It is snowing today on Washington’s Mount Rainier, and if this weren’t the middle of summer, we would have thought it was snowing down here on the flats in Olympia, too: In an instant, a noisy gust of wind on this otherwise still day has carried a cloud of white blossoms off the dogwood trees, obscuring the view from Judith Billings’ office windows. Billings is Washington State’s elected superintendent of public instruction -- a job that sounds easier until you find out that “education” is a broadly defined term that accounts for half the state’s budget. Today, the sprite-like Billings is intently discussing rates of cut timber and recreational land management with Michael Perez Gomez, a somber man from the Department of Natural Resources. He has just finished explaining the difference between the market benefits of nature (wood production) and the nonmarket benefit -- the enhanced quality of life that comes from just knowing nature’s out there and doing well. And however serious the meeting may be, neither Billings nor the DNR man nor I can help laughing a little at this dramatic demonstration of his point: what we have here are nonmarket benefits in action.
Such displays in the natural world are what convinced Billings, as a child growing up in Kalispell, Montana, that there just had to be a God -- some kind of God, “some kind of reason in the world that makes it work well -- reasonably well.” It might also remind her of some conventional wisdom that applies to more than just Puget Sound’s weather: Expect surprises.
There have been some pleasant ones, like the public and professional response to her disclosure in January that she had been diagnosed with AIDS. Nearing the end of the self-imposed eight-year limit on her tenure, she’d been on the verge of casting a bid for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She had prepared herself in advance for the inevitable replay of the editorial commentary that dogged her when she ran for this office in 1988, remarks about how she might not be “tough enough” to handle the good ol’ boys in the legislature. (“I thought, you jerks!” she says, squinting her crystal-blue eyes and tightening her mouth in a not-too-convincing show of anger.) But in the wake of her announcement, not even Rush Limbaugh could muster any meaner slander than the mere mention of Billings’ name and her diagnosis. “I was pretty overwhelmed by the positive response,” she says.
More important, perhaps, was the surprise that came from 120 sixth graders at a local middle school, who didn’t smirk or giggle while she described to them how the disease is transmitted sexually and why her husband has remained HIV negative. (“As a woman,” she told the girls, “you’re going to take that infected material inside of you. You’re going to hold it there.”) Instead, she says, they asked sophisticated, compassionate questions. “They were personally concerned for me,” she remembers. “They asked, ’How did people react to you? Was your family upset with you? How has it changed your life?’” After the assembly, one girl presented her with a note: “To Judith Billings: A Very Strong Woman!” it said on the outside; on the inside, the girl thanked her for being honest about her health, and “not worrying whether people would like you or not.”
Thirty-five years had passed since a 21-year-old Billings began her teaching career in the small agricultural town of Puyallup, and she still hadn’t expected such understanding from 11-year-olds. “I thought, you know, that’s a pretty neat insight for a kid of that age, to really value what that means,” she says. “I was amazed at the level of sophistication in those kids.”
All the small graces seem scant compensation for the nasty shocks that have upset Billings’ life in the last two decades. There were two pregnancies by artificial insemination that ended in miscarriage, “just enough encouragement to think that, well, maybe this will work eventually.” In 1981 she battled back from a malignant white blood cell tumor; 13 years later, when her body became a breeding ground for a series of inexplicable illnesses -- ear infections, persistent colds, a collapsed lung -- her doctors suspected that the tumor had somehow damaged her bone marrow. “They couldn’t get a handle on my illnesses,” Billings recalls. “They did all kinds of tests.” Meanwhile, her health continued to deteriorate. Only when a gallium-67 injection settled in her bronchial system did the doctors detect a case of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), which led to an HIV test in September 1995. Two days after her disclosure, her husband, Donald, heard on the television news that seven cases of HIV infection had been traced to donor sperm given to women on the West Coast.
She withdrew her bid for Congress a few months later, but not because her health couldn’t withstand the challenge (although “in the beginning there,” she says, “I was really feeling -- to be blunt -- pretty crappy”). She quickly overcame the PCP with high doses of sulfa; her health continued to improve and she began taking antiretrovirals. But her family’s concerns got the better of her. She and Don have four grown children (from Don’s previous marriage) and eight grandchildren, and “if it hadn’t been for them,” she says, “I think I still would have gone for it.”
In the imposing quarters of Olympia’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (otherwise known as SPI), there are flowers and pictures of cats and drawings on the wall made by children in China. A crocheted afghan hangs over the superintendent’s high-backed leather chair, and a plaque on the conference table heralds her philosophy:
Children are the Priority.
Change is the Reality.
Collaboration is the Strategy.
Billings dresses her slight frame carefully and neatly, but not necessarily in bureaucrat’s clothing: One day she’s wearing a classic navy suit, but on another she’s in a flowing deep burgundy dress that hits just above her knee. With her delicate features and sparkling expression, she resembles nothing so much as Mary Martin playing Peter Pan. She peppers her speech with a litany of euphemistic expressions that are all pretty much charmingly direct stand-ins for cuss words. “Is that survey gonna be a real pain in the bazookas?” she asks a member of her staff who’s facing a spirit-breaking stack of paperwork. Lamenting the short-term thinking of state politicians who think only in two-year segments, her frustration mounts to an exasperated shoot, as in “Shoot, if you ran the whole world that way, businesses would collapse.”
She wears two pins -- a red ribbon and a guardian angel (a recent gift of support from a student she taught back in 1972) -- and two pendants -- an apple and a cross. The apple is a gift from her assistant and close friend, Jeri Sevier, a memento of her campaign symbol (Washington apples served as dots over the i’s in her name). The cross represents her singular religious faith.
“My belief in Christianity, my spirituality, if you will, is a personal one,” Billings says. “I’m not a regular churchgoer, even though I was brought up in Sunday school and so forth, but I have a deep and abiding faith that there is someone who cares about me. There is a force that I don’t pretend to understand, and I feel, particularly now, that I’ve really gone back and heightened my daily conversations with God, or whatever the spirit that is there.”
The Far Right has given Christianity a different face, she says, one that is not consistent with her sense of decency. “If you go out and excoriate people and impugn their motives as if there is absolutely nothing good about people unless they adhere to the same dogma you do, that is not Christian. That is not anything Christ ever taught. That is not anything I believe about a loving and compassionate God -- who also,” she adds, “has a stormy side.”
She holds civility in high esteem, but not higher than reason; as the granddaughter of homesteaders in northwestern Montana -- turn-of-the-century settlers who joined a countrywide exodus from the crowded provincialism of the East to face an uncertain future in the vast mountain states -- she is heir to a tradition of pioneer women who traveled West for a peculiar kind of emancipation, all the while remaining dedicated to taming the frontier with their own good sense. Her staunchly Republican grandparents gave her and her three sisters the purer side of a philosophy that in later decades has mutated into the slogans of Montana Freemen and alleged domestic terrorists. “I got this grounding in being fiercely independent,” she says. “A curious blend of independent self-reliance, independent thinking and a you-can-do-anything-you-want-to confidence.” She also gleaned a respect for knowledge. “My grandmother had gone through college,” she says. “I mean, that was very unusual for women at that time; I don’t even know what college for women was even like at that point. But there was always a heavy, heavy emphasis on education with them.”
There was an interest in political life, too: Billings’ earliest memories of politics date back to election-year summers spent on their farm. “I told someone it really dates me that I can remember when I was -- well, I don’t know how old I was -- but I can remember sitting up with my grandparents listening to the Republican Convention on the radio the year Dewey was nominated. I was just a little kid at that time, but I’ve just kind of always had an interest in watching things happen politically.”
In high school, she knew the names of the cabinet members better than she does now; on the debate team, she fostered her interest in all things political, and at the same time acquired a “healthy skepticism” about political dogma. “We had to argue both sides,” she explains. "It makes you very aware that we live in the gray, not in the black-and-white, that there is evidence for one view as well as its opposite, and that you can make statistics say anything you want them to.
“You learn to be a thoughtful person when you’re dealing with public information,” she continues. “Because it really is easy to skew it however you want it. It’s one of the things I found out right away when I was diagnosed with AIDS: You hear AIDS all the time and you think you know a bunch of stuff about it and you think, wow -- I knew immediately that I didn’t know anything. And I’m still at that point where I don’t know half of what I want to know. But I think that if you’re willing to go out and hunt for opinions or be open to lots of opinions, I don’t know how you can end up with some of the conclusions some people do. I want to see what all the possibilities are.”
A few years into her teaching career in Puyallup, Billings began to classify herself as a Democrat. Her politics moved even further to the left when she served for a few years in Fresno, “where there was hardly a name I could pronounce in the roll books, there were so many Armenian and Latino students.” The provisions of California’s pending Proposition 187, which would bar children of illegal immigrants from public schools (and other services), appalls her. “That whole business down there,” she says, “this wanting to deny kids education -- that kind of stuff blows my mind. Education is absolutely the key, and a federal presence in education is absolutely necessary. You have some states,” she claims, “that could give a damn.”
In 1987, “rather late in life,” Billings bolstered her expertise in reason with a law degree she earned at night while working as a legal services assistant in the very office she now heads. “I enjoyed studying these concepts, the whole notion of what is a reasonable person, of what reason means.” But listening to Billings now means accepting that conventional politics and reason are sometimes uneasy allies: Her perspective on the difficulties underlying juvenile delinquency and drug use is that of a steadfast liberal; her answers to some of those problems would appeal to any card-carrying Republican’s sense of family values. She traces many of America’s social problems back to the disintegration of the nuclear family, on too-infrequent interaction between children and parents. Her solution, however, is not that women stay home, but that government and corporate leaders understand the need for workplace child care.
To answer the editorial writer who had the nerve to question her toughness in 1988, Billings has proved herself capable of handling the good ol’ boys in that legislature just fine, although the relationship is often a rocky one. Two days after she made the announcement about her health, she appeared before the State Senate Education Committee to respond to an audit of her department. “Are you going to come here and be as dramatic as you have recently?” asked Democratic state Sen. Dwight Pelz before the meeting. (“I was just needling her,” Pelz says. “Judy’s always had my support.”) The audit revealed her department spends less on administration per student than any similar agency in the country. But the legislators also took her to task for spending too much on travel and not investigating the criminal records of teachers more thoroughly.
The State House and Senate, she realizes, depends on the business community’s support for campaign funding, not to mention votes. And “from the standpoint of the business community,” says Billings, “government bureaucracies are always negative, something that stands in the way.” Nevertheless, she says, the three entities -- business, legislature and superintendent’s office -- managed to implement the most sweeping educational reform in the country; she’s most proud that it ensures equal educational access to underserved students.
Actually, that three-way cooperation was hard-fought: Washington’s business community -- which includes heavyweights such as Boeing and Microsoft -- initially tried to keep Billings’ office out of it. “Fine,” she told them. “Put that in the law and I’ll sue you. Because, you know, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, the Constitution that says education’s the responsibility of this office, and if you attempt to go around it I’ll see you in court.”
Late in the afternoon on the day after the flower storm, Billings is meeting with a retired administrator from the state Office of Equity Education named Warren Burton, a man Billings says has “institutional memory.” He rode the buses during the implementation of what education people call “deseg.” Burton says he’s sorry to hear the news about Billings’ health, but she brushes it off. “The news keeps getting better and better in terms of control of the virus,” she assures him, and moves on to share her outrage over D.C.’s latest stab at eliminating affirmative action. “You know, the equity money got wiped in the Federal Budget,” she starts, referring to the sudden disappearance -- “stealth stuff,” Billings calls it -- of affirmative-action monies from the education budget.
“I wish that Clinton would get his act together,” Burton laments. “I don’t want to start wishing that the other side is gonna win.”
Seattle’s school system has gone from almost all white to 23 percent minority in the time Billings has been involved in education; along with it racial tension has increased in the schools. Burton, who is African-American, informs Billings of a young black man in a local high school who happens to dating be the white daughter of the school’s principal. “There’s been some name-calling and things you know,” he says. “I talked to the school about it, and they didn’t seem too motivated to address the situation. You see,” he says, turning my direction, “racism, sexism and all the other -isms are not dead.”
They chat. Before he leaves, Burton gives Billings another piece of news: “We have some money in a trust,” he says, and “we’d like to set up a scholarship for employees of SPI. We thought we’d call it the Judith A. Billings Scholarship. I wanted to sound you out on what it should be,” he adds, “because we thought it was foolish to name it after you and then make all the decisions.”
Billings is obviously moved, but determinedly maintains her official composure. “That’s really neat if you want to do that,” she says. “Was there any thought about using it for kids who want to pursue education? Or how about education and public service? Maybe that would be a good way to let people know that public service is an still an honorable profession.”
Her tenure in that honorable profession is nearing its close -- for the moment at least. She’s almost at the end of her second four-year term. “When I ran for the office to begin with, I just decided when I ran the first time that probably eight years was a good period of time to spend in office. Because in that amount of time, if you have some priorities, you have plenty of time to get the groundwork laid, to see what reaction is, to begin to move them along and if they are good ways to go in all likelihood they will continue to be successful.”
It’s by no means the end of her political career, even though Billings isn’t sure what the future holds. “I’m just wondering what it’s going to be like. I don’t have one set plan for what I’m going to do. I might even like to try moving a little bit into law, since I do have a law degree and am a member of the bar. I might look at working with educational issues even in the legal arena with either the state or private law firms.”
Having AIDS has not defined her life nor limited her choices. Though she co-chairs the Pierce County AIDS Walk and serves on the board of the Ryan White Foundation, her interest in the cause predates the discovery of her own infection. Advocacy on the behalf of people with HIV and AIDS, she says, are part and parcel of her dedication to progressive politics in general, and education in particular.
There are still kids to educate and causes to be pursued. There is work to be done, she says, to ensure that protease inhibitors are available and affordable to the uninsured living with AIDS. She knows that “there are a number of AIDS groups that are real disappointed” in her decision not to run for a congressional seat, but she also wants to reassure them that she intends to hang on to her influence. “I think one can almost be more effective working from the outside applying pressure for change that one person can on the inside,” she says.
No one -- not even Billings herself -- is all that convinced that she’ll remain an outsider for long. Say the words Capitol Hill, and she brightens; her excitement about the prospect of a U.S. House seat is undeniable. Will she run in two years? “It’s a possibility, yes,” she says. “We’ll see how I’m doing then.” The verbal answer is inconclusive; the look in her eyes is not.