Packing a powerful punch
OLYMPIA – Fourteen years after Lisa Brown packed her infant son into an old Subaru and headed for Olympia, she has grown into one of the two most powerful lawmakers in the state.
She has gone from an activist protesting U.S. policy in Nicaragua to Senate majority leader, poring over budgets, flying on a trade mission to Europe and having breakfast weekly with the governor and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, the state’s other most powerful lawmaker. During the legislative session, Brown puts in high-stress 12-hour days, trying to hash out bill and budget deals from her sprawling corner office in the Capitol.
But friends, colleagues and even political adversaries say that Brown, 49, has stayed true to her roots. She consistently has pushed for more money for schools, help for low-income families and a better social safety net, they say, particularly in Spokane.
“She’s authentic,” said Gonzaga University law professor George Critchlow.
“The core of her is so settled,” said Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. “She knows who she is and the things that she cares about.”
Working in Nicaragua
Like a lot of politicians, Brown was drafted into public service.
An Illinois native, she moved to the Spokane in 1981 to teach economics at Eastern Washington University. She became a community activist, pushing for welfare changes and dental care for the poor and joining a local peace group.
By 1990, Brown was headed to Nicaragua to teach economics. She was one of hundreds of American “internacionalistas” volunteering their skills in the struggling country. She shared a home with several people, washing her clothes in a sink on the days there was running water. She rode a crowded bus half an hour each day to teach at the University of Managua.
Two years later, back in Spokane, local Democrats talked her into running for office in the 3rd Legislative District. By then, she was a single mother to her son, Lucas.
“I do believe that having Lucas really strengthened her character,” said former Spokane Mayor Sheri Barnard. “It made her more passionate about the things she believes in.”
It was a tough campaign, with “Sandinista Lisa” facing headlines such as “Brown denies being Marxist.”
She won. Two months later, she set off for the Statehouse.
“For someone who took a real beating at first for her activism,” Brown seemed unaffected, said former Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley. “She’s stuck her nose to the grindstone and done her job.”
‘The pendulum swings’
Brown spent four years in the state House of Representatives. As a freshman, she faced a much-publicized flap for bringing her infant son onto the floor of the House during a late-night session. She was elected to the Senate in 1996 and gradually worked her way up to run the Senate budget committee.
She got the job in 2001 on the verge of the dot-com bust, Boeing layoffs and, in September, the terrorist attacks on the East Coast. The state was left wrestling with a massive budget shortfall. She considers it one of her biggest Statehouse victories that she and her budget writers found ways to stave off massive cuts in social services, particularly for children.
In 2003, Brown rose to Senate minority leader, watching in dismay as Republicans undid some of the things she had fought for. They proposed fees for children on Medicaid and held down the number of children on state-subsidized health coverage. On key votes, fellow Democrats occasionally would break ranks and vote against her.
Late in 2004, Democrats regained control of the Senate, with Brown as leader.
“Over the long term,” she said, “the pendulum swings.”
Her biggest disappointment as majority leader was the death of a bill to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. Liberals had been trying to pass it since the 1970s. It failed last year by a single Senate vote.
Firebrand to pragmatist
The past two sessions have been very good for Democrats. Buoyed by a resurgent economy, they have poured money into schools and teacher salaries. They added state health coverage for thousands of children. They expanded mental health coverage, added slots for college students, approved a transportation overhaul and added to the Basic Health Plan, Washington’s coverage for the working poor.
In February, Brown and her lesbian sister sat in the gallery, watching the House debate – and pass – the anti-discrimination bill. The Senate followed suit, and Gov. Chris Gregoire promptly signed it into law.
After 14 years in the Statehouse, Brown says she’s more pragmatic. She learned that the route to a goal often requires half-steps and compromise. Part of being a leader, she said, is knowing how far and when to push.
“She was pretty much a firebrand in the House,” said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane. “Now she knows this place inside and out. She knows when to use pressure and when not to.”
Prentice echoed that. “She won’t hesitate to put pressure on somebody,” she said of Brown. “She understands the psychology of people and what moves them.”
Over the years, Brown has managed to balance a life between Olympia and Spokane as well as her job as associate professor at Gonzaga University. Lucas – now 14 – lives with his father in Spokane during the session. That bottle-sucking infant who caused such an indignant stir in the House long ago recently spent a week running errands as a Senate page.
Small changes add up
Friends have urged Brown to run for Congress, but she says she loves state-level politics. “You can see things happen over time,” she said. The federal government is a ship that’s harder to turn.
She says she’s not sure what her next move will be. “I like what I’m doing. That doesn’t mean I want to keep doing it for another decade or two.
“At this point, I’m planning to run again (in 2008),” she said. “But I’m also looking around at other ways I could be involved in public policy.”
Some of her proudest moments as a lawmaker involve some of the smallest things, she said. She fought to change the state formula on child-care subsidies, which meant an increase for Spokane providers. She pushed to expand a state program that issues food vouchers for farmers market produce. When the state plunked $200,000 into a Spokane-area autism center, she and the program director cried with happiness.
“Most of those are tiny little things in the overall scheme of the budget,” Brown said. “But they’re very satisfying. They’re the kind of things that you’re not sure would have happened if you weren’t there.”