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Originally published February 11, 2013 at 8:47 PM | Page modified February 12, 2013 at 5:52 AM

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State Senate newcomers learn an old lesson in gift-giving

A decades-long tradition requires freshmen state senators to endure mocking, and distribute gifts after delivering their first floor speech.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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Do they build naked pyramids and drink everclear all night? This sort of stuff went... MORE
The entire state Senate is a mockery of representative government. MORE
Anyplace else this would be considered hazing and they'd get fired. MORE

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OLYMPIA — In the middle of a debate Monday on the floor of the Washington state Senate, several senators stood to mock one of their colleagues.

The target was Gig Harbor Democrat Nathan Schlicher — “Senator Snickers,” as one tormentor joked — who had just finished his first floor speech.

As the 30-year-old, baby-faced emergency-room doctor rose to defend himself, the theme song to “Doogie Howser, M.D.” blared across the chamber to loud laughter.

But Schlicher, familiar with this particular brand of hazing, was prepared.

He quickly announced his plan to stop the teasing: 48 gift baskets — one for each senator — stuffed with a Gig Harbor cup, a coupon to an artisan coffee roaster in his city and saltwater taffy to represent the coast.

The sequence — a debut speech, a mini-roast and some hometown gifts — is well known to the senators, who all have been through it.

The tradition, which has existed as long as any of the senators can remember, is meant to build camaraderie, allow for newcomers to introduce themselves, and let veterans playfully make clear they run the place.

The personally bought gifts (no taxpayer money is spent), especially, are a way to make a statement, senators said, and over the years, they have ranged from elegant to tacky to downright silly.

“It’s a very positive, friendly thing that everybody enjoys,” explained Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, who as majority floor leader is this year’s maiden-speech coordinator.

Although nobody is quite sure when the gift giving began, Olympia elders said the tradition has changed over the years.

Unofficial Olympia historian Don Brazier, who was elected to the Legislature in 1966, said it was standard back then for senators to give out cigars.

As more female lawmakers arrived, Brazier said, candy became the gift of choice.

Eventually that shifted to hometown items.

Asked for their favorite gift, several current senators pointed to Sen. Mike Hewitt’s in 2001.

Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said he got around the $50 limit by giving personalized bottles of Walla Walla red wine, and asking his wife to give the senators tickets to the rodeo she runs.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lake Stevens Democrat Steve Hobbs in 2007 gave out leftover, oversized T-shirts from Lake Stevens Aquafest.

Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, remembers thinking the gift was a joke.

But Hobbs said he doesn’t understand why his colleagues were unhappy.

“They should’ve been proud to have a T-shirt,” Hobbs grinned. “You can wear that thing, you can use it as a night shirt, you can use it to wash your car.”

The real reason for the gift, Hobbs admitted, was that he forgot about the tradition until right before his speech.

Others take it more seriously.

Sen. Mark Mullet, who gave his gift Friday, said he had been planning it since he was sworn in.

Mullet, a Democrat who owns a Ben & Jerry’s and a Zeeks Pizza in Issaquah, eventually chose to scoop Stephen Colbert-inspired AmeriCone Dream ice cream for his colleagues.

Why ice cream?

“Pizza doesn’t travel well,” Mullet said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 360-236-8267 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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