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Guest post: A smile and legacy to bridge the political divide

A tribute to Hunter Goodman

Hunter Goodman, Secretary of the State Senate from 2013-2017, served as Government Affairs Director for the Attorney General’s Office from 2005-2013. Hunter was an outstanding public servant and exceptional person.

Dan Sytman, who served on the AGO’s communications team, has written a fantastic tribute to Hunter, with the assistance of Chris Johnson and Maureen Scharber from our policy and communications teams. My thanks to Washington State Wire for sharing Dan’s tribute here.

— Rob McKenna, former Washington State Attorney General

Amidst the political strife afflicting the United States, hope is found in the story of a man who knew how to cure conflict with friendship, a smile, and a sincere desire to bring people together. Unfortunately, the barrage of daily headlines about partisan conflict have left untold the many stories of those who toil behind the scenes in state politics, in good faith and with great personal character. Among them is the story of my friend, Hunter Goodman, the former Secretary of the Washington State Senate. Hunter passed away on April 17, leaving a great many friends and colleagues from all political sides to ponder the profound impact he had on each of us, and what life will be like without him.

We are in a moment of political mistrust that poisons our ability to work together on common problems. Yet there are so many lessons we can glean from Hunter’s life and work. By sharing his story, I hope we can each do our part to advance his remarkable legacy of public service.

I arrived at the Washington state capitol in the spring of 2008, as a senior communications manager for Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. Along with a box of family photos, I brought several preconceived notions about what I was walking into. My expectation was that McKenna faced tough odds as a Republican serving in the environment in which Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. In such a challenging climate, it was not unrealistic to imagine little would get done. Thankfully, nothing was further from the truth.

McKenna worked, with terrific success, in close collaboration with all state government entities. Among the centerpieces of his leadership was expanding the office’s role in not just carrying out its duties in providing legal counsel to state agencies and representing state government in court, but in modifying our laws to better serve the public. In order to do that, McKenna appointed Hunter as his Director of Government Affairs, and tasked him with uniting lawmakers to pass laws to protect consumers, victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, and more. I was incredibly fortunate to work with Hunter, a K-12 classmate from Mercer Island, Washington. I was awestruck on a regular basis – yet never surprised – by the positive influence he wielded in state government. 

By the time McKenna’s two, four-year terms were over, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office had written and persuaded elected officials to pass a whopping 45 bills, all with strong support from both parties, and in many cases nearly unanimous support.

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Left to right: Chris Johnson, AGO Policy and Gov’t Affairs Specialist Rebecca Podszus, and Hunter, in 2008.

Hunter worked with a small staff that included his long-time friend and Eagle Scout, Chris Johnson, who served as Policy Director. Together, they helped Attorney General McKenna obtain funding to expand the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division that shields consumers – with an emphasis on seniors and those in lower-income groups – from unfair and deceptive business practices. With identity theft on the rise, they passed a law — which was later replicated around the country — to require companies to pay for free credit monitoring when customers are the victims of data breaches. They passed a groundbreaking bill to enact tough penalties for those who install spyware on consumers’ computers. And since the Attorney General is also the state’s chief law enforcement officer, McKenna, Hunter, and team worked with legislators to reform the sexually violent predator statute to better shield the public from dangerous criminals about to be released from prison.

On a national level, again working through Hunter, Johnson and others, McKenna helped Washington State become a leader in the fight against human trafficking. These are just a few examples of what a Republican Attorney General, who charged his government affairs director to work with a Legislature and Governor’s Office controlled by the opposing party, was able to achieve.

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Act two of Hunter’s contributions to the state of Washington was perhaps more dramatic and inspiring, as it took place as he was battling cancer. In January 2013, as we looked on with pride, Hunter was appointed by unanimous vote to be the Secretary of the Senate. He was re-appointed, again by unanimous vote, in 2016. The Secretary of the Senate serves as that chamber’s CEO, responsible for everything required to ensure it functions properly. But Hunter did more than that. As a seasoned policy expert, he helped state senators from both parties work together to enact important reforms. In 2015, the Legislature invested over $1 billion in additional funds for public education, without a tax increase. In the same year, the Senate led the charge to cut college tuition, bucking a long national trend of annual increases. A national Associated Press story reported that “A decision this week to cut tuition for Washington state’s public universities by 15 to 20 percent over the next two years is a rare move that national experts believe could influence other states as they come out from under the recession.” The Senate and House also passed in 2015, and the Governor signed, a $16 billion transportation package that was years in the making.

Gov. Jay Inslee, Hunter, Grayson and Sarah Goodman.

It’s no coincidence that Hunter was present during this time of intense cooperation between the two political parties, and a simple question logically flows from his work: how did he help pull it off, and how can we emulate his approach to address important issues outside of the state of Washington? One key is to hear from the lawmakers who worked with Hunter. I did that in 2015, in the process of nominating him for an award. Their responses were, until now, never published.

“Hunter Goodman is absolutely, without question, one of the best human beings I have had the pleasure of working with over a long career of working with exceptional people,” said King Council Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Democrat who represents one of Seattle’s most liberal districts. “His engaging personality, his earnest interest in others, and his deep commitment to truth and fairness define him and make him stand out like a blooming rose in a field of daisies.”

“Hunter Goodman has been an outstanding public servant that is respected by people from both parties,” said Sen. Andy Hill, a Republican who, before his death in 2016, represented communities in and around Redmond, Washington. “He has the ability to forge relationships with just about anyone, usually via a smile and a joke.”

In a remarkable moment last weekend, State Senators honored Hunter’s contributions.

“He would insert himself in a conflict in order to defuse the conflict and prevent it from going further,” Sen. Ann Rivers remarked on the Senate floor, revealing one of the secrets of Hunter’s success. “He took on the weight of the issues on his broad shoulders.”

Having heard from lawmakers and having had the honor to work with Hunter for five years, here are the lessons I draw from his approach to working across party lines:

1.      First connect on a human level: Hunter was helped in this regard because he was the kind of person who simply likes people. For Hunter, it was easy to establish relationships with lawmakers and their staff members because he was genuinely interested in them. We should all take a cue from his example. Each person, regardless of political views, has a family, friends, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Learn about the person first, and you are likely to uncover things you admire and have in common. Politics come second, or maybe even third, after you talk about your children, an ailing parent, a planned vacation or favorite sports team. I would argue that these are things that define us, not our political views, which are often inherited or a function of where we live.

2.      Listen, compromise, and share the credit: Hunter spent a lot of time listening to lawmakers. He understood that each has constituents to serve, and just like any of us, each worries about doing a good job. Hunter appreciated that, even visiting the lawmakers in their home districts prior to the legislative session while serving as the AG’s Government Affairs Director (an annual pilgrimage Hunter’s colleagues dubbed “Hunter-Palooza”). He took what he learned and adjusted his approach based on what lawmakers felt they needed to get done. That’s how he spurred forward momentum and shared accomplishments built on unity and compromise. To the naked eye, such compromise could have been perceived as going against one of Hunter’s core values. After all, you couldn’t know Hunter without knowing that he attended school, and played football, at the University of Southern California. The battle-cry of Hunter’s Trojans, a phrase he inserted into most conversations, is “fight on.” But the truth is Hunter never came to work looking for a fight. Instead he sought, and achieved, mutually beneficial outcomes. For example, when we announced our legislative agenda at the Attorney General’s Office, we invited dozens of lawmakers to participate in media engagements. On the urging of Hunter and others, Communications Director Janelle Guthrie informed me that we were to carefully ensure that all sponsors of our bills were listed in our press materials. We offered each of them quotes in those materials, which we provided to reporters as a kind of appendix.Many of us forget, especially in national politics, that nothing is lost, and there is everything to gain, from sharing the credit.

 3.      Character is the key: In politics, like in other elements of life, negotiations are best conducted within sphere of good faith. Elected officials, and their staff members always knew Hunter was a person of character – someone they could trust. While they didn’t explore his personal background, they likely wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Hunter was Chair of the board for Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, which provides services to lower-income youth and seniors, when he was just 15 years-old, and through the end of high school. He served on the Board of Directors of the Mercer Island Boys and Girls Club during the same approximate time period. And he was the Mercer Island Club’s Youth of the Year during his senior year of high school. That distinction goes to a student who goes above and beyond in lending a hand to younger kids in need of guidance, and in serving the larger community. Hunter’s concern for others remained a key element of his life. While struggling through his own debilitating cancer treatments, yet still carrying out his duties in the Senate, he worked with the Legislature to fund a new blood-donation-mobile for Bloodworks Northwest, which supplies lifesaving fluids to 90 northwest hospitals. He also helped secure nearly $1.5 million in state funding for Cancer Pathways, a nonprofit that provides services for those struggling with cancer and their families. Those services include Camp Sparkle, a week-long summer camp for children impacted by cancer.

In part because of the elements of personal character they shared, Hunter’s long association with Rob McKenna was a natural partnership. Like Hunter, Rob’s personal dedication to nonprofits, including but not limited to those committed to education and domestic violence survivors, stretches back to his teens. And like Hunter, his everyday conduct demonstrates deep compassion. I once stood by as Rob, after a 16-hour day on the road, and with his dinner getting cold at the kitchen table and a legitimately impatient spouse waiting, conducted some final business for the day with our driver. He stood in front of a mirror helping the young intern, who had lost his father at a young age, learn to how to tie a tie. The lesson I draw from Hunter’s service, and from his longtime association with Rob, the Eagle Scout, is that personal character is essential to good faith negotiations on behalf of constituents. I believe we need to re-tune our priorities to seek more leaders who exhibit it. When judging a candidate, remember that personal character is exhibited by a clear record good conduct, often reflected in personal interactions and volunteer service over a number of years. This kind of conduct should be given a higher priority than party affiliation, because it’s the foundation for good-faith negotiation and compromise, which our nation desperately needs if we are to escape our present state mistrust and conflict.

From left, Luke Esser, Hunter Goodman, Rob McKenna, and Chris Johnson, who started working together in the mid-1990s. Photo credit: Luke Esser.

We live in a divided country. Let’s bridge the chasm by heeding Hunter’s advice, never spoken but always modeled. If we are to “fight on,” perhaps the real fight is with our own worst impulses, such as leaping to assume the worst intentions of our political counterparts. Hunter provided a different path, and we’d be wise to follow.

In Hunter’s honor, please donate to Cancer Pathways, and give blood and plasma to Bloodworks Northwest.

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Hunter, with Grayson Goodman, in the State Senate.

All photography in this piece, of the State Senate, is credited to the Washington State Republican Senate Caucus.

This tribute was posted with the permission of Dan Sytman, who originally published the piece here.