State Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood was remembered Wednesday as a conservative Republican who authored a landmark student truancy law, pushed for mental health and criminal justice legislation, and dabbled in historic preservation and classic car restoration.
The former Franklin Pierce School District science teacher died Wednesday morning at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle from lung complications related to his treatment for a pre-cancerous condition that often leads to leukemia.
Carrell, who had served in the Senate since his 2004 election, missed most of the 2013 legislative session after being diagnosed in mid-February with myelodysplastic syndrome or MDS. He received a bone-marrow transplant from his brother last month, but his health took a turn for the worse over the Memorial Day weekend.
Senate Republicans praised Carrell for authoring the state’s landmark “Becca bill” in 1996 that created a framework for confining runaways and also for schools to file court petitions giving judges jurisdiction over chronic school truants.
He was credited by others for work on mental health and corrections issues, including legislation to limit Pierce County’s share of ex-cons by ensuring state inmates return to their county of origin when released after serving time. That “fair share” bill was, in part, the product of Carrell’s work with former Democratic Sen. Debbie Regala of Tacoma to better prepare inmates for life on the outside.
“He was a proud, conservative Republican who certainly worked well with Democrats in those subject areas,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said. “It is a trait we need more of here, and we’ve lost someone with it.”
Schoesler also credited Carrell with passage of a bill this year that he considers “the first step toward creating a comprehensive, statewide mental health database” to let law enforcement know who should not be owning firearms.
Regala, who served alongside Carrell in the Legislature for 18 years before she retired in 2012, said Wednesday that Carrell was more concerned with passing worthwhile legislation than taking credit for it. A few years ago, the two senators flipped a coin to decide which of them would be the prime sponsor of a bill dealing with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, Regala said.
“The two of us worked well together, and we weren’t real competitive about who got credit,” Regala said. “We just wanted to get it done.”
HELPING WITH EXPENSES
Friends of Carrell have been helping raise money to pay his medical bills during the past few months. Jan Gee, co-chair of the fundraising effort, said that the group will continue collecting donations to help Carrell’s wife, Charlotte, pay his outstanding medical bills. The group will maintain the website HelpMikeMedical.org, said Gee, a friend of Carrell’s who is also president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association.
“We still have work to do,” Gee said. “Charlotte is going to be left with a lot of medical bills. … We will make sure Charlotte will be able to move forward and take care of paying for his doctors and his treatment.”
The group has raised about $14,000 since it began the effort, and has about $6,700 left after paying for some of his earlier medical costs, Gee said.
“Mike died very comfortably in his sleep, and that’s because he was getting great medical care,” Gee said. “And we were glad to be a part of that.”
Before joining the Legislature, Carrell fought on behalf of noncustodial parents as part of a group called Parents Opposed to Punitive Support (POPS). In the early 1990s, Carrell served as the group’s president, and rallied at the state Capitol to urge legislators to reduce what POPS members said were overly burdensome child support payments.
He ran for the Legislature in 1992 and lost to eventual Republican winner Gigi Talcott – whom he would later team with to lead the charge to change the name of the Berkeley Avenue overpass on Interstate 5 in Lakewood to “Freedom Bridge” to honor servicemen and servicewomen who crossed the bridge en route to deployment.
In 1993, Carrell, then a high school teacher, broke with the state teachers union and came out in support of Initiative 602, which would have rolled back taxes the Legislature approved earlier in the year.
Carrell told The News Tribune at the time that he favored I-602 but not the rival spending limit measure I-601 that voters ended up favoring.
“It takes away the legislative prerogative of the Legislature,” Carrell said of I-601. “When the Legislature oversteps the legitimate bounds, this (602) will rein them back in. But I don’t want to second-guess the Legislature on every single thing they do.”
A year later, Carrell won election to the state House, defeating Stan Flemming, who at that time was a Democrat. Carrell served nearly a decade before winning appointment to the Senate in 2004 after Sen. Shirley Winsley left to join the Washington State Tax Appeals Board.
“Mike was a stalwart for the Pierce County Republican Party for a long time,” said county GOP chairman Bob Lawrence. “One thing about Mike is when he said he’d do something, you could take that to the bank. He had a great amount of integrity. … If you were campaigning, he’d door-bell for you. He would offer advice. He would talk issues. He was the epitome of the servant leader.’’
Former Lakewood City Councilman Walter Neary said Carrell began his House career as a strident, in-your-face Republican who gradually softened his tone and approach in the interest of bipartisanship.
“Once he entered the Senate, he really became someone who saw the power of working well with others and became a role model for working between the parties,” said Neary, the former editor of the Lakewood Journal who now works in telecommunications.
Neary said Carrell also understood the importance of history to the community.
In 2007, Neary, then past president of the Historic Fort Steilacoom Museum Association, grew concerned about leaky roofs causing water damage to the four surviving buildings from Fort Steilacoom, the first U.S. military installation in the Washington Territory, located at Western State Hospital.
Other state lawmakers weren’t interested, Neary said, but Carrell showed “an enormous amount of passion” in fixing the problem, and his involvement was the turning point toward getting the needed repairs. He also helped restore the adjacent cemetery where patients at the mental hospital were buried, often without their names on markers.
Randy Lewis, a lobbyist for the city of Tacoma, said it was easy to connect with Carrell by talking about classic automobiles — a hobby of Carrell’s that occasionally influenced his work in the Legislature, Lewis said.
The senator repeatedly introduced legislation to protect citizens’ ability to work on older cars on their property without having them removed by cities as junk vehicles. Earlier this year Carrell revealed the extent of his pastime, telling Lewis “I have a car in my garage, and I have one under a lean-to in my backyard, and there’s another one under a canopy in the driveway.”
Carrell, a lifelong resident of the Tacoma area, retired from the Franklin Pierce School District in 1998. He taught at Keithley Middle School, Franklin Pierce High School and the district’s GATES (Greater Alternative to Educational Success) alternative school.
In addition to his wife, Charlotte, Carrell is survived by sons Matthew, Larry and Carlton, and five grandchildren.
Another son, Mark, died in 1995 at the age of 27 of a heart condition.
Staff writers Brad Shannon, Melissa Santos, Christian Hill, Peter Callaghan, Debbie Cafazzo and Kim Bradford contributed to this report.