During more than two decades in the state Senate, Auburn Republican Pam Roach has been banned from caucus meetings, reprimanded by leadership, advised to get anger-management counseling and ordered to stop speaking with staff.
But again and again, Roach has fought back political challengers to be re-elected by voters of the 31st Legislative District in southeast King and northeast Pierce County.
She’s been invited back into her caucus and had restrictions on staff contact lifted. And although Roach’s political rivals claim her colleagues secretly want her out of office, most state Senate Republicans have endorsed her bid for a seventh term.
Roach, 66, the longest-serving Republican state senator, may be facing the most difficult political fight of her career.
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The 31st District’s two state House members — a Republican and a Democrat — have teamed up to try to oust her in what has turned into one of the nastiest political showdowns of the year.
Cathy Dahlquist, 53, a two-term Republican state representative from Enumclaw, is on the ballot against Roach in the Aug. 5 primary election. Rep. Chris Hurst, an Enumclaw Democrat, is seeking re-election to his seat but has been spending much of his time aiding Dahlquist’s campaign against Roach. The pair have run unusual joint ads touting their bipartisanship.
The race has escalated beyond the usual campaign-season mudslinging. Dahlquist and Hurst claim Roach has stolen taxpayer money by inflating her expenses. Roach says her opponents are liars who have bullied her and other political rivals.
Both sides have filed ethics and campaign-finance complaints against one another. Those will likely take months to be sorted out by investigators.
But Roach took an embarrassing hit last week, when she agreed to repay the state Senate more than $5,000 she’d improperly charged to taxpayers.
The refund was mostly for state-purchased cellphones and an Auburn post-office box, both of which Roach had used partly for her political campaigns, in violation of state law.
The improper expenses were publicized by Dahlquist and Hurst, with the sleuthing help of Chad Minnick, a Republican political consultant who’d previously worked for Roach.
Hurst and Dahlquist say that’s just the beginning. They contend that Roach has wrongfully charged more than $20,000 to taxpayers through inflated mileage charges and other improper expenses.
They’ve also filed complaints over Roach’s surplus campaign-fund accounting, and over a privately funded trip she took to Azerbaijan last year while lawmakers were in special session — a trip that legislative ethics advisers warned lawmakers not to take.
“This will ultimately amount to the largest political-corruption case in Washington State History,” Dahlquist said in an email to a reporter.
Roach said she’s dealt with the expense problems that have been pointed out, and blamed Senate administrators for failing to catch the mistakes sooner.
“These are desperate people who have no issues,” she said of Hurst and Dahlquist.
For her part, Roach has publicized claims by an attorney, John Torres, who claimed Hurst threatened his reputation if he ran for judge by suggesting domestic-violence allegations in Torres’ past could be made public if he ran. Torres filed a police complaint alleging extortion, but Auburn police and prosecutors investigated and found no cause for charges. Torres has filed an ethics complaint with the state.
As if the race wasn’t strange enough, Dahlquist’s effort to face off against Roach has been complicated by the candidacy of Lynda Messner, a Bonney Lake woman who filed at the last minute as a Democrat.
Shortly after Messner filed, it was revealed she had a history of posting messages on conservative websites calling for President Obama’s impeachment and claiming he “is not a citizen.”
Hurst and Dahlquist claim Roach orchestrated Messner’s candidacy to siphon away votes from Democrats who might otherwise be tempted to back Dahlquist. Messner and Roach deny that.
Despite raising no money and having little visible support beyond campaign signs she bought herself, Messner conceivably could advance to the general election as the sole Democrat on the ballot.
To try to get through the primary, Dahlquist has spent most of the $90,000 she’s raised for the campaign, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission. Roach, who has raised more than $145,000, has spent about $53,000.
At a meeting of the Bonney Lake Chamber of Commerce last week, Roach showed why she still may be tough to beat.
Roach flashed her charismatic side during a 20-minute talk to the sparsely attended meeting, getting laughs and smiles as she talked about her career and took questions on the coming legislative session.
An attendee rose to praise Roach’s work protecting nearby Lake Tapps from being drained after it ceased to be used as a hydroelectric reservoir.
“Without Pam’s leadership … we wouldn’t have this lake. She helps her citizens when the citizens need help and gets the job done,” said Kirk Shuler, a member of the Lake Tapps Community Council.
Shuler told a reporter afterward that Roach’s aggressive style has benefits. “She’s a bulldog. She doesn’t let people run over her,” he said.
But some who’ve been on the receiving end of a Roach tirade see her in a different light.
Wendy Scholl, who owns a home in a rural area outside Enumclaw, says she got an unhinged phone call from Roach in December 2012. Scholl had written a letter to the senator questioning whether she supported a needed cell tower along Highway 410.
In response, Scholl said, Roach called her and demanded to know who she was, continually interrupting her and saying the letter was a personal affront. “She was angry the entire phone call … verbally out of control, illogical, not able to comprehend and not able to listen,” Scholl said.
Roach dismissed Scholl’s account, saying most neighbors had been pleased with her work on the cell-tower issue.
Though a Democrat, Scholl donated $100 to Dahlquist’s campaign last month.
Scholl’s story echoes similar tales of Roach’s behavior in the state Senate, where she repeatedly has been punished by leadership for berating staff.
“We call it being ‘Roached,’ ” one staffer told investigators after a 2009 incident in which Roach verbally attacked a Senate Republican attorney — an incident that led her to be expelled from GOP caucus meetings in 2010 for creating a hostile work environment.
In a letter to Roach, Senate Republican leaders noted she’d previously been sanctioned for similar incidents in 1998, 1999, 2003, 2008, and earlier in 2010.
But Roach says she does not have an anger problem.
“No. I am fine,” she said, in an interview before the Bonney Lake event. It’s her enemies who have a problem, she said.
“There is an element that would like to see me out of office. I have been very successful. When somebody has that kind of popularity and that kind of effectiveness, yes, they want them out of the way,” Roach said.
Roach pointed to an analysis by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which rated her the most effective state senator in Washington in terms of bipartisan bill sponsorship and legislation signed into law over the past two years.
“Doing the right thing”
Hurst and Dahlquist argue Roach’s effectiveness is a myth, no matter what the Sunlight Foundation report says.
“I have seen her ‘effectiveness,’ which is to go to a meeting, stand up and scream and annoy everybody and then never come to the next 20, 40, 50 meetings that come later,” Hurst said.
Dahlquist said she and Hurst decided about two years ago after hearing complaints about Roach’s behavior that one of them would challenge her this year.
“This is not a personal vendetta. This for me was all about doing the right thing. The people of the 31st have been without a voice in Olympia,” Dahlquist said. “I think she (Roach) has made herself irrelevant.”
But Roach said it’s Dahlquist who has shown herself to be ineffectual. She’s taken to calling the lawmaker “Dahlquits” for resigning from the House Education Committee this year after a dispute over the handling of a bill changing some high-school graduation requirements.
In an emotional floor speech, Dahlquist said she’d quit as the ranking Republican on the committee because the legislation had been hijacked and amended “in the middle of the night” without her consent.
“I’m disappointed and this place has a way of chewing you up and spitting you out,” Dahlquist said during the speech. She still voted for the bill, calling it good legislation.
The episode shows Dahlquist can’t handle the rough and tumble of politics, Roach argued.
“If you are not even-keeled and you are not goal-oriented and you don’t have stick-to-itiveness, you don’t make it,” Roach said. “I have that. That’s why I am here and that’s why I am number one!”