 lasted from 9 a.m. to nearly midnight. Hinkle, as the Minority Whip, has to make sure that the process works as smoothly for his party as it can, even as long hours raise tensions. “I’m the sergeant-at-arms of the House, basically,” he says, although the House has its own sergeant-atarms, charged with keeping order in the chamber. Hinkle’s job is to do the same within his own Republican Party caucus. “I make sure people are where they are supposed to be,” he says. This could have two meanings. One is to ensure that caucus members support the party’s strategy
with their votes, as opposed to straying toward the other side and potentially killing “good” bills or passing “bad” bills, as they’re labeled on the House Republican Caucus website. “If we have controversial bills coming up, I do a vote count,” Hinkle says — strolling through the Republican half of the House floor or the caucus room, clipboard in hand, recording notes. Sometimes he dispatches his three assistant whips – Rep. Cathy Dahlquist (R-Enumclaw), Rep. Jason Overstreet (R-Blaine) and Rep. Ann Rivers (R-La Center), all freshmen – to collect votes, but half the time he does it himself, especially if a colleague needs a little extra persuasion to stick to caucus strategy. The other meaning is rather literal. The week before March 7 it was not unusual to see both parties retreat from the floor to their caucus rooms for hours at a time to devise and discuss that strategy. Another one of the Minority Whip’s duties is to shepherd his dallying colleagues into caucus, where every voice and every vote is crucial. “I keep the door [of the caucus room] and maintain decorum,” Hinkle says. “We have important business to do.” Unlike the serious, sometimes staid pace of business on the House floor, the air in the Republican caucus room is far more relaxed, even clubby. Beneath the watchful gazes of a painting of elephants and a smiling Ronald Reagan framed upon the wall, representatives toss jokes around, mocking one another and frequently bursting into raucous laughter. That’s not to say that serious business doesn’t happen inside the caucus room. But the public doesn’t get to witness it, as Hinkle ushers pages, interns and guests out into the wings. “It’s all strategy in there,” he says before closing the doors. Staying with the troops Some of the Minority Whip’s tasks are a little more mundane, including assigning parking spots, offices and seats. But Hinkle makes even these arrangements with a specific purpose in mind. Seating assignments on the House floor, he says, are strategically made to protect lawmakers who might need extra help. However, office assignments this session were at least partially out of Hinkle’s control. Of the 98 members of the House of Representatives, 64 had offices in the John L. O’Brien Building adjacent to the central Legislative Building. Construction on the upper floors of that building forced all 64 lawmakers and their staff to move into portables on a nearby parking lot. Twenty-eight of them, including Hinkle, are Republicans. Hinkle, who has served in the House since 2003, has the seniority to claim a cushy office on the fourth floor of the Legislative Building, just above the House chamber. Instead, his office is tucked into a corner of one of those modular buildings, with few decorations other than thin wood panels and a printed icon of Alaskan Orthodox saints. “I’m the Whip, so I have to stay with the troops,” Hinkle said. “When you’re the one who assigns offices, you have to go out and … share their sufferings, as it were. Otherwise it’s pretty hard for you to have any moral authority with them.” The new accommodations, he said, were “not as nice as the ones we had when I first came … they have flimsy walls, you can hear conversations, and they’re just not very nice. But they’re just temporary.” Just outside his office, Hinkle’s legislative assistant Angelini is everpresent in her cubicle, taking calls, tracking bills, updating his schedule and, every 15 minutes or so when Hinkle is there, knocking on his office door to remind him that he has visitors waiting or to hurry him off to a meeting. She’s his third and longest-serving legislative assistant, having first come to Olympia to work for him in 2007. “We couldn’t do it if we didn’t have our legislative assistants,” Hinkle says. “They’re a key part of helping us maintain strong relationships back home … they sort out the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Vicki is the best I’ve had.
DISTRICT 13 REPRESENTATIVE Bill Hinkle overshadows his colleagues in stature, but not in words when he speaks on the House Floor, Feb. 27, 2011.
Photo courtesy of House Republican Caucus
She’s a keeper.” Angelini, for her part, calls Hinkle “the best boss ever. He’s a dream to work for.” A sustainable safety net Hinkle’s website gives a rundown of his legislative priorities: creating a sustainable budget, improving the job market by creating a more business-friendly environment, limiting the size and scope of government, reforming water regulations, protecting human life and bringing “true health care reform.” “I have the most knowledge about health care in the caucus,” said Hinkle, a former paramedic who has worked in the health insurance industry for 10 years. “I think with my background in the healthcare world, being a broker, I bring a breadth of knowledge that we don’t have in the committee, at least on the Republican side.” Hinkle is also a major advocate for local water rights holders. His pet project earlier in the session was HB 1296 that would have established an elected commission to administer water rights, replacing a commission appointed by the state Department of Ecology (DOE). The bill passed out of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, but failed to make it out of the House Ways and Means committee before the March 7 cutoff date. “The majority has all the cards,” Hinkle said. “It’s basically a legislator trying to impact the decisions of the executive branch, which is sometimes difficult.” But the fact that the bill got this far despite DOE opposition “demonstrates the frustration and distrust that people have … and a need for a more collaborative attitude on the part of the Department of Ecology,” says Hinkle, who is planning to revive the legislation in the form of a budget amendment that would restructure the water rights program in the DOE. For the remainder of the session, Hinkle plans to concentrate on implementing federal health care reform, saying that he would seek waivers to federal mandates. “I want to protect us from a government takeover of health care, bottom line,” he says, but cautions against moving too hastily, as the federal law is still being challenged in court. His other priorities are to create jobs, balance the budget and take measures to curb services to illegal immigrants. “We’ve become a magnet state for illegals and people who want handouts from the government, and we’ve got to stop doing that,” Hinkle says. “We need a sustainable safety net and we can’t do that by inviting everyone around the world to come to Washington State and leave our children, our people who have been here for generations, out on the street. This has nothing to do with race; this has everything to do with people who have been paying taxes that are here legally.” “In judgment, remember mercy” Hinkle is an easily recognizable sight in and around the Capitol, not only by his silver hair and beard, but by the fact that he towers over most of his colleagues, many of whom will notice and comment if he fails to wear his customary bow tie. But rarely does he raise his voice in committee or on the House floor. The debate on March 3 over HB 1339, a bill that would significantly increase fines against drivers in accidents that cause bodily harm to “vulnerable users” like pedestrians and bicyclists, brought out another side of him. Hinkle drew on his own experiences as a paramedic in an impassioned floor speech against the bill, particularly a traumatic accident shortly before his first election in which an eight-year-old girl
was run over in front of a school. The driver, he said, had not been at fault and was emotionally shattered by the incident, and added that imposing a large fine in such accidents would only make things worse. Indeed, Hinkle would later recount being sent home from the scene of the accident because it made him too upset to work. “You hear the tragedies, you hear from their families — all you do is read and hear these things. But if you’ve seen it, if you’ve been there, you would understand there’s not just one tragedy, there’s two!” Hinkle said, his voice uncharacteristically rising on the House floor. “Please, let’s just take a little time and think about what we may be doing here, the unintended consequences of creating yet more tragedy, destroying yet more lives when we really don’t need to. … In our judgment, please remember mercy.” Nonetheless, the bill passed, 59 to 39 votes. Hinkle could later be seen in the wings chatting with a couple of state troopers about the bill, shaking his head in disbelief and muttering, “We’re creating criminals here.” Later still Hinkle says, “The real trick, and my personal challenge as a legislator, is to bring light, not heat” — then adds, with a rueful chuckle, that he had probably just failed at both in that speech. “We’re challenged with the most fundamental, emotional battles that a person could go through in this place. We’re dealing with real issues and principles that affect everybody … and it’s very impassioned, I’d say, on both sides. The trick is to have these … thorough conversations without any lasting animosity.” Another one of Hinkle’s legislative challenges, he says, is the task of accurately representing both his core values and the will of his constituents in Olympia. Legislators “get in trouble all the time for ‘not getting it right’ as to where their people are,” Hinkle said. “The way you do that is, you get out in the community, you communicate with people individually throughout your district, you ask for input and you listen. If you don’t do that … this place can become your own little bubble where you forget you serve anybody.” Then he starts to get a little bashful. “This is the thing I hate about politics,” Hinkle says with another laugh, “that you have to tell people how good you are. … But I think one of the reasons I keep getting elected is that people know that I do listen to people back home. I do care, and I love the people I serve.” An awesome responsibility In the end, “drinking from a fire hose” seems like a mild way to describe the weight of a legislator’s duties. “Frankly, every day I walk in this building, I think about what an awesome responsibility and privilege it is,” Hinkle says. “This place stands for who we are as a people. It’s a monument of our state and republican form of government, that enough people send us to represent them and help make decisions … that affect all our lives.” But the best part of being a legislator and having that responsibility, Hinkle says, is to impact people’s lives in a positive way. “Really, it’s kind of corny,” he admits, “but I think I’ve been able to work on bills that have really helped people, to help people through the maze of state government and regulations. People come with all kinds of problems. It’s nice to be able to help people feel like their government’s here for them. A government of the people, by the people, for the people: that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
REP. HINKLE MAKES an appearance on TVW to give updates on the Legislature.
Photo courtesy of House Republican Caucus
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.