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After a shocking removal, WA capitol memorial honoring LGBTQ lawmaker reinstalled

A freshly planted tree stands above a plaque under a partially cloudy blue sky.
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
The plaque sitting at the base of the tree reads: "This tree is dedicated to Senator Cal Anderson as a tribute to his integrity, dignity, and courage in striving to make all citizens of Washington equal under the law."

A memorial at Washington's capitol honoring the state's first openly gay legislator was replaced Friday morning after a temporary removal that shocked lawmakers in Olympia.

Just after sunrise, a handful of workers began planting a new tree and re-installing the memorial plaque honoring late state legislator Cal Anderson. Anderson, who served in both the House and Senate, was a decorated Vietnam War veteran and Washington's first openly gay lawmaker – remembered for championing LGBTQ civil rights, as well as issues like low-income housing and gun control.

Anderson served as a lawmaker after being appointed to a House seat representing the 43rd legislative district – covering several neighborhoods in Seattle – in 1987. He won re-election multiple times until he ran for a seat in the state Senate and won in 1994.

Less than a year after winning his Senate seat, Anderson died in 1995 from AIDS complications. The following year, his loved ones and political supporters gathered to plant a Japanese maple tree on the capitol's campus in his honor. The memorial was later moved to its current location just outside of the legislative building, and the maple was replaced with a Kwanzan flowering cherry tree.

But earlier this month, the memorial plaque and Kwanzan tree were unceremoniously removed – the tree was mostly dead, so it and three others nearby were cut down by the Department of Enterprise Services, the agency that manages capitol facilities.

Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) co-chairs the LGBTQ caucus and holds the same seat Anderson did. She was one of several people upset to learn about the memorial's removal after the fact – she said she often visits the site after intense legislative debates.

"I have found myself – not infrequently – taking a stroll around the capitol campus and pausing at the Cal Anderson memorial tree to sort of re-center myself," Macri said.

Other legislative leaders decried the tree and plaque’s removal this week. The Washington State Standard reported that the governor, who worked with Anderson as a state lawmaker, demanded the memorial be immediately put back.

A press release from DES went out in late July ahead of the trees' removal, but it did not specifically mention Anderson's memorial. A spokesperson from DES apologized for the situation and called the lack of communication around the removal an "oversight," adding that the agency will begin working with stakeholders to update the plaque now that the memorial has been reinstalled.

But upcoming construction plans mean the memorial has to move again sometime in the next few years – a change that Macri says could allow substantial changes to reflect more of the LGBTQ civil rights movement and Anderson's role.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) met Anderson after he had already become a legislator.

"I was quite young – just out of law school," she said. "Cal, at the time I met him, was this kind of iconic rock superstar in my eyes and somebody to model my activism after in many ways."

Jinkins said the relocation is a chance to reimagine how he's remembered on campus, noting Anderson's military background and "commitment to good government" in addition to his advocacy for the LGBTQ community.

"I think that this gives us a lot of opportunities to think about how we integrate more of who Cal was to us," Jinkins said.

The process of relocating the memorial will include public input as well as feedback from several groups, and approval from multiple capitol committees.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.