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OLYMPIA — Republican state
Sen. Andy Hill has a regular reminder of the advanced lung cancer that threatened his life four years ago — a dark orange capsule he takes twice a day.

The lifesaving medication reinforces a hard-won lesson that’s proved invaluable as he navigates a political minefield to help craft his first multibillion-dollar state budget.

“The illness taught me not to sweat the small stuff,” said Hill, of Redmond. “Don’t let things bother you.”

The rookie Senate Ways and Means chairman will need that kind of perspective in the coming weeks. He’s at the epicenter of what looks to be one of the most contentious budget battles Olympia has seen in years.

As the lead budget negotiator for the GOP-controlled majority in the Senate, it largely falls to Hill to find common ground for his caucus with a Democrat-controlled House and a Democratic governor who hold vastly different views about taxes and spending.

The two parties have been locked in a monthlong stalemate that started when the House approved a $34.5 billion spending plan that included $900 million in new tax revenue and the Senate passed a smaller, $33.3 billion budget that includes no new tax dollars.

The impasse has dragged lawmakers into a special session that started May 13 and appears likely to go the full 30 days allowed under the state Constitution.

Republican Dino Rossi, who was Senate Ways and Means chairman in 2003, says the low-key Hill has the right demeanor for what lies ahead.

“It takes a certain person to put up with people yelling at you, and not react,” he said.

Steady demeanor

That’s what many lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, say about Hill, whose 45th District includes Woodinville, Duvall and parts of Redmond and Kirkland.

He gets high marks for being smart, polite and unflappable, with a self-effacing demeanor that puts people at ease.

At age 50, Hill looks younger, with jet-black hair that shows just a hint of gray. He attributes it to an unexpected side effect of chemotherapy. After his hair fell out during treatment, it grew back black.

Hill is an anomaly in Olympia politics: He landed the most powerful chairmanship in the state Senate only two years after getting elected for the first time. The post generally goes to more senior lawmakers with deep political connections.

His rapid rise is attributed to an unusual confluence of events. Republicans were able to take control of the Senate after an eight-year hiatus when Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch crossed party lines this year to caucus with Republicans.

That gave the GOP a narrow 25-to-24 vote majority in the Senate.

Hill’s background as a Harvard MBA and former program manager at Microsoft made him a good fit for a chairmanship that requires acumen with numbers and spreadsheets.

“I’ve worked on multimillion-dollar projects and have a business background,” he noted.

Still, his relative lack of experience in the Legislature puts him at somewhat of a disadvantage, said House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who is Hill’s budget-writing counterpart in the House.

Hunter was in the Legislature for eight years and had chaired the House Finance Committee before he became chairman of appropriations. Hill had not served on Ways and Means until this year and was previously the ranking Republican on the Senate Higher Education Committee.

“It’s hard to do this if you haven’t done it before, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Hunter said. “I would not have been ready to do this after two years. But he’s a smart guy, and he’s calmer than I am.”

Active life

What’s perhaps more surprising than a first-term lawmaker getting one of the most powerful jobs in the state is the fact that Hill is alive at all.

There was no reason to think he’d get lung cancer. He had never smoked, and he’d led an active life.

After working for 11 years as a group manager at Microsoft, helping deliver early versions of Windows, he left the company in 2001 with enough money to never work again.

Hill, who has three children, volunteered at school, became president of the local parent-teacher association, coached soccer and became president of the local soccer association.

He also spearheaded efforts to build new soccer fields in the area, a complicated deal that involved a land swap and Metropolitan King County Council approval.

King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert recalls being at a meeting with Hill in 2009 regarding the soccer-field deal “and I looked over at him and said, ‘Whoa, something is up.’

“It was obvious he was not feeling well partly because of the way he was sitting and partly because of his color.”

Fighting cancer

Lambert didn’t know it at the time, but Hill had been diagnosed with cancer in his lung and lymph nodes.

He began feeling ill in late 2008, with fatigue, shortness of breath and migraine headaches. At first his doctors thought it was pneumonia but later ruled that out along with a progression of other theories, including an exotic virus.

Then he started coughing up blood. Doctors ordered a computerized tomography (CT) scan and found a tumor in his left lung. In March 2009, he was diagnosed with stage three lung cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes in his chest.

Hill went through chemo and radiation therapy, but that did not knock down the cancer enough for doctors to perform surgery. He went to Portland to see if he could qualify for an experimental treatment, and another CT scan there showed the cancer had spread to his other lung as well.

“I was like, shoot, I’m in the third quarter and I’m down by two touchdowns,” Hill recalled. “I felt like the clock was running out.”

Even so, Hill felt it wasn’t his time to go.

He kept looking for a cure, and believes he found it in a drug called Crizotinib that had just entered clinical trials.

“A clean slate”

It turns out that his cancer had a genetic mutation targeted by the drug.

Hill said he qualified for a clinical trial in Denver in October 2009.

By that time, he’d lost his voice and was fatigued. “It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. I could walk up the stairs, but I’d be exhausted after I did that,” he said.

“I started taking the pill and within a week all of the symptoms disappeared. But my voice was still gone,” he said. “Two weeks later … my voice came back and three weeks later I was jogging again with my wife. It was absolutely miraculous.”

When Hill got his life back, he suddenly had a lot of free time on his hands.

“I offloaded all my responsibilities when I got sick. I stepped down from the boards and wasn’t coaching and wasn’t going to the kids’ schools,” he said. “So I had a clean slate and a second chance.”

Hill said his children’s experience in school, and his frustration with the public-school system, was one of the reasons he decided to run for office. In particular, he cited a lack of resources for more advanced students and a general resistance to change.

Hill eventually ended up moving his children into private schools.

As the Ways and Means chairman, Hill now plays a prominent role in figuring out how to put an additional $1 billion or more into public schools to meet a state Supreme Court mandate.

Although he beat the odds when it comes to cancer, Hill said he’s not willing to predict whether the Legislature will reach an agreement on the budget this session.

At least he no longer feels like the clock is running out.

Hill’s tumors disappeared and he was declared cancer free in December 2009. “They scanned me a week ago and couldn’t find anything,” he said last week.

Hill said he still takes the medication because there are virtually no side effects. “I’m not ready to say I’m going to stop taking it and see what happens.”

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or