Newhouse growing in job as Ag director

YAKIMA -- 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 will 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.

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 never was 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."

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.