At a high school baseball game in his hometown last week helping sell raffle tickets to benefit his favorite charity, Andy Hill made his pitch with a personal story.
“I’m a lung cancer survivor, was diagnosed four years ago this month,” Hill told the crowd in the bleachers. “I ended up really going through a lot of failed treatments and was not doing very well. I did a bunch of research online and I ended up finding a clinical trial that, I take a pill twice a day and it melted the cancer away. It was truly a miracle.”
That’s the short version of the story of how cancer upended Hill’s life, then receded in time to allow him to join the Legislature and, as just a freshman senator, take over one of the most important jobs in Olympia.
Cancer is a life-changing experience he shares with the negotiator across the table from him, Ross Hunter.
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In fact, the two budget chairmen, Senate Republican Hill and House Democrat Hunter, have a lot in common even setting aside their illnesses, their treatment at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance of hospitals, their reliance on targeted treatment and their recoveries.
They are two guys whose computer knowledge and prestigious college degrees vaulted them into careers at Microsoft, where they made enough money to step away from their careers before turning 40.
Probably enough money, in fact, to have retired to a low-stress life in the suburbs to the east of Seattle — if they hadn’t turned their attention to politics.
THEIR LIVES CHANGE
Hill was a political newcomer in 2010 when he unseated Democratic Sen. Eric Oemig. Republicans won several seats that year and two years later, culminating in their Senate takeover this year with the help of two rebel Democrats. The shift in power put Hill in the driver’s seat of the Senate budget process.
Next door to Hill’s stomping ground is Hunter’s district, where the Medina resident ran for the House in 2002 and won, the first Democrat to hold his seat representing the suburban district. He was eyeing a run for Congress when non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma intervened.
“It sounded to me like a death sentence at the time,” said his friend, deputy King County executive Fred Jarrett, then a state senator.
Doctors drove the blood cancer away with chemotherapy, but it returned, and they decided to give Hunter a drug, Bexxar, that seeks out cancer cells and zaps them with radiation.
That made him highly radioactive. For 10 days in 2007, he sat in a lead-lined hospital room sealed away from the world, distracting himself with the U.S. Open and baseball on TV, an exercise bike and a stack of policy papers and books like “The Guns of August.”
Friends such as Jarrett, who Hunter said visited daily, had to stand at the door and talk to him across a barrier. Being stuck there was tough for Hunter. “Ross is usually moving and high-energy,” Jarrett said.
With a transplant of stem cells taken from his own bone marrow before the radiation, he was on the path to recovery. Now he’s active enough for a 120-mile bike ride in Las Vegas last fall for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. “Better living through chemistry,” he said.
In more ways than one. While Hunter can be prickly — he knows how smart he is and doesn’t suffer fools gladly — he said he has softened since the treatment.
“I don’t know if it’s just that I happened to have hit some age-related maturity thing, or that this reduced the amount of testosterone I have, or something — but I now have more time before I fly off the handle,” he said. “And that turns out to be remarkably helpful in doing this job.”
Those who knew Hill say he was even-keeled even before the treatment, but both he and Hunter say they have a new perspective on what is important — family, especially.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff,” Hill said, “and as people line up and start taking swings at me, I can always say I’ve had much worse.”
The worse stuff started in 2009 when Hill, a soccer player and coach who had never smoked, started coughing up blood.
He had cancer in his left lung and his lymph nodes. Luckily, he also had good health insurance that, as a stay-at-home dad no longer at Microsoft, he had bought on the individual market.
Simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation followed, taking his hair and 30 pounds but not the cancer, which spread to his right lung.
By then, Hill had done his own Internet research on websites like Grace — Global Resource for Advancing Cancer Education, for which he now helps raise money. His friend Curt Bateman, who worked with him at the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association, said Hill wouldn’t quit looking for possibilities.
“I’ve never really seen him ruffled at all,” Bateman said, “and certainly there were times when he easily could have been. But he kind of just takes it in stride.”
He and his doctor both landed on a new possibility, testing him for a rare gene abnormality that made the cancer vulnerable to a promising new drug: Xalkori. The results were clear in two weeks: fatigue gone, his voice back. “Within three weeks, I was jogging with my wife.”
Both men said their experiences with cancer shape them as they write the budget that decides how the state spends more than $33 billion and whether it raises any new money through taxes, the main sticking point.
Hunter and his caucus want to extend an expiring business tax and reduce the state’s multitude of tax breaks, while Hill and allies say expected revenue growth of more than 6 percent should be enough.
A 30-day special session started this week with few signs that the sides are coming together.
The pair have learned first-hand about the health care system. Though both are political moderates, when they describe what they took away from that time, Hill sounds like the Republican he is and Hunter like a Democrat.
Hill believes research saved his life, saying: “I don’t want to stifle innovation in the health care system. That’s one concern to going to more of a single-payer, government-operated system.”
While waiting for treatment, Hunter was left to compare his experience at Microsoft where he had never seen a medical bill, and as a legislator with decent health benefits, to what he saw at the prescription counter.
“The lady says, ‘Now, sir, you know this is a $700 prescription,’” Hunter recalled overhearing, “and you can see all the air go out of the guy. You can just see him thinking, ‘How am I going to pay for this. If I don’t get this I’m going to die.’”
But in the Legislature, both have focused on schools. Both favor reforms in education policy, and they share a goal to gradually put billions more dollars into education.
One reason Hill started his political career, he said, was his impatience with his ability to make changes as president of his public elementary school’s parent-teacher association. His two daughters and son now attend the private Overlake School, although he said his kids spent a collective 19 years in public schools before eight years so far in private school.
Hunter was deeply involved in the work in 2009 and 2010 to lay out how the Legislature should fund schools, pushing with other lawmakers for policies requiring increases in state spending on items such as school supplies, buses, class-size reduction and full-day kindergarten.
Now they must fund those measures, under orders from the state Supreme Court that says the state isn’t living up to its responsibilities to students.
That leaves the future of Washington’s schools partly in the hands of a couple of well-off residents of a mostly affluent corner of the state whose school districts can already raise much of the money they need through local levies. Much of their goal is to help less property-rich districts.
“In some ways, it’s not going to benefit my constituents.” Hill said of his school wish list. But he added: “The society my kids are going to grow up into, it’s not going to be a great place if we’ve got a bunch of haves and have-nots.”