YAKIMA, Wash. — When Democratic activist Deb Hunt arrived home exhausted one night during the 1996 elections, she was ready to call it a day after one last chore.

Hunt, now 92, was expecting a candidate and his family for breakfast at her Yakima home the next morning and needed to fetch some of her canned peaches from the basement. She descended the stairs casually, then stopped to suddenly find a man sound asleep in her guest bed.

She took one look at the lanky politician splayed out under the covers and sighed with relief. It was then-gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee, the former Selah attorney who she first convinced to enter politics a decade earlier.

“I wasn’t expecting him but I wasn’t surprised,” said Hunt, who years ago offered the Inslee family a standing invitation to her home. “He has a key to my house.”

Inslee, 62, who was sworn in as governor Wednesday, remains close to Hunt and many other residents in the Yakima Valley, where he lived for nearly 20 years after beginning his law career in Selah in 1976.

The attorneys who recruited him to the Selah firm that would come to be known as Peters, Fowler and Inslee, remember a 25-year-old Willamette University law student in Salem, Ore., whose name put a glow in the eyes of his professors.

“We were in the dean of the law school’s office interviewing candidates,” retired attorney Doug Peters, 77, said. “When he walked in, all of the staff just lit up with excitement.

“I bet you no one at the office in my law school knew who I was.”

Peters said Inslee’s gregarious personality translated well to the courtroom and earned him respect in the community, where the Central Washington newcomer began to develop a network of friends in political and community organizations.

Vern Fowler, 69, another Selah attorney from those days who now lives just north of Seaside, Ore., said he would often go to the downtown Yakima YMCA with Inslee during lunch. Fowler would play handball and Inslee would play basketball, and afterward Fowler said Inslee would complain that the younger players were starting to get the best of him.

“Jay is a very competitive person, so whether it was in the courtroom or in basketball, that spirit would run strong,” Fowler said.

Naches Heights Vineyard owner Phil Kline, 57, also recognized Inslee’s competitive spirit and basketball skills around that time. He invited Inslee to join his Yakima city league basketball team, which wound up competing in several state tournaments.

Kline said Inslee was a great shooter, but somewhat of a ball hog.

“We used to refer to him as being the ‘Black Hole,’” Kline said. “Once the ball went to him, it never came back.”

As Inslee became more of a public figure in the 1980s through writing opinion letters in the Yakima Herald-Republic and helping pass a Selah school bond, Hunt approached him to run for the state House of Representatives in the 1988 election.

“We weren’t all sure that (Inslee’s wife) Trudy would go along with it, but we sat down for dinner one night and he decided to do it,” Hunt said.

Inslee’s two terms in the Legislature propelled him into the Congressional race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Sid Morrison in the 1992 election.

He defeated Doc Hastings in that race, but would lose to the Pasco Republican two years later in his re-election bid.

“I’ve always seen Jay as a second son,” said Hunt, whose own son Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, serves in the state House.

“When he lost we were all in tears.”

Eventually Inslee would move back to the Seattle area, where he was born and raised, and planned his return to public office.

The first was his unsuccessful bid for governor in 1996, but his run for Congress in the state’s 1st District in 1998 returned him to the other Washington, where he served until he resigned to run for governor again in March 2012.

Hunt, who now suffers from physical disabilities that limit her ability to travel, couldn’t attend Inslee’s inauguration in Olympia. She said she’s not sure when the next time will be that she sees the state’s 23rd governor, but that he knows he can let himself in whenever that happens.

“We told him he was going to win this time,” Hunt said. “And so he did.”

• Contact Mike Faulk at 509-577-7675 or mfaulk@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mike_Faulk.