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Dan Newhouse, who has represented Washington's 15th legislative district at the state capitol since 2002, was appointed Feb. 13 by Gov. Christine Gregoire to become the new director of the Washington Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Newhouse is expected to be confirmed by the state Senate and to assume his official responsibilities Wednesday, Feb. 18. He replaces Valoria Loveland, who retired from the position last year.

"I was flabbergasted" to learn that he had been tapped for the position, Mr. Newhouse told The Produce News shortly after the announcement. He did not apply for the position, he said. "The governor came to me and asked if I was interested."

Mr. Newhouse said he took a few days to think about the governor's request, since he enjoys his work at the state legislature. Ultimately, he accepted the offer, saying he could represent agriculture in a way that will have a positive impact on producers.

The 53-year-old legislator, a native Washingtonian, is a graduate of Washington State University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in agriculture economics. He operates a 600-acre farm in Sunnyside, WA, growing hops, tree fruit, alfalfa and grapes. He is a former past president of the Hop Growers of Washington and Hop Growers of America. Mr. Newhouse lives on the farm with his wife, Carol, and their children, Jensena and Devon.

Gov. Gregoire, who is a Democrat, crossed party lines to appoint Mr. Newhouse, the first Republican she has appointed to a Cabinet level position. "He was chosen because he's the best person for the job, Gov. Gregoire said during a press conference. "He happens to be a Republican." The majority of the population of the 15th legislative district is in Yakima County, an important agricultural area in the Evergreen State.

Mr. Newhouse was asked about priorities for the Washington Department of Agriculture. "Being in the legislature, I've been working on some of these things already," he replied. Water figures prominently as the legislature discusses water relinquishment and well exemptions. "Also, there is the bigger issue of trying to secure water in eastern Washington," he said.

The state legislature is also looking into the feasibility of creating a state guest worker program similar to the federal H-2A guest worker program. "I am optimistic. We have bipartisan interesting in hammering something out," he said of several bills which have been introduced in Olympia.

Legislators are also looking at ways to address the state's economic deficit. "We are in a tough budget spot," said Mr. Newhouse. He was asked about the political climate regarding the potential imposition of a business and occupational tax on agricultural producers. "I would be surprised if we imposed a tax on agriculture," he responded. Because such a tax would hurt producers, he went on to say that he would advocate to protect the interests of the agricultural community.

The position vacated by Mr. Newhouse will be filled by appointment, and a special election will be held in November to fill the term.