Ag Director Settles In
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Jay Manning remembers Dan Newhouse's first Cabinet meeting a little over a year ago.
Newhouse, the newly named state Director of Agriculture and a lifelong Republican, was seated at a table of Democrats and liberal lawyers like then-Ecology Director Manning and Gov. Chris Gregoire.
"He was looking around and we were looking at him. Here's this former legislator and Republican. It was kind of weird," Manning recalled.
But the awkwardness didn't last. Despite his party affiliation, Newhouse said partisanship isn't on the agenda at Cabinet meetings.
"I thought it would be," he said in a recent interview. "But people don't wear it on their sleeves. It's not like the Legislature. It's about running a complex organization and doing it efficiently."
Newhouse, 54, is a year into running his own corner of state government — the $141 million state Department of Agriculture, a job he initially hesitated to accept when Gregoire asked him early in 2009.
"I really loved the Legislature," said Newhouse, who was elected to represent the 15th Legislative District in 2002.
But being on a larger stage is nice, too.
Newhouse has been to Washington, D.C., where he met Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who will be key in determining whether the federal government helps with any new water storage in the Yakima Valley. This fall, he'll travel to China with the governor on a trade mission.
Newhouse — a family farmer — said he told Gregoire when he took the job that he'd have to keep an eye on the 600-acre enterprise in Sunnyside, where he and his wife grow hops, tree fruit, grapes and alfalfa.
"She was very understanding," he said.
Employees joke that he's the only one in the agency to come back to work Monday morning tanned from driving a tractor all weekend.
Moving from the Legislature to the Cabinet is not unprecedented. The past two Agriculture directors — Valoria Loveland and Jim Jesernig — were state lawmakers from the Tri-Cities. But they were both Democrats serving Democratic governors.
As the lone Republican in the Gregoire administration, Newhouse said he can present a different point of view and remind others about the importance of the agricultural economy.
Manning, now Gregoire's chief of staff, called Newhouse "a great asset" on such issues as water policy and how the Legislature will react to executive decisions.
"He knows the players, the issues and the economics," Manning said.
Other than dealing with budget cuts and the touchy topic of employee furloughs — recently mandated by the 2010 Legislature — Newhouse hasn't been tested yet by a big crisis.
By design and tradition, the Department of Agriculture is neither high-profile nor particularly controversial. It's an agency that the public — and even many legislators — don't understand, but its relative obscurity masks its importance.
From protecting the food supply to preventing damaging pest infestations and promoting the state's crops, the department has a hand in a wide swath of the state's economy. Agriculture contributes $35 billion, or 12 percent, to the gross state product.
How many people know, for example, that the Department of Agriculture inspects retail store scanners to make sure consumers aren't getting ripped off?
Or that a crack team of entomologists recently stopped a wily pest called the vineyard snail from hitching a ride on cargo containers from Tacoma to the Palouse, where they could have devastated the state's $626 million wheat harvest?
As he recently told members of Downtown Yakima Rotary, Newhouse hasn't looked back since taking the helm.
"I get to represent an industry I truly love," he said.
Those who know Newhouse say he was never a highly partisan legislator or quick with a party-line sound bite.
That's at least a partial nod to his father, the late Irv Newhouse, who represented the 15th District in the House and Senate for 34 years. Irv Newhouse was known as unassuming and measured, able to work with governors and lawmakers of different political stripes.
His son's former legislative colleagues say the apple didn't fall far from the tree.
"Dan was a very moderate voice of reason," said Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, former chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee who now heads Appropriations. "We miss him, but he's carried those great qualities into the administration."
Newhouse and Gregoire first worked together during the 2005 drought — her first year in office following the twice-counted, bruising general election.
That year in the Yakima River Basin, a drought led to the loss of almost $250 million in agricultural production, with a nearly $1 billion ripple effect across the state.
Newhouse was the Republican point man on the drought and spent a lot of time meeting with Ecology officials and Gregoire's staff, ultimately winning $12 million in help for farmers and keeping the issue of water storage in front of the governor.
Later that year, Gregoire formed the Columbia River Task Force, a joint executive/legislative policy group that came up with ideas for managing the Columbia River. Newhouse and other Yakima Valley lawmakers sat on the task force.
The following year, Newhouse was chief negotiator for House Republicans on the legislation that came out of the task force — agreement between environmentalists and farmers that new water storage is critical to the state's agricultural economy.
Newhouse called working with the governor then and working for her now "very rewarding," describing her as "pragmatic and results-oriented."
When his cell phone rings and the crisp voice on the other end says, "This is Chris," he knows he's going to be asked to deliver on some tough subjects, ranging from how to boost exports to increasing opportunities for small farmers.
"She calls quite often," he said.
The Department of Agriculture is different from many other state agencies in that only 20 percent of its $141 million budget comes from general funds appropriated by the Legislature.
User fees paid by industry for department services make up 60 percent of the budget. For example, in a practice that dates back to 1891, tree fruit growers pay fees to support the state pest and disease inspection system.
Today, state inspectors show up to work at large fruit packing warehouses where they check for quality and labeling. If problems arise in the export process, the state can trace the fruit back to the orchard row where it was harvested.
Federal funds make up the remainder of the agency's budget.
Because of limited taxpayer support, the Agriculture Department tends to be leaner than other agencies, which means it was spared major cuts by the cash-strapped 2010 Legislature. About $606,000 was cut from its operating budget.
Newhouse actually agreed to more responsibility this year by taking over the state's emergency food-assistance program from the state Department of Commerce. He sees it as a natural fit with agriculture and part of his larger mission to reconnect people with farms.
"Less than 2 percent of the population has any connection to farming, but fortunately a lot of people want to know the source of their food," Newhouse said.
A program that will roll out next year will allow farmers to directly market their fruits and vegetables to employees at state agencies that have wellness programs. The goal is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by employees and their families while supporting local farm businesses.
Though he's read "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Michael Pollan's exploration of the industrialization of the American diet, Newhouse defends the food system, saying it delivers quantity at low prices.
"There are some great things to learn from the food movement about quality and health, but we have a responsibility to feed the world and I won't apologize for advances that have allowed people to eat at a higher nutrition level. There's got to be room for both," he said.
That view won't endear him to activists who oppose big dairies and other concentrated animal feeding operations. They don't trust the agency and think it's apt to be too friendly toward industry.
Newhouse doesn't buy the argument that his department cannot both police and promote the livestock industry. It's the "attract more bees with honey" theory of regulation.
"My approach has been to help producers meet regulatory goals versus just coming in with a heavy hand," he said.
Democrats in the Legislature are fine with that approach.
"If you've developed a trust with someone, which Dan has with a lot of us, that really helps," said Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, chairman of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.
Being on the inside of a state agency, Newhouse said, has changed his perspective. He's become something of a lobbyist for his employees, who praise his leadership style as inclusive.
"Agencies sometimes tend to be faceless entities to legislators, but I really see this now as an organization made up of people who are dedicated to the success of this agency."
Just last week in an e-mail communication to employees, Newhouse acknowledged that the state's new furlough law is creating anxiety. Newhouse said he has submitted an analysis to the governor on how administrative and support staff layoffs could impact the department's essential functions, such as inspection programs, which are not subject to the furloughs.
"More importantly, I want you to know that I recognize that this bill also has implications for you and your families. ... I appreciate your patience during this stressful time," he wrote to employees.
As Newhouse navigates this latest management challenge, he said the question of his future in state government hasn't crossed his mind, although he wouldn't rule out a return to the Legislature.
"I still consider myself a young man," he said. "Who knows what opportunities are out there?"