Sitting in his office at the state Capitol in Olympia, state Rep. Hans Dunshee is full of jokes about how he used to make a living installing toilets and digging holes in the ground.
The Democrat from Snohomish once ran a business repairing boats (including their onboard toilets), and another designing septic tanks — jobs where the casual attire he favors probably looked less out of place.
Dunshee is known to wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts when his schedule doesn’t include legislative meetings. His version of unwinding at the Capitol also involves music. On breaks, the 62-year-old former college wrestler retreats to his office to play a tin whistle or a squeezebox, which he took up recently after mastering two types of bagpipes.
His downtime away from Olympia is less sedate: A map on his office wall shows where he likes to go kayaking in British Columbia, encountering orcas and, on occasion, bears.
“You can’t even check your email. It’s glorious,” he said of his annual kayaking sojourn. “You sleep on a rock.”
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, describes his colleague as “fiercely engaged in real life.”
But legislative business also has a claim on Dunshee, now more than ever. He has spent about 20 years in the Legislature, including a decade as a lead negotiator of the state capital budget, which doles out money for building and infrastructure projects.
Now, as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Dunshee is one of the Legislature’s two chief budget writers, a job that includes hammering out and renegotiating details of the two-year, $38 billion spending plan lawmakers approved earlier this year.
It’s a prestigious position for someone who projects such a down-home persona.
You don’t want to underestimate him. You will do so at your own peril.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, on negotiating opposite Hans Dunshee
“I don’t like to sort of classify myself,” Dunshee said in his office recently, “But I would suspect most people would think I was sort of more working-class and less upper class.”
He adds with a self-deprecating grin: “A lot of people would just say I have less class.”
Yet those on the other side of the table from Dunshee warn that he is a skilled negotiator whose political prowess shouldn’t be overlooked.
“He is no ditch digger,” said state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Republican from Puyallup who worked with Dunshee this year on the $3.9 billion capital budget.
“As someone who has negotiated with him, you have to be on your game,” Dammeier said. “You don’t want to underestimate him. You will do so at your own peril.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BUDGET WRITER
The last House Appropriations chairman, former state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, went to Yale and had a successful career at Microsoft before retiring just shy of 40. The current budget writer in the Senate, Republican Andy Hill of Redmond, also attended an Ivy League school and made enough money working at Microsoft to retire before his 40th birthday.
Dunshee, meanwhile, is a product of Washington’s public university system and says he has made his living solely off his legislative salary — which now stands at about $45,000 — since he gave up his septic design business a decade ago to take on more responsibility at the Legislature. He is proud of his a 10-year-old Toyota Echo, “a great car,” Dunshee said.
I think it is a moral question whether children have adequate health care and adequate food, and whether we support families that are struggling.
State Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, on some of his priorities as he works on the state budget
While Dunshee’s supporters say he is results-driven and practical, some say his candor can ruffle feathers and stir up debate that other lawmakers would soon avoid.
“He tends to be a guy that attracts controversy, and I think he has welcomed it in the past,” said Dammeier, the Republican senator. “And I think he still may in the operating budget. … He is never shy about trying to get somebody’s goat.”
But Carlyle, Dunshee’s Democratic colleague in the House, said Dunshee is focused above all on making sure programs work — qualities that make him especially valuable at the helm of the state budget.
“For him, highfalutin, academically valid, peer-reviewed policies are theoretical and a bit uninteresting, compared to making sure that they make a difference for real people living real lives,” Carlyle said.
When it comes to crafting next year’s supplemental budget, Dunshee’s views on the importance of social services will certainly color how he approaches education funding, the biggest issue facing budget writers in 2016.
In the McCleary school funding lawsuit, the state remains in contempt of court over lawmakers’ failure to come up with a plan to fully fund education over the next two years.
Dunshee says he feels strongly that the state budget “is a reflection of our morals as a society,” and that lawmakers need to avoid cutting important social programs while they work to meet their education funding obligations.
“I think it is a moral question whether children have adequate health care and adequate food, and whether we support families that are struggling,” Dunshee said. “I think those are important things, because we are those families, but for the grace of God.”
Sometimes, Dunshee’s unyielding sense of right and wrong can land him in trouble with his colleagues.
Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said that while Dunshee has been great to work with on the capital budget, his fiery political speeches have occasionally incensed House Republicans.
He cuts through the gimmicks and the clutter, and he cuts though the noise and the political garbage, and he gets to the core of it.
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, on new House budget writer Hans Dunshee’s approach to politics
For instance, during a House floor debate two years ago on a plan to encourage affordable housing projects, Dunshee offended Republicans by implying that they lacked “humanity in their soul” if they voted no on the proposal. After being gaveled down, Dunshee later apologized for his comments.
“He could get my caucus riled up so quickly,” said DeBolt, a former House Republican leader. “But think about that. If you through your words can fire up an entire caucus, it just means you’re very smart and astute and paying attention to what’s going on.”
Carlyle said Dunshee’s straightforward approach can often be a good thing.
“He cuts through the gimmicks and the clutter, and he cuts though the noise and the political garbage, and he gets to the core of it,” Carlyle said. “He says, ‘let’s help get our kids educated, take care of our senior citizens and help our most vulnerable, and walk away from the distractions and stay focused.’ ”
PLANS FOR 2016
For all his passion, Dunshee doesn’t hold an overly optimistic view of what lawmakers can accomplish when they return to Olympia next month.
Lawmakers are wrestling with how to assume the full cost of paying teachers and other school employees, costs that the state Supreme Court has said are being borne unconstitutionally by local school districts.
Dunshee said he’d be happy if lawmakers can simply agree on what fixing the problem will cost.
“Talking about the solutions freezes everybody up around here,” he said. “We need to figure out what the size of the problem is first.”
Yet Dunshee’s estimate — that the state needs to come up with an additional $4 billion every two years — is unlikely to be embraced by Republicans who control the state Senate.
“$4 billion sounds like a good number if you’re going to try to raise taxes,” said Hill, the Senate Republican budget writer. “My view is that new taxes should be the absolutely the last response, and not the first punch, and, as usual, it’s the opposite with the Democrats.”
Just to play a few tunes really relaxes me. It just calms me down ... it pushes the numbers out and brings in tunes.
State Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, the new budget writer in the state House
It’s unclear whether Dunshee will stick around to see the end of that fight.
He is “investigating the idea” of filling a vacant seat on the Snohomish County Council, which could mean leaving the Legislature next year.
Dunshee – who described stepping into his new role as “an answer to a call to duty” – said that in any case he will stay on at least through the end of the 2016 legislative session, which is scheduled to conclude in March.
That may not seem like much time to get the hang of a new gig. But Dunshee is always looking to “explore the new,” as he calls it, whether it be learning a new instrument or taking on a new role at the Capitol.
When things get rough in the coming months, he says he’ll still find time to play his squeezebox or his tin whistle in his office, trying to forget about the politics just outside his door.
“Just to play a few tunes really relaxes me. It just calms me down, takes my mind out of this place,” Dunshee said. “It pushes the numbers out and brings in tunes.”
First elected: Has served continually in Legislature since 1997, but also served 1993-1994.
Role: Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from University of Washington, master’s degree in political science and environmental policy from Western Washington University.
Instruments played: Great Highland bagpipe, Scottish smallpipes, tin whistle, concertina (also known as a squeezebox).