MARK KAUFMAN

Mario Paredes made a bold—some might say reckless—move several weeks ago in the basement meeting room of El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill. Several dozen Latino activists and leaders had gathered to discuss the merits of a proposed cap on payday-loan interest rates. As everyone munched on pan dulce from the Salvadorean Bakery in White Center, Paredes, executive director of Consejo Counseling, stood up and addressed the most powerful woman in the room. He asked state senator Margarita Prentice (D-11, South Seattle) if she worked for MoneyTree, a local payday lender.

The baiting question may have been risky—considering Prentice's reputation for keeping tabs—but it was also a sign of the increasing willingness of those on the left to lash out at the Renton Democrat for her pro-business stance.

Seated near representatives from MoneyTree, Prentice brushed aside Paredes's veiled assertion. The widowed state senator, who also represents parts of South Seattle, will turn 76 in February. She is heavier these days and moves a little slower, but the retired nurse seems to have grown only more powerful in the recent stages of her second career.

She often gets around the state capital in a yellow Hummer driven by MoneyTree lobbyist Gary Gardner. She has received thousands of dollars in contributions from MoneyTree and other payday lenders, adding fuel to the fire of opponents who criticize her bulldoggish resistance to legislation that would cap payday-loan interest rates at 36 percent. Prentice, who now chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, wrote the original bill allowing the lenders to operate in the state in 1995. She declined repeated requests to answer questions for this article.

A dependable liberal Democrat on issues as polarizing as health care and education, Prentice has alienated many in her caucus in recent years by rallying behind the Sonics' bid for public funding to rebuild the team's arena. She has also estranged herself from her logical base of Latino activists.

"Cada cabeza es un mundo," says Tomas Villanueva, a veteran farm-worker organizer who tangled with Prentice in the 1990s. The phrase—literally "every mind is a world"—is a polite way of saying to each his own.

Prentice invited the Sonics owners to once again plead their case for public funding for a new arena before her committee last week. Prentice praised Lenny Wilkens for his "sharp elbows," something, she said, you need in the legislature as well.

A nurse for more than 20 years, Prentice entered politics late in life, winning her first seat in the state house in 1988. As a freshman state senator in 1993, she had a portrait of Malcolm X on her office wall. Prentice, who suffers from insomnia, often drove a small trailer to Olympia with her husband and camped near the capital through the legislative session.

Few fellow lawmakers or political insiders will talk about Prentice on the record. In private, they say she has a reputation for both loyalty and vindictiveness. Some who have come to her defense in the past say she has gone too far in recent battles. Everyone stands in awe of her political skill.

One lobbyist said of the senator, "Once you cross Margarita, she's got a long memory. She doesn't forget and she doesn't forgive."

In the early days, the Latino left saw Prentice as an ally. She led the fight to extend unemployment benefits to farm workers in 1989.

In the early 1990s, the United Farm Workers and the Washington State Labor Council began lobbying for a bill in Olympia that would allow agricultural workers to bargain collectively. Prentice initially sided with the workers, sponsoring the bill in the senate and shepherding it into committee. But in the name of political deal making, she put her support behind a different proposal that would have gutted the bill. Activists like Villanueva withdrew their support and the floundering legislation eventually died.

It was a decisive moment. Many suspect that Prentice believed the farm workers had taken her for granted—and saddled her with a political blunder. "She might have felt betrayed," Villanueva says. "She kind of changed. I think her priorities are no longer with the farm workers."

Just two years later, when an independent union led an effort to organize workers at the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville, Prentice vocally supported management efforts to keep unions out. The farm workers signed a contract in 1995.

Two years later, during a dispute over housing for migrant workers, Prentice backed legislation that would have allowed growers to provide non-code housing, including tents. Governor Gary Locke vetoed the bill.

"I was under the impression that we were friends, that we were supporting the same ideals, and then all of a sudden she takes on this very strange position of supporting business," says Juan Bocanegra, one of several veterans of the 1990s farm-worker battles who has gone on to work in a wide variety of non-farm-related social and political organizations. Bocanegra, who now works for Jobs with Justice, says that the bad blood has been hard to flush out, even though it's now a necessity to have Prentice on your side. "Number one, she purports to represent the downtrodden," he says. "And secondly, because she's a Latina. And just because it was the correct thing to do. She was a member of a union at one time and knows what workers are facing."

At some point, says one lobbyist who has worked closely with Prentice, the senator realized that she didn't need the support of urban Latino activists or farm workers. Her sway in Olympia may show the weakness of the Latino vote more than its strength.

Rogelio Riojas, now executive director of Sea Mar, had very public confrontations with Prentice during the 1990s farm-worker battles. Now, he says, he works to maintain an open relationship.

"She's pretty aggressive," Riojas says. "If you want to be an effective politician, that's what you need to do. She doesn't back away. She definitely does the thing that she thinks is right. Sometimes she's mistaken."

avaldez@thestranger.com