A new direction: Valley's outgoing State Sen. Cheryl Pflug gets law degree, takes new job

Cheryl Pflug - Courtesy photo
Cheryl Pflug
— image credit: Courtesy photo

From nurse and mother to state senator, Cheryl Pflug’s career has taken some dramatic turns. She begins a new chapter this summer, swapping her role on the senate floor for a job as one of six members of the Washington State Growth Management Hearings Board.

The hearings board “is something most people haven’t heard of,” says Pflug. But the six members of the board, who weigh in on land disputes such as Snoqualmie’s Mill Area Annexation, have the power to influence how local communities and the wider state grows.

After representing a district that rode the growth wave of King County, Pflug says her new job is a natural fit.

“We’re ground zero for these issues,” she says. With her family still living here, Pflug is sympathetic to “the whole… effort to preserve these pristine, beautiful surroundings, the character we love. At the same time, you’ve got to accommodate growth.”

She can point to the area’s successes, such as the region’s two salmon hatcheries at Tokul Creek and Issaquah, the reopening of the Cedar River Watershed to sockeye, and the efforts in the early 2000’s to block a proposed new interstate, I-605, in the Snoqualmie Valley.

Days in office

A fourth-generation Washingtonian, Pflug is a great-granddaughter of Chester Morse, the visionary Seattle city engineer and water superintendent. Morse acquired the land for the Cedar River Watershed above North Bend.

Pflug grew up, much of the time, outdoors, learning to ski with the Mountaineers at age 5. She became an accomplished equestrian competitor. She was valedictorian at Tahoma High School, named “Best Scholar” and “Most Likely to Succeed.”

She raised four children while she sought her graduate degree in nursing, and became a critical care nurse.

Pflug became a state legislator in 1999, appointed to the senate in 2003 to replace gubernatorial hopeful Dino Rossi, elected back the following year and again a few years later. In total, she has been elected to office 14 times.

Pflug recalled that her political career began while she was standing in line at a health food store, child in tow, when small talk with fellow customers turned to politics.

“Somebody said, “Are you going to precinct caucuses tonight?” Pflug related. “I said, ‘What’s a precinct caucus?”

From there, things snowballed.

“It’s like every other volunteer organization,” she said jokingly. “You show up twice and you’re in charge. The next thing I knew, I was district chair for the Republican party.”

Pflug now looks back on a history of advocacy for schools and health care. According to her official biography, she was a deputy Republican leader who served on the Senate’s health and transportation committees, as well as the powerful Rules Committee. She authored Washington’s first-in-the-nation legislation to create humane, mandatory treatment alternatives for non-violent, mentally ill offenders.

To claim a third term, Pflug would have fought a primary race with Republican opponent Brad Toft. But five days after filing, she was tapped by Gov. Christine Gregoire to take the hearings board seat.

New education

Pflug graduated May 12 with a law degree from Seattle University. Law school made her a better legislator, but balancing work and study was tough.

With five legislative sessions this year, she had days instead of weeks to prepare for finals. Somehow, she also managed to make a trip to Pullman to see her son graduate from Washington State University.

Finding balance between work and life has always been a struggle, especially in the legislature. There’s so many breakfast and evening meetings and weekend work, “it’s unlike any other job… I wouldn’t say there’s much balance involved in adding law school on top of that,” Pflug said. Rather’s it’s more about putting nose to grindstone.

“Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and get it done,” Pflug said.

“I worked too hard,” she added. “Balance has been a process of learning for me. It’s not always an option to say, you know what, I need to quit working… I made a decision that I needed to work harder to get myself to a place where I could have balance.”

That means a combination of determination, priorities and organization.

“It’s about realizing that you have to get what has to be done, done today,” Pflug says.

Going back to school at age 52 “was really kind of cool,” the Maple Valley resident said.

“It keeps those gears turning,” she said. “I believe you want to expose yourself to as much information as you can.”

She loved being around the 30-something students, listening to their stories and world-views.

Her degree was worth the effort, and gives her a calling she can enjoy for years, and a new set of skills.

“Increasingly for all of us, we have longer lifespans,” Pflug said. Retirement at 60, and living for another 40 years, appears financially daunting. “It’s wise to think about what you might enjoy doing that you could do at least part time, until you’re 75 or so,” she advises.

Thoughts on the legislature

With her last day as a state senator set for July 1, Pflug looks back on a 13-year history, and ahead to a different experience.

Her new job brings more power in a narrower area, she says.

Yet she’ll miss the opportunity to solve problems for people as a legislator.

As she leaves the statehouse, Pflug says she would advise her colleagues to understand their issues thoroughly and vote for the people, first.

“Politics can trump what works for the people,” she said. “The bottom line is, ‘On this issue, my constituents’ best interest is served by voting this way, and I don’t really care what the party leadership is telling me.’”

As an example, she looked back on the bipartisan effort that was needed to pass special legislation saving Si View Parks.

She credited her first Senate seatmate, Brian Thomas, as well as Kent Mayor Suzette Cook and the late state legislator Ken Pullen, as inspirations. Pullen set an example for her as a representative, senator and county council member, while Cook encouraged Pflug during her campaigning days.

Thomas in particular was a mentor for her, encouraging her to go to law school.

As a woman legislator, Pflug admitted that it was sometimes challenging.

“Men don’t realize it, but their voices are louder and deeper, and they will talk over the top of you sometimes,” she said. “You have to learn ways to let them know that they are going to need to know your opinion, and they’re going to have to hear it.”


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