In early December 2016, Washington State Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-26th) was awakened by a crushing pain on the side of her head. She suddenly lost vision in her left eye from acute glaucoma, a problem where pressure suddenly builds and damages the optic nerve. Caldier already had poor vision in her right eye following an injury at birth; it was adequate for reading, but not distance.
Overnight she was faced with only near vision in one eye and loss of depth perception. “I had to learn to walk, to cut my food. I couldn’t drive. I lost my dental practice overnight,” Caldier said. “It was devastating.”
Despite early intervention and at least 100 procedures, Caldier never regained vision in her left eye. In early 2020, she had a prosthesis placed to help shield her eye from the pain caused by light.
And she began thinking about the future. “I needed to create a plan and figure out how I am going to get around, prepare food. How to do a job that requires you to give tours.”
She chose not to go public about her disability. “I am always careful about my personal life, and I have kept it very quiet. I was embarrassed. I had to prove I could do my job first,” she said.
Caldier was elected to her fifth two-year term last fall with more than 56% of the vote.
“I am blessed to have the support of friends and family,” she said. They offered both emotional and logistical support, especially her father and daughters. Her 28-year-old daughter lives in Lakebay with her husband and 9-year-old. Her 26-year-old lives in Bremerton. Although she gave up her active role as a short-term foster mother a year ago, she maintains relationships with several foster daughters.
But over the last few years, she grew frustrated as she tried to get even small accommodations to help with her work. “It was hard just to get a PowerPoint emailed to me so that I could read it on my phone,” she said. When committee meetings or votes on the floor occurred in the early morning hours, there were no options for transportation by bus, taxi or ride share.
She found herself asking colleagues for rides. Although that had the benefit of establishing good relationships with legislators from both sides of the aisle, the rides were not a sure thing, and she felt that there should be a better way. “I would never have asked one of my employees who couldn’t drive to work until five in the morning,” she said.
Her bill, HR 1463, came out of that frustration. It applies only to state employees or officials and would require that when a person who is not able to drive must be physically present at work, if hours are unpredictable and transportation is not available, the state will provide transportation to their home at no cost.
Caldier worked with legislative staff from the Office of Public Research to ensure the language and references in the bill were consistent with state law. She found a bipartisan group of sponsors. The committee for State Government and Tribal Relations was assigned to review the bill and decide whether to hold a hearing on its merits.
After a hearing is held on a bill — none for HR 1463 was scheduled at press time — the committee chair and house speaker decide whether it will move forward. If it does, it goes to the rules committee and finally to the house floor for a vote. If it passes, the bill then moves to the senate for a similar process. Once the senate approves it, the bill goes to the governor.
Laws typically take years to pass, Caldier said. She does not expect hers to be successful this year. In the meantime, she is planning to get more support by meeting with the state nonprofit Disability Rights of Washington and several unions. She wants to continue to work on transportation issues for those with disabilities in general. “If we can provide even a few services that allow people to stay in their own homes and be as independent as possible, it saves the state money,” she said.
Caldier stopped caucusing with her party in January and is not currently serving on any committees, but says she is still a Republican. She did not explain what issues lie between her and party leadership, but said “I am grateful I have great working relationships with my Republican and Democratic colleagues. I hope I can work out issues with my leadership and rejoin the caucus.”
Republican House Leader J.T. Wilcox told KP News, “Michelle has been an effective legislator. And I’m sure we can work together in the future.”
Caldier said she hopes to continue to serve in public office. “I would be honored to continue to serve as long as the people will have me. Part of that is coming out in public with these challenges,” she said. “I know that I am not alone in facing challenges and some people are afraid to ask for help. I want to be a voice for individuals with disabilities.”
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS