Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen was a major voice for county transit

OLYMPIA — Mary Margaret Haugen’s improbable journey from cutting hair in her Camano Island home to designing transportation policy for the state is inching closer to an end.

Thursday afternoon, she will run her last meeting as chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, where she’s steered billions of dollars into building roads, fixing bridges and operating ferries while frustrating those who stood in the path of her priorities and those of her constituents.

“For me, it’s always been about serving the people,” she said.

Haugen is wrapping up a 30-year career in the Legislature. She wanted four more years but lost re-election this month to state Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

This week she’s packing up her Olympia office and bidding farewell to colleagues and lobbyists, many of whom describe her as a tough, stubborn, headstrong and emotional lawmaker peers preferred fighting alongside, rather than against, on an issue.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, drew swords with Haugen on funding transit services — he wanted a lot more money than she wanted to allocate.

“We fought tooth and nail on transit issues,” Liias said. “If she disagreed with you, she was not going to give you an inch.”

The two found themselves on the same side in wanting to help Washington State University expand its presence at Everett Community College.

“What made her a very tough opponent made her a great ally,” he said.

Former Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald said he had plenty of memorable experiences with Haugen.

“Mary Margaret is a character. I have had one or two meetings in her Senate office that were downright uncomfortable,” he said. “Also when I felt there were things that needed to be said, I could say them. She was willing to listen as well as lecture.”

Haugen will be remembered as one who could be easily moved to tears in floor debates talking about women’s health care, the need for a college close to Island County, or the future of her grandchildren.

She also could turn on the charm outside the political spotlight. She loves to cook and at the end of a legislative session she’d feed the staff and members of the transportation committee.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, recalled the first time the two met. It came years before he ran for office. He lived in Stanwood and called her up as a constituent to talk about an issue.

“She invited me over to her house for lunch,” he said.

And Haugen never lost her touch as a hair dresser. In 30 years, she trimmed the bangs and locks of plenty of men and women lawmakers of both parties. She said she didn’t get paid for that.

“I would charge them one vote,” she joked.

Politics of frustration

Haugen’s roots in Camano Island run deep. She’s a third-generation island resident and today is living a quarter-mile from where she was born.

She attended public schools, graduated from Twin City High School in Stanwood in 1959 and went to beauty college.

As a young mom, she opened Mary Margaret Beauty Salon in her home while raising her four children.

She marched into politics out of frustration that her daughter’s school couldn’t provide the help she needed in reading. In 1971, she won a seat on the Stanwood-Camano School District Board of Directors and won re-election twice.

In 1982, campaigning on a platform of fully funding public schools, Haugen won a seat in the state House of Representatives.

A decade later, when Republican state Sen. Jack Metcalf passed on re-election to run for Congress, Haugen captured the open seat by beating GOP hopeful Dick Caldwell. Voters re-elected her four times.

Betsy and Jim Shields met Haugen when she served on the school board and their son was in kindergarten. Thirty-five years later, the Camano Island couple remain close friends with her.

“I started going to school board meetings. Mary Margaret was the only woman on the board and the only member who thanked me for attending the meetings,” Betsy Shields said.

‘Steel Magnolias’

Haugen left her earliest fingerprints as a lawmaker in 1990 with passage of the controversial Growth Management Act, which imposed stricter rules for planning and development on cities and counties.

She was chairwoman of the House Local Government Committee where the original bill was introduced. It got broken into six pieces and each one moved separately through a different House panel.

At the time, women ran each of those six committees and they became known as the “Steel Magnolias” as they united behind passage of the policy.

“This was a big deal. We wanted growth. We wanted to make sure we had comprehensive planning. Mary Margaret was very vocal in saying that local government needed to have a voice in the process,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., then a state representative from Mountlake Terrace and one of the Steel Magnolias.

Haugen will leave her largest mark in transportation.

She’s done two stints as chairwoman of the transportation committee. She played a big role in pushing through the nickel increase in the gas tax in 2003. She was a central figure in crafting and passing the 9.5 cent gas tax increase in 2005. Together, those funded $11 billion in projects on highways, bridges and ferries.

The latter package is where she put her hardball style to work to the benefit of one area of Snohomish County at the expense of another. She penciled in money for projects on U.S. 2. When state Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, made clear she’d vote against the package, Haugen erased the dollars.

Meanwhile, she had not put any significant funds into projects on Highway 9. When state Sen. Dave Schmidt, R-Mill Creek said he’d vote for the package, she wrote in close to $110 million for improving and widening the highway.

Her record on Washington State Ferries is mixed. She’s proud of the five new ferries built or under construction since 2007 and said she’s made the agency’s day-to-day operations much more transparent and accessible to the public.

She and other lawmakers endured criticism for keeping the aging Steel Electric class of vessels in operation despite their leaky hulls. And she’s been blasted by ferry workers for not only pushing bills cutting their wages and benefits but disrespecting them in the process. Three of their unions endorsed Bailey in the election.

Haugen’s exit will cost Snohomish and Island counties a powerful voice in debates on transportation. Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson knows the value of that voice.

The 2005 package included money for adding a carpool lane on I-5 through Everett and redoing the 41st Avenue interchange.

The original plan called for work to begin in 2010. Stephanson hoped to get it done by then, so travelers to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., wouldn’t face delays as they drove through the city.

“Had Mary Margaret not heard our plea, we would have been greeting Olympic visitors with orange cones,” he said.

Only one regretted vote

Haugen’s 30-year legislative trail winds through many other policy areas.

Securing Washington State University’s presence in Everett in 2011 will rank as one of her milestones coming years after a proposed branch campus for the University of Washington was lost because of her battle with Stephanson and Dunshee on where to build it.

She wanted a site near Smokey Point for the UW branch campus while they wanted downtown Everett, and the resulting fight led to the loss of the campus, and the millions of dollars set aside by Gov. Chris Gregoire to get it started.

She wrote laws paving the way for cities to use automated traffic enforcement cameras, better known as red light cameras, which provided a financial boon to some cities. And she established the Office of Farmland Preservation to help sustain working farms.

She has no second thoughts on votes she cast, save one: the decision to allow the Washington State Convention Center to be built over I-5 in downtown Seattle.

“I think it limited doing anything else on the freeway,” she said.

The one she doesn’t regret — though she figures it cost her votes this election — is supporting the bill legalizing gay marriage. “I know in my heart I did the right thing,” she said in conceding Nov. 9. “In my three decades in the Legislature, I’ve never hesitated to take hits for doing what I felt was right. That vote was one of the most soul-searching, and one of the best, I ever cast.”

‘She was not wishy-washy’

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said Haugen gave him valuable advice when he arrived in the Senate.

“She used to say, ‘Remember who put you in office, kiddo,’” he recalled.

Haugen sure did. Her career is marked by laws she pushed to resolve specific concerns in her district and money she corralled for projects benefiting her constituents.

She wrote bills allowing residents to drive golf carts on designated roads and granting tax breaks for anaerobic digesters while garnering millions of dollars for construction of facilities at Cama Beach State Park.

Stanwood Mayor Dianne White was heartbroken and angry after Haugen’s loss in the recent election.

“We had a real jewel in Mary Margaret,” White said. “Mary Margaret was not wishy-washy. She would figure out her position on an issue, state that position and then stand by it.”

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson called the senator her go-to person in Olympia.

“She was a strong advocate for our ferries and always ready to go to bat for anyone in our district,” Price Johnson said.

“She was a great role model for me in that way. She always put the community first. People took her hard work and influence in Olympia for granted. She was a pillar.”

Staff writer Gale Fiege contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

Notable work

Democrat Mary Margaret Haugen had a hand in passing hundreds of laws in 30 years as a lawmaker. Here are a few which she’ll be remembered for most.

•The Growth Management Act, which imposed stricter rules for planning and requirements for development on cities and counties.

•A 5 cent gas tax increase in 2003, which provided $3.9 billion for 158 projects.

•A 9.5 cent gas tax increase in 2005 which provided $7.1 billion for 274 projects. An attempt to repeal the increase was rejected by voters in November that year.

•A law clearing the way for widespread use of red-light cameras for traffic enforcement by cities.

•A law requiring health insurers include mammograms for women as part of their basic coverage.

•Securing capital funds for development and operation of Cama Beach State Park.

•Directing transportation dollars into construction of a commuter rail station in Stanwood.

•Creation of the Office of Farmland Preservation and the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

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