He’s clamping the lid on government spending in the nation’s 15th-largest state.
He’s orchestrating a new course for higher education in Spokane.
He’s the chief architect of a $2.4 billion transportation plan that could become the state Republicans’ biggest coup or grandest failure this year.
So why don’t more people take state Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, seriously?
Perhaps because he can be an irascible fellow who’s prone to shooting from the hip and driven as much by ambition as vision.
It’s not that he doesn’t know his job.
The 46-year-old Ways and Means Committee chairman - the guy responsible for all spending in the upper house - wields more power than any other Washington senator except Majority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue.
West can cite from memory obscure figures from the state’s $19 billion budget. He’s so procedurally nimble he once outfoxed the Legislature’s best parliamentarian on the Senate floor.
After two decades in politics, he’s even learned to get his way by letting opponents get theirs: In the late 1980s he ushered through a bill creating the Department of Health, only to give credit to a Democrat who’d pursued it longer.
“Just because he’s a Republican doesn’t mean we’re always at odds,” said Gov. Gary Locke, who as a Democratic legislator was himself a budget chairman. “It’s a tough, tough, tough position, but he’s very thoughtful.”
West is consumed by politics. He critiques talk-radio when he drives. He can recount innovative government programs under way in Indianapolis, and is at the office every day from darkness to darkness.
Still, in interviews with two dozen supporters and detractors, West’s political rise is often deemed something of an accident.
“He has a knack for being at the right place at the right time,” said Dennis Dellwo, a former Democratic representative from Spokane. “He managed to come up at a time when he could be chosen and has been able to survive the ups and downs.”
And there have been valleys.
In 1990, West supported criminalizing teenage sex in an effort to convince Washington youth to choose abstinence. It was a small element in a big bill that slipped by him, he said.
In 1995, West grew so angry at Spokane Sen. John Moyer he screamed at Moyer’s staff and kicked the office door. He later apologized by buying flowers for Moyer’s secretary.
In a failed 1996 campaign for lieutenant governor, West puttered a motor home through small Washington towns like a middle-aged, suburban Jack Kerouac. In retrospect, he said, he should have run television ads in Seattle.
In truth, the three-term senator who served four years in the House has lost or abandoned nearly as many elections as he’s won. He’s had failed bids for sheriff and mayor, and a short-lived race for state GOP chairman. He even campaigned unsuccessfully for student government in high school.
The ex-Boy Scout from the South Hill is much like the Lilac City itself - scrappy, restless, and not quite content to be No. 2.
“He’d like to be king of the world,” said Dick Gow, who served with West on the Spokane City Council in the late 1970s. “But I’m sure he’d settle for governor.”
Political watchers are quick to point out that West craves success for Spokane as well as himself. Why else would he push to give Washington State University control over higher education in Spokane and risk alienating Eastern Washington University in an election year?
West brought back the decade-old merger idea in trademark style: With little public prelude, he dropped a bombshell.
The latest rendition, which would give WSU - a research school - a greater toehold in Spokane, squared with West’s interests. He’s a technology buff who tore apart clocks as a kid, had the Legislature’s first computer in 1983, and keeps his schedule on a pocket-sized electronic datebook.
Besides, in the last 10 years WSU’s Vancouver branch sprouted a half-dozen buildings, West pointed out during a hearing before the House Higher Education Committee, run by Rep. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver.
“And it’s not because Rep. Carlson is better at bringing home the bacon than Sen. West,” West said with a smirk.
Spokane leaders still grumble privately that West is stingy about bringing home money for special projects. This year city officials are frustrated by West’s seeming disinterest in finding money for convention center expansion.
Not everyone agrees with that criticism.
“I’ve never seen a city yet who felt their legislators gave them everything they wanted,” said former Spokane city manager Roger Crum. “Jim did just fine.”
But West is clearly sensitive about the issue. His tirade with Moyer was over a letter seeking state money for the Cheney Cowles Museum - a letter Moyer had circulated with the signature line for West left blank.
“I keep telling people, ‘We fund good projects, not just my projects,”’ West said. “I try to be responsible in what I do. I try to be frugal.”
In his personal life, he’s had to be.
A California native, he came to Spokane as a kid after his father was mugged inside a store in Watts. Sick of neighborhood crime, West’s father gave up a job in business and went to work for the Postal Service.
After a year of college and a stint in the 82nd Airborne during Vietnam (he saw no combat), West became a police officer in Medical Lake. He put himself through Gonzaga University and has worked as a sheriff’s deputy, owner of a scuba diving shop, and a Boy Scout camp counselor. Critics suggest he may have run for some offices because they pay more than the $28,300 he gets as a legislator.
As a budget author, West so wants to keep spending down he passes out business cards outlining the only four reasons he’ll boost the budget.
With an $800 million-plus state surplus, that leaves him fending off dozens of proposals. But it also makes him easy prey for budget-savvy Democrats.
At a hearing before his committee this week, Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, asked for an additional $200,000 to help pay for breast and cervical cancer screening for poor women, since a federal program had just been cut by $1.5 million.
West, who had put $1 million for screening in the budget - a bill he cosponsored with Brown - rolled his eyes and quipped, “Why does this not surprise me?”
Brown snapped back, “I found a place to cut: How about this $200,000 that’s going for security at a PGA golf tournament?”
Flustered, West refused her request, and later explained - with a bit of stammering - that he had put the security money in at the request of Bud Coffey, a lobbyist who led last year’s push for a new Seattle stadium.
That frankness has often been West’s curse.
One recent evening, he chomped pizza and explained why he picked this year to re-examine EWU.
Disappointed by low enrollment, West was scanning the Internet one day and saw an ad for a new EWU president - the fourth in a dozen years. The content convinced him school trustees sought a “status quo” candidate.
“This whole thing is the trustees’ fault,” West blurted, then leaned back in his chair, biting the insides of his lip. “That’s the first time I’ve said that.”
The next day, debating the bill on the Senate floor, West wrongly said one trustee even presided over Eastern from New York State.
That’s how it happens: West speaks his mind, then pays the price.
“I think that’s part of his personality - lashing out at people,” said trustee James Kirschbaum, who remains at odds with West over Eastern.
Former Rep. Todd Mielke, one of the dozens of young men West mentored, said West is misunderstood by people who take him too personally.
“My daughter is 5 years old and he tries to be gruff and she just laughs at him,” Mielke said.
Even so, friends often cringe when West speaks. His ex-wife, Ginger Marshall, couldn’t always tell when he was joking.
“There were people who would coach him and say ‘maybe you shouldn’t have said that,’ but he would just say ‘Why?”’ Marshall said.
West said he recently met a teenage girl who said she couldn’t be a politician because it wasn’t “ethical.” But at the center of politics, he said, is truth.
“In this business you don’t last long if you’re not trusted,” he said. “And that requires honesty.”
Spoken like a Boy Scout.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
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