Margarita López was born in San Bernardino, California, the youngest of five children. Her father was Mexican-born, and her Mexican American mother was born in El Paso, Texas.
In 1942, her parents moved the family to the Los Angeles area so they could work at wartime defense jobs. The young Margarita got the opportunity to attend Hollywood High, an advanced public high school of its day populated by movie industry children. Margarita’s father taught the children to read and write Spanish. “I griped at the time," she recalled years later, "but now I am deeply grateful” (Hood)
Her parents split during her junior year, and Prentice moved with her mother to Phoenix. Leaving home at age 16, she supported herself by doing housework and childcare through high school and community college.
Higher Education and Nurse’s Training
At Arizona’s Phoenix College, Prentice said she was transformed as a student. “I was always a good student, but all of a sudden, my head came together. I grew up.” This was in the mid-1940s, in the early days of what were then called “junior colleges.” Prentice’s experience inspired her advocacy for two-year community colleges that would endure throughout her professional and political lives.
After a year at Youngstown University in Ohio, in 1950 she enrolled at Phoenix’s St. Joseph's Hospital School of Nursing in Phoenix. She finished the program as a registered nurse in 1954. She was later to attend the University of Washington in sociology.
Becoming a Seattleite
That same year, with newly earned nursing license in hand, Prentice moved to Seattle. Over the next 45 years, she served in almost every nursing capacity, from emergency room nurse to director of nursing at South King County’s Valley Medical Center and West Seattle’s Providence Mount St. Vincent.
In 1957, she met Bill Prentice, a 19-year-old Kansan who lived in her building on Capitol Hill. He was a recent transfer to the Boeing plant from Wichita. “He was quiet, shy," she remembers. "He didn’t have a lot to say. When he said in our conversations [that] he was a Democrat, I could feel myself relax. I’m not the love-at-first sight type, but [with that] I knew he was the one” (Hood). They were married in 1958. The couple had four children: Carl (killed in the Vietnam War in 1974), Katherine, Christy, and William.
Volunteering for Change
As a young nurse and mother, Prentice started working on Democratic campaigns. She volunteered for Governor Al Rosellini and helped out on early campaigns of Mike Lowry (b. 1939) a King County councilman who later became a congressman and governor.
What pulled her into elective politics was discovering how inadequately public schools were equipped to handle kids with special needs. The experience was personal for Prentice: “There were no options for my autistic child in public school back then, and I soon realized I needed to be part of the solution" (Hood). Her first step was to become active in the PTA.
When Renton Senator Avery Garrett died suddenly in April 1988, King County Commissioners appointed 11th District Representative Gene Lux in his place and appointed Prentice to Lux’s Position 2 spot in the House. Lux lost the Senate seat in 1988 to Republican war hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Leo K. Thorsness, but Prentice won her election that year and again in 1990.
After the 1990 census, Thorsness lost his seat through redistricting and decided to take a run at the U.S. Senate. Prentice jumped into the 1992 state senate race. With the power of her House incumbency and her propensity for dogged, retail politicking, she easily won.
A Prolific Legislator
In her decades of lawmaking, Prentice was instrumental in creating and passing hundreds, perhaps thousands of pieces of legislation. As Ways & Means Chair, she has shepherded budgets through economic boom years and hard recessionary times. She served for many years on committees that cover wide ranges of policy, such as the Financial Institutions, the Housing and Insurance committee, and the Labor, Commerce, and Consumer Protection committee.
Early in her career, Senator Prentice sought to protect immigrant farm workers with housing reform, a ban on child labor, health care coverage, and raising the minimum wage. She sponsored a pioneering bill requiring doctors to report agricultural pesticide poisoning cases to the Department of Social and Health Services.
She led on issues as far-ranging as identity theft, traffic congestion, public breast-feeding, and veterans benefits. She sponsored the bill in 2007 to extend retirement benefits to domestic partners. Prentice wrote legislation legalizing slot machines and other games for non-Indian card rooms, mini-casinos, and charitable organizations.
In June 2009, Prentice completed the circle that brought her into public life. She and the University of Washington announced release of a first-of-its-kind training DVD for parents and teachers of autistic children, created by funding she secured.
A defeat for Senator Prentice was her proposal of and advocacy for a sports stadium to house the Seattle SuperSonics professional basketball team. It was to have been built in Renton, at the heart of her 11th District. But the SuperSonics left town in 2008 for complicated reasons including lack of a new stadium.
Independence Invites Controversy
The safely Democratic 11th District rarely put forward serious candidates against Prentice. She was only infrequently opposed by a Republican. And after her first senate election, she has never had a challenging primary. Safe districting, years in senate leadership, and close attention to her district’s needs gave her clout, effectiveness, and longevity. Her secure senate seat won her an independence on issues, solidifying her status as a moderate but sometimes exasperating progressive interest groups and Democratic Party cohorts.
Her relationship with labor, for example, was complicated. A one-time union shop steward at Valley Medical Center and the State Labor Council’s 1990 “legislator of the year,” Prentice was considered “one of labor's best friends in the Legislature,” according to The Seattle Times in 1996. Although she once sponsored collective-bargaining rights for farm workers, in 1995 she angered labor interests by opposing a union shop at Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, even spending her own money on opposition campaign materials (Murikami).
In 1991, and again in 2008, she led a coalition of doctors, nurses, hospice workers, and disability activists in the battle against the ultimately successful initiative allowing assisted suicide.
Prentice served as an ex officio member of the Gambling Commission, which oversees legal tribal casinos, card rooms, horse-racing tracks, and the state lottery. Ex officio members do not vote, but they can approve or amend tribal gaming compacts. Prentice has traveled around the state visiting every tribe. She was active on the commission years before gambling became a major industry, and her expertise and experience in gambling regulation have long been recognized. Critics, however, have accused her of being in the pocket of Indian gaming interests.
Her 2006 Senate Bill 6613, banning Internet gambling and making it a felony, caused much condemnation and furor. But Prentice said, “We simply made state law consistent with federal law” (Hood interview).
In 1995, Senator Prentice and fellow members of the Financial Institutions and Housing Committee sponsored a bill that defined, legalized, and regulated short-term (payday or check-cashing) lending. Although Prentice and her committee added regulations over the years, she consistently and successfully fought attempts to limit the high interest rates for these loans, which are generally made to low-income borrowers. Despite claims by opponents and consumer advocates that Prentice was “bought off” by a major lender based in her district, she received only minor contributions from the lenders.
Clout and Longevity
Prentice’s low-key strategy of bipartisan hard work done out of the spotlight gave her clout and longevity in Olympia. "I like being second in command ... The Republicans know I’m not impossible to work with ... . I like to work over time, making compromises as we go along" (Hood interview).
Prentice lived in the family home in Skyway, with family members nearby. Her husband, Bill Prentice, had a long career at The Boeing Company. He died in 2003.
Prentice announced at the start of the 2012 legislative session that she would not seek re-election, and she retired from legislative service, after 24 years, when her term ended at the end of that session.