When Margarita Prentice disagreed with you, you knew it.
“She let you have it,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.
Incensed about child labor on Washington farms, Prentice, the first Latina elected to the Legislature, once called the practice the “moral equivalent of child pornography.” Growers, who felt they were offering job opportunities to kids, a summer tradition, were stung, Gempler said.
But over Sen. Prentice’s quarter-century in the Legislature, from 1988 to 2013, something unexpected happened: The fierce farmworker advocate developed a warm relationship with Gempler. She was interested in the success of growers as well as their employees and, despite disagreement over issues, would sometimes call just to see how Gempler was doing, he said.
In the best of ways, it wasn’t politics as usual. Little about Sen. Prentice — who entered the Legislature at 57 after a long career in nursing and rose to some of the most powerful positions in the Senate — was.
On April 2, suffering from heart problems, she died at her Bryn Mawr-Skyway home sitting in her favorite chair with her dog on her lap, according to family members. She was 88.
Former Gov. Christine Gregoire called Sen. Prentice “a force” — tough and compassionate, eschewing game-playing and “namby-pamby” political speak to get straight to the point.
Gregoire said she often ended conversations with her, asking: “Is there no way to move you?” If Sen. Prentice said no, she was done.
She was born Margarita López in San Bernardino, California. Her dad came from Mexico, her mom El Paso, Texas. They divorced when Prentice, the youngest of five children, was a teen. Shortly after, she moved with her mom to Phoenix.
She attended community college there and then nursing school. After graduating, she moved to Seattle to find work. It was the mid-1950s, a time of entrenched gender roles.
Yet she avidly pursed a career, even after marrying Bill Prentice, a Boeing quality-control inspector, in 1958, and having four children.
She worked for an array of local hospitals in various capacities, including as an ER nurse at Valley Medical Center in Renton, and was active in the union. To avoid using baby-sitters, she worked the graveyard shift, while her husband worked a swing shift, remembered Christy Burton, one of Prentice’s two daughters.
In 2009, the Renton hospital named its trauma center after her. Emergency workers commonly refer to it as “Margaritaville.” She loved that, granddaughter Lizzy Burton said.
Four decades in nursing influenced the practical way Sen. Prentice approached politics, her granddaughter added. She spoke of “triaging” problems.
She volunteered for several Democratic campaigns before running for office herself — first winning a seat on the Renton School Board. She said she ran to speak out for the needs of special-needs children like one of her sons.
Her other son died, in his early 20s, in a car accident while serving in the Army in Germany, family members said.
In April 1988, she was appointed to the House to fill a vacancy representing the 11th District, covering parts of South Seattle and South King County. She was elected to the seat that same year and then to the Senate in 1992.
As a rookie legislator, she disregarded advice to keep quiet and listen to leadership. She played a central role in securing full unemployment benefits for farmworkers. “Si, se puede (Yes we can)!” she told supporters from the Capitol steps, according to a Seattle Times story at the time.
In the 1990s, Sen. Prentice was instrumental in getting the Legislature to provide funds for farmworker housing. At the time, many farmworkers were living in tents, said Rogelio Riojas, executive director of Sea Mar Community Health Centers.
But farmworker issues represented only a fraction of her interests, which also included health care for women and low-income people, minimum-wage laws and support for the University of Washington Autism Center.
Gregoire recalled Sen. Prentice advocating on behalf of bills granting same-sex couples the right to domestic partnerships and, ultimately, marriage.
At first, the former governor said, Sen. Prentice had doubts because of her Catholic faith. The two talked it over. Gregoire is also Catholic. Once Sen. Prentice resolved that the issue was about equality, she became an eloquent spokeswoman for the cause, Gregoire said.
Sen. Prentice didn’t always get her way. She lobbied unsuccessfully for public financing of a new stadium for the Seattle SuperSonics, which ultimately left the state.
She accumulated considerable clout, however, at one time serving as president pro tempore and chair of the powerful Senate Ways & Means Committee. Those who came before her begging for funds were on notice, said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, who did so as a representative before taking over Sen. Prentice’s seat. “The less you say, the better.”
Sen. Prentice didn’t have time to waste.
A celebration of life will be held at 3 p.m. Friday, May 10. For details, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Seattle Humane Society or the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent.