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Celia VanHollebeke (9 months old) enjoys her first handfuls of dirt while visiting her grandfather, Butch VanHollebeke, at his farm in Kahlotus.
Photo taken by Amy VanHollebeke

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POLICY

A familiar face

Long-time political activist Mary Dye takes on a new role

January 2015
By Trista Crossley


Mary Dye might be (relatively) new to the Washington State Legislature, but with more than 20 years of political activism behind her, she’s already a name to be reckoned with in most Eastern Washington GOP circles.

Dye was appointed to fill Susan Fagan’s 9th District House seat last May and was re-elected in November’s general election.

From the time she was young, growing up in southeast Idaho, Dye said she’s loved all things agriculture. After graduating from the University of Idaho with an agronomy degree, Dye spent several years in Thailand with the Peace Corp before landing back in the Pacific Northwest as a fieldman for a crop development company. It was during this time she met her husband, Roger Dye, and became part of his family’s wheat farm near Pomeroy.

“They knew I was going to stick around when we had his and hers tractors. For a wedding present, he got me a new Morris HR 36 Culti-Weeder,” Dye said, laughing.

Dye’s return to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1980s coincided with high interest rates, massive grain stockpiles, low prices and the introduction of government programs that removed cropland from production. As she immersed herself into the ag industry, and especially after she became part of a family wheat farm, Dye said she became aware of how politics and government regulation were changing the agricultural landscape.

“The economy of farming changed. Banks (in the 1970s) had become liberal with their lending policies, and people were borrowing a lot. But then all of a sudden, interest rates went up and people couldn’t service their debt,” she explained. “We had this big crisis going on nationwide. It was so over the top. It was heavy-handed government in an industry that I thought was very free-market oriented. I came to the realization that things were out of balance.”

That conviction only increased when the 1990 Farm Bill tied conservation compliance to farm program payments. Looking to shake up the political establishment and what she called an “illustration of complete overreach of government,” Dye joined an advisory committee that was instrumental in helping Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt run against and defeat the sitting Speaker of the House, Tom Foley (D-Wash.), in 1994.

“We did something that was deemed impossible,” she said. “If your issue is viable, things can happen. Individual citizens can make a change.”

From there, Dye would go on to organize a committee of Eastern Washington farmers whose paper, Freedom to Farm, would influence the 1996 Farm Bill and helped move farmers away from direct payments. She was active in the “Save Our Dams” movement in the late 1990s and has served as the Republican committeewoman for Garfield County. In 2012, she was a delegate to the Republican National Convention and served as presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s co-chair of the energy, agriculture and environment platform committee.

Throughout her political activism, Dye said she has believed in one fundamental idea: liberty on the land, that owners of the land know what is best for their land and lives.

“To me, I feel we’ve lost that connection as the global economic force has driven so many people from the land towards urbanization. The body politic doesn’t understand the nature of ownership,” she explained. “To have an unaccountable society managing our natural resources is setting us up for disaster.”

When the question of Dye throwing her hat into the ring for Fagan’s vacant House seat came up, she said she and Roger had about 8 hours to decide. They looked at the benefits and potential pitfalls and came to the conclusion that there wasn’t anything so negative that they couldn’t do it. And after so many years of participating in GOP political activities but without holding an elected seat, why did Dye decide now was the time to dive in?

“One thing I’ve learned about party politics is that opportunities are fleeting,” she said. “If you are asked to do something, you can make a difference. You come onto the stage, play your role and then exit. Then there’s a period where you are not there, and you don’t get to participate. So if you say yes to those opportunities, you can make an impact and have a seat at the table. You can do those things you are passionate about.”

Dye stepped into the state legislature at the tail end of a historically long session that included several special sessions and the threat of a partial government shutdown. She went through the budget process but said it was more of a 10,000-foot look, and it went by fast. She said legislating is much tougher than raising wheat because government is so big and there’s not enough accountability. In the upcoming session, Dye says she’ll be focusing on lifting as much regulatory burden from companies and other organizations as she can to help the people in her district compete in the global economy.

“The reality is, regulatory compliance is a real burden on creativity and focus,” she explained. “I go back to the vision that you’ve got a third person in the middle of your operation that doesn’t have any stake in your success.”

When it was suggested that might be an uphill battle on the west side, especially when it comes to agriculture, Dye said that had been her initial perception.

“But I’m starting to learn that there are ways you can build coalitions of support and friendships with people. You just have to speak their language and find understanding,” she said.