Stateline Story

Washington's Eileen Cody Mixes Nursing, Politics

The title "union leader" evokes an image of a big, beefy man building cars in Detroit or driving a truck across the country. Eileen Cody, a member of the Washington state House of Representatives, doesn't fit that stereotype. A tall, scholarly-looking woman with short brown hair, Cody, a Democrat, is co-founder of a health care union in Seattle, where she works full-time as a registered nurse.

Cody credits the union with her involvement in politics. "I was the treasurer and I got other members to realize that if the way people view nursing was to change, we couldn't just (focus) on our little bargaining unit or one little hospital. It needed to be bigger picture,"she says.

To work towards attaining those 'bigger picture' goals, such as viewing nurses as more than doctors' assistants, Cody volunteered in a few political campaigns, including one for Margarita Prentice, a Democratic state senator.

When a seat opened up in the state House, Prentice and other Democrats urged Cody to run for it. Cody's knowledge of health care has helped her as a lawmaker. When she took office in 1994, Democrats were in the minority, but Republicans nevertheless opted to defer to her on health policy.

"No health care legislation went through without (Cody) saying 'okay.' That's pretty darn good to be acknowledged as a general health expert ... and quite a tribute for someone new and a liberal Democrat," Prentice says.

The nurse-legislator certainly has her hands full these days, dealing with issues that range from the rising cost of prescription drugs to long-term care for the elderly. And then there's the nursing shortage, a problem many states are struggling with.

"We definitely have a shortage like everybody else," Cody says. "In some of the rural areas, interestingly enough, hospitals are not having as much of a shortage because they kind of 'grow their own.'"

Washington lawmakers discussed how to solve the state's nursing crisis in this year's session, but Cody says they did little because of budget constraints. She did manage to get more state funding for nursing professors so that university programs could enroll more students..In doing so, she battled state officials who favor technology over other industries like health care.

"We have a governor that's been very focused on high-tech...That's where the booming part of the economy is and that's why lawmakers get drawn to making sure we have the workforce for," she says.

Codysays her state needs to increase the number of nursing professors and sweeten scholarship programs to draw more young people into nursing.

She speaks from the perspective of someone who sees the impact of the state's nursing shortage on a daily basis. "I've grown old with the profession. When I started, everybody that I worked with was in their 20's and now I'm in my 40's and they're all in their 40's. Not having that younger workforce, having that balance, it's worrisome," Cody says.

Cody says the health care industry has not stepped up to help solve the nursing shortage. "The way hospitals have treated nurses has helped cause some of our problems," she says.

Cody likes life as a legislator so much it's inspired her to get other nurses politically involved, much in the same way that Prentice helped her. "There are two nurses I've mentored. One woman ran for the House and she lost by about four percent Another woman who ran for the school board is a nurse. She didn't win either but at least they both got interested," she says.

Though most people wouldn't equate nursing with politics, Cody says her health skills were easily transferred into the legislative arena.

"Nursing is a good career for politics. We're used to dealing with the public and there's no judgment value on people's lifestyles because you can't do that in nursing, and you can't do it in politics either," she says.

Her biggest challenge as a lawmaker? "Keeping my temper," she says with a chuckle.

Life in politics has helped Cody view the world in a more realistic way. "The biggest thing I learned when I went to Olympia is knowing when to compromise. I can't be the purist I was before I went into the legislature. There's a lot of gray in the world, it's not just black and white," she says.