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October 25, 2011 at 10:47 PM

Former state Sen. Alex Deccio dies at 89

By LEAH BETH WARD, BARBARA SERRANO and CRAIG TROIANELLO
The Yakima Herald-Republic

Sen. Alex Deccio

YAKIMA — Former state Sen. Alex Deccio died Tuesday evening at Yakima Regional Medical & Cardiac Center.

He would have been 90 years old on Friday.

Sen. Deccio served 32 years in the state House and Senate and one term as a Yakima County commissioner.

Though he was a Republican through-and-through, Sen. Deccio is remembered as one of the last of the old-school politicians who frequently voted with Democrats and put the interests of his district above partisan politics.“He meant not only a lot to me, but a lot to the community. He was truly one of the great state legislators,” said Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, who first got to know Sen. Deccio when the two attended the Republican National Convention in 1960.

“He was the kind of legislator who worked both sides of the aisle. When they talk about ‘bipartisan,’ he kind of set the standard in Olympia,”  Martin Flynn, a former staff director for the Republican Senate caucus, recalled in an interview last year.

“He always wanted to accomplish something; a lot of lawmakers today just say no. He felt the government should work for the people,” said Rep. Eileen Cody, a Democrat whose district covers  Burien, Vashon Island and West Seattle. “We argued, but we always tried to get to the middle and work something out.”

First elected to the state House of Representatives in 1974, he moved over to the Senate in 1980. Sen. Deccio left for one term to serve as a Yakima County commissioner. But he missed the action in Olympia. Voters missed him, too, and sent him back in 1992.

He had been ailing for several years and had taken himself off dialysis treatment about six weeks ago, Johnson said.

When Sen. Deccio retired in 2006, it was with a great sense of accomplishment and not a little fatigue from 32 years of public service.

“I’ve done everything I wanted to do,” Sen. Deccio told the Yakima Herald-Republic at the time. “And I’m 85 years old.”

He once described his job as the defender of the disabled, the elderly, in short, “people who can’t take care of themselves through no fault of their own.”

From the start, Sen. Deccio made health care his area of expertise, and for 22 years was either chairman or ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Health Care Committee.

He was an early supporter of the state’s pioneering Basic Health Plan and the Early Steps program for low-income pregnant women.

Sen. Deccio won praise from public-health officials for his leadership on the 1988 AIDS Omnibus Act, the first of its kind in the nation to comprehensively manage the public-health implications of the disease, according to Health Secretary Mary Selecky.

The state began tackling the stigma of AIDs and direct effects of the disease through education, testing, counseling, civil-rights protection and criminal prosecution of those who intentionally spread the disease.

Sen. Deccio was at then-Gov. Booth Gardner’s side when the bill was signed, calling it one of the crowning achievements of his career.

“The important thing is we did get a statewide policy on AIDS,” he told the Associated Press. “It’s the first omnibus bill of its kind in the country, so I guess it’s the best available.”

It was a big spotlight for a man one newspaper reporter once described as “a middle-size, middle-age insurance broker” who represented middle-of-the-road Republicanism.

Aside from his work in health care, it was Sen. Deccio’s skill at securing state money for capital projects that former colleagues remember most about him.

He wheeled and dealed with Democrats to bring home state dollars for educational centers, ballparks, convention space, the Yakima SunDome and street improvements, many of which now bear his name. He would call the Herald-Republic several times a day in the last days of the session to proudly update a list of local projects with state funding.

“Alex was truly unique. He was high energy and totally dedicated and never gave up. We all benefited from his representation. He brought home the bacon so much, nobody could match him,” said Sid Morrison, former 4th District congressman and former state Secretary of Transportation.

Ann Anderson, a former Republican state senator from Whatcom County who served with Sen. Deccio in the 1990s, described him in an interview last year as “a very good strategist.”

“He was always thinking, ‘How am I going to get to this goal, to get the project done?’ said Anderson, who grew up in Yakima and now lobbies for Central Washington University.

“Back then the Senate was a lot more collegial.”

Unlike the sharp partisan tone of today’s politics, it was not unusual in the 1980s and 1990s to see Republicans and Democrats voting together on issues, or trading votes.

“It was more a way of life then than it is now,” said Anderson. “So it wasn’t looked at as out of the ordinary.”

She compared Deccio’s collaborative political style with that of the late Irv Newhouse, a Republican lawmaker from Sunnyside, and Larry Vognild, a former Democratic senator from Everett.

“He was always willing to negotiate, always willing to consider other people’s point of view,” said former Rep. Pat Thibaudeau, D-Seattle, who worked frequently with Sen. Deccio on health-care issues. “There were people you could talk to, people who were pragmatic but realistic. And Alex was one of those people.

“He was what I would consider a moderate Republican simply because you could talk to him.”

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