Nathan Schlicher took his first community-college class at age 9. He was a college student by 14, a lawyer by 19, a doctor by 23 and a state senator by 30.
But if he can’t find a way to reverse a more than 9-point primary-election loss to his Republican opponent, Jan Angel, he will be a former senator by age 31.
Don’t count Schlicher out yet. The Democrat hasn’t allowed much to slow him down on his rocket to prominence. Angel’s path to this point has been more like a roller coaster – or like one of the cliffs she used to scale as a licensed falconer.
“I’ve been down and up and I’ve been stuck,” she said. She’s referring to climbing, not life, but the latter has also had its ups and downs, from workplace tensions in an era of gender discrimination, to the death of a husband, to career success.
Angel, 66, a state House member from Port Orchard with a business background, and Schlicher, an emergency-room physician from Gig Harbor, are nearing the Nov. 5 end of a hard-fought and expensive contest.
Fueled by money from outside the 26th District and out-of-state, independent groups have spent a record-setting sum for a legislative race. Add the candidates themselves and the spending reaches a combined $1.2 million, which makes it about to blow past the record for total spending in a legislative race.
The winner, whoever it is, will bring a diverse background to the Senate. But their histories couldn’t be much more different.
YOUNG MAN IN A HURRY
Skipping the first, fourth, seventh and ninth grades vaulted Schlicher to college at age 14. Unusual – but not completely unique even in his own family. Growing up in Kitsap County, he and his two sisters all skipped at least one grade.
Their mother, Carol Schlicher, said her kids just learned differently. She and her husband realized that about Nathan in his kindergarten year, when he didn’t want to go back to school after Christmas.
By then, she said, he already knew how to multiply and divide and do calculations similar to simple algebra.
Schlicher’s first attempt to influence state policy came early in his life. It didn’t go all that well.
Determined to move away to college, there was an obstacle in his way: He wasn’t old enough to drive.
“He wrote to the governor of the state,” said his mother, “and said that, ‘I don’t think a license should be based on your chronological age but instead on your ability.’ They wrote back and said you’d have to have the laws changed and by that time you’d be old enough to drive.”
Schlicher wanted to live on campus, and turned down the University of Washington when administrators wouldn’t let him. Instead he chose Pacific Lutheran University, where he said he had a pretty normal college experience, for a 14-year-old. There was a college girlfriend, a dorm roommate.
For a while, he was able to keep his secret identity hidden from his roommate and everyone else.
“Everybody knew that there was a 14-year-old on campus, so they knew of the story, but they didn’t know who it was,” he said. “And there was a guy who was ... shorter and looked younger than me, and so when they would ask: ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s him?’
“Everybody found out within a month or something like that, but by then it had challenged their preconceived notions and it wasn’t a big deal.”
It wasn’t all studying -- he spent his first summer of college at 15 working on a llama farm -- but Schlicher finished college at 17 and found himself still too young to go to medical school.
‘BLOND LADY BANKER’
Angel was working at 15, too. Growing up in rural Colorado and needing money to buy a car, she started her own business.
Angel turned her skill as a baton twirler in the high school marching band into a job. She posted flyers all over town to advertise baton lessons, then charged 50 cents a lesson to the kids who showed up at her house. With 75 students, the money added up.
Her group, the Sequinettes, performed all over, and Angel stuck with twirling, winning competitions in college.
“I started twirling on my own in sixth grade,” Angel said. “I was self-taught at that point. Mr. Stark, my band director, told me I marched like a cow. I was just horrified.”
“So when I won the Rocky Mountain championship, I brought that back to him, and I said, ‘Mr. Stark, that was for you.’”
She didn’t accumulate degrees like Schlicher. Angel put in just a year at two Colorado universities and didn’t graduate -- marrying at age 19 and going to work first at J.C. Penney, then in banking. She would later go on to take about another year of banking and finance classes while working.
She moved up from the mail room to loan work. She and her husband, also a banker, raised two daughters.
In their free time, they breeded prairie falcons and trained them to hunt quail, pigeons, rabbits and the like. That was when Angel nursed injured birds back to health and returned them to the wild, sometimes to nests precariously placed on cliffs.
When the falcon mascot of the Air Force Academy was out of commission, she said, it was Angel’s bird the academy flew at a football game.
Banking took the couple to Alaska, where Angel said she was “the blond lady banker” among a bunch of men with the same title but twice the salaries -- a discrepancy she didn’t know about until it was corrected by doubling her pay.
That wasn’t the only problem being a woman in a male-dominated workplace. There was also the sexual harassment by a senior executive, she said, which happened in an elevator where she was “dodging this guy off all four walls.”
It took three times but she decided she had to tell someone. It turned out three other women had been in the same predicament, she said. The executive was fired.
FROM ER TO OLYMPIA
For Schlicher, law school seemed like a good way to kill some time.
The University of Washington felt Schlicher was a little young for medical school at 17. His adviser suggested he get some life experience while waiting, and he had had enough of singeing his arms in the chemistry lab, so he headed to UW’s law school.
“You’d think that someone coming in that young, that he’s either going to be very reticent ... or he’s going to be arrogant,” said Anna Mastroianni, a UW law professor who said Schlicher was neither. “He could have been one or the other, but he’s somebody who listens.”
After passing the bar, it was on to medical school at last, where Schlicher met his wife, now Jessica Kennedy-Schlicher, another future doctor.
Now Schlicher has three kids at home and spends six shifts a month confronting heart attacks, gunshots and other emergencies at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.
“I think one of those things that test your character is, when the world is falling down around you, what’s your response?” Schlicher said. “And in the ER you get to do that every day.”
Before being appointed a senator in January to replace Derek Kilmer, his day job led to a confrontation with state government.
He and other ER doctors pushed successfully in court and in Olympia to overturn and replace state regulations curbing frequent use of emergency rooms. The old rules limited ER use for health conditions that were deemed nonemergencies but that the doctors argued could actually be signs of true emergencies.
Health care has been his chief interest during his brief time in Olympia.
There’s a joke he tells to underline the fact that there are no other doctors in the Legislature. “I decided,” he said, “that we really need a doc in Olympia. I may have since come to realize maybe we need a psychiatrist ...”
Angel remarried and her second husband’s job brought them to Washington. The couple bought a franchise of Fantastic Sam’s hair salon with locations in Tacoma, west Pierce County, Port Orchard and Silverdale and as many as 54 employees.
But her world turned upside down when her husband took his own life. She had two daughters to keep in college and a business to dismantle and sell.
“He left her in a huge mess,” said Debbie Austin, an acquaintance at the time who later became Angel’s aide and her roommate in Olympia. “I watched her grieve and then pull herself up by her bootstraps.”
She dove into the real estate business while struggling to pay for food and heating bills, Angel said. She recalled living on a single Healthy Choice microwave meal a day. “I would stay at work as late as I could because it was warm there.”
But soon she was selling millions of dollars worth of houses a year. Angel became well known enough in real estate to run for the Kitsap County commission and win, becoming the first Republican in that seat in decades, she said.
Now in her third term as a state representative, Angel is married to Lynn Williams. The couple own a handful of rental homes.
Angel’s business background informs her legislative work. There are few or no major laws that she championed. If she has had a signature role, it has been as a voice for keeping regulations and taxes in check.
“Whatever she’s thinking of, (it’s) how will this affect the business community? How will this help the small people who own businesses?” said Pat Schmidt, a friend who owns DPI Print in Gig Harbor.
Now Angel wants to move from the House minority into a Senate majority whose one-vote margin of control would double with her victory. Republicans and their two Democratic allies control the Senate; the other Democrats and Schlicher hope to keep them from moving any further toward cementing their hold.
That, and the scarcity of races this year, is why groups independently supporting each candidate have poured more than $700,000 into advertising and canvassing, more than ever before in a legislative race. Major corporations based elsewhere have contributed to the GOP side, while a California environmentalist, Thomas Steyer, has given to the Democrat-aligned groups in the race. Both candidates have raised hundreds of thousands on their own.
The winner gets to start raising money again soon. The seat is up for grabs again in 2014.JAN ANGEL
HOME: Port Orchard
JOB: State House member; formerly a real estate agent, banker and owner of hair salons.
EDUCATION: No college degree but some college at Colorado State University, what was then Southern Colorado State College, and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
HOME: Gig Harbor
JOB: Emergency-room doctor and state senator.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree from Pacific Lutheran University with majors in biology and political science; law degree and medical degree from University of Washington.