Washington agency under fire for chopping down a memorial tree next to the Capitol

Lt. Gov. Denny Heck calls removal of the tree and plaque honoring the late Cal Anderson “a desecration.” Talks are underway on a new site for the memorial.

By: - August 22, 2023 4:28 pm

A tree planted next to Washington State Capitol in memory of Cal Anderson, the first openly gay member of the Washington state Legislature, was chopped down in August 2023. It was one of several removed because they were dying. (Jerry Cornfield/ Washington State Standard)

All that’s left of a Kwanzan cherry tree planted near the state Capitol in honor of the late Cal Anderson, Washington’s first openly gay lawmaker, is a stump.

The plaque honoring the trailblazing social activist from Seattle is stored away.

And legislative leaders are very angry that no one from the Department of Enterprise Services notified them ahead of time of their plans to remove the memorial.

“I consider the unilateral removal of the Cal Anderson tree and plaque to be a desecration,” said Lt. Gov. Denny Heck. “Would they take out the Vietnam Veterans Memorial without telling anybody? How far would they go?”

Heck said he will bring up the incident at the next meeting of the State Capitol Campus Committee on which he and agency leaders serve. The panel approves new construction and improvements of public buildings.

“They took out a memorial to a very significant person in state history and to my knowledge told no one in advance,” said Heck, a former state lawmaker and congressman, who knew Anderson.

A July 26 press release outlined the agency’s plan to remove several Kwanzan flowering cherry trees on the block of Cherry Lane that runs alongside the Legislative Building. The targeted trees, which date back to the 90s, were dying and needed to be taken out for safety reasons, it said.

There’s no mention that the Anderson tree was among those to be axed. 

An agency spokesperson on Tuesday acknowledged the “oversight” on not reaching out to legislators and those who knew and worked with Anderson.

Enterprise Services “should have done a better job of communicating the purpose of the tree removal and acted more quickly to ensure the replacement tree was identified,” said Jennifer Reynolds, an agency spokesperson. “We have deep respect for his leadership and bravery, and extend our sincere apologies to his supporters and family.”

A tree planted next to Washington State Capitol in memory of Cal Anderson, the first openly gay member of the Washington state Legislature, was chopped down in August 2023. It was one of several removed because it was dying. (Jerry Cornfield/ Washington State Standard)

Cal Anderson was appointed to a vacant House seat in 1987 and won three elections before running and winning a Senate seat in 1994. In February 1995, Anderson announced he was being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a complication of AIDS, according to a HistoryLink biography.

Anderson, a Vietnam vet and progressive Democrat, established himself as a champion for gay rights, introducing bills every year to extend the state’s civil rights protections to cover gays and lesbians. It wasn’t until 2006 that lawmakers passed a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodation, credit, and insurance.

Washington Department of Enterprise Services chopped down several Kwanzan cherry trees on Cherry Lane next to the state Capitol in August 2023. (Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)

Reynolds did not know exactly when the memorial went in. Word of the tree’s felling spread quickly late last week. Initially, some wondered if vandals had struck. 

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, co-chair of the Legislature’s LGBTQ caucus, said he and colleagues were peeved at what occurred and the lack of notice.

He said he is working to get a new tree planted and an upgraded memorial installed. He said one possibility is a triangular plot of grass near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

“This is a chance to tell a little more of his story and to better honor his legacy,” Liias said. “He was a hero for the LGBTQ movement in our state.”

Reynolds said they will consult on a new memorial site with the Capitol Campus Design Advisory Committee, State Capitol Committee and other elected officials with whom Anderson served. In the meantime, a temporary informational sign is expected on Cherry Lane in the coming weeks.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.