State Sen. Pam Roach stands beside a framed editorial cartoon that shows her head exploding. She is explaining the picture, her arms crossed...
OLYMPIA — State Sen. Pam Roach stands beside a framed editorial cartoon that shows her head exploding. She is explaining the picture, her arms crossed, when a question pops out midstream.
“By the way, are you bored with this story?” she demands.
The answer is no. Roach is not boring. The 61-year-old Auburn Republican is pugnacious, spontaneous and has an expression that can change from laughter to thunderclouds in a blink. Reporters covering the Legislature routinely pick up their notepads when she gets up to speak because you never know what will come out of her mouth.
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Like the time she suggested in a radio interview there would be fewer school shootings if teachers were allowed to carry concealed weapons, or when she threw a tantrum after someone removed flowers from her Senate floor desk — “I am incensed that anyone would touch or move anything on a senator’s desk,” she told fellow lawmakers, “and I want to find out who took my flowers and moved them, and I intend to take action.”
Read her blog, the Pam Roach Report. There, she writes, “it is women like me who pass on the genes we hope our sons have when they go to Iraq or Afghanistan. It is women like me who do not show fear.”
As one longtime lobbyist put it, “she has no ‘off switch.’ She’s been gaveled down more times than anybody I know.”
Over the past 20 years, Roach has become one of the most recognizable politicians in Olympia. Her in-your-face personality can take over a hearing, and her booming voice reverberates in the normally subdued Senate chambers. Roach takes on issues many politicians avoid, from bestiality to gun rights.
Roach’s approach to politics plays well at home. Voters in District 31, which covers Southeast King County and northeast Pierce County, have elected her five times.
But in the state Capitol, she’s run into trouble. A Senate investigation recently found Roach berated a lawyer for the Senate Republicans, telling him he should be fired. The inquiry said Roach had “engaged in a very personal, demeaning attack” and created a hostile work environment.
As a result, Roach is now banned from the GOP caucus. She can still vote, but she is barred from the caucus room where her colleagues discuss legislation, and she cannot deal directly with caucus staff or counsel.
Roach disputes the accusations and says she’s being singled out by Senate GOP leaders because she’s criticized them: “This is a leadership that wants to persecute me.”
Democratic Sen. Margarita Prentice, a longtime friend, said she doesn’t know anything about the senator’s interactions with staff. But she knows Roach. “There is a really good person in there, but, boy, if you squelch that person, you’ve got hell to pay,” she said.
Roach is predictable in that sense, said Prentice, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “If you do that to her, she’ll flare up. I think some people around here do that for sport… They know the buttons to push.”
Roach grew up in California. A tomboy, she went hunting and fishing with her dad, and she accompanied him to drag races. She moved to Washington with her husband in 1973 and raised five children, including son Dan, now a Republican House member.
When her husband was laid off in 1980, she took a job at the post office, working the night shift.
In the mid-1980s she went to work for Kent Pullen, first a state lawmaker, then a King County Council member. She was Pullen’s chief of staff on the council.
She ran for state Senate in 1990, won and has stuck out ever since.
Roach says that in addition to being a populist, she’s a fiscal conservative and a Libertarian. “I’m also fearless. When I feel strongly about something, I’m not deterred, and I think that bothers some people.”
Rowland Thompson, a veteran lobbyist who has known Roach for years, said, “As long as she’s been here, she’s never really become an insider. She’s always on the outside. I think it’s a function of being such a strong personality and such an ardent personality.”
Her political ambitions have reached beyond Olympia. She ran for Congress in 1992 and for governor in 1996, losing the primary in both cases. She’s also run unsuccessfully for County Council.
In the Senate, where Roach has repeatedly clashed with GOP leaders, they have suggested she get help for anger management.
In a recent letter banning her from the GOP caucus, they wrote, “as your fellow Senators, it is difficult to be in a room with you when you erupt in anger … we encourage you to avail yourself of one of the numerous counseling offers the Senate has made over the years.”
Roach says she doesn’t have an anger problem.
“I don’t think it’s a temper. I would typify it as a passion for wanting to make things right, and I think there’s a difference,” she said.
Roach said she’s got the right kind of personality for an elected official. “I feel sorry for someone who is not passionate,” she said. “What a boring life they must live. I’m very happy with what I do.”
To prove she’s a nice person, Roach provided a list of character references.
“If you call any of my previous aides, I know what they’ll say. It was an honor to serve with me. They learned a lot with me. You know why? Because I had long conversations with them and told them what the hell was going on.”
The aides on her list who could be reached said they liked working for her.
Joseph Daniel Smith, for example, worked for Roach in 2004 and 2005. He’s now a city planner in Malibu, Calif.
“It was one of the most positive, forming experiences in my career,” he said. “She was the first politician I had been close to who really stood up for her beliefs.”
The Seattle Times also tried to contact former aides mentioned in Senate investigative records. They either could not be reached for comment or declined to comment.
Senate records show Roach has been warned or reprimanded five times since 1998 about how she treats staff.
The most recent case investigated by the Senate involved Senate GOP attorney Michael Hoover.
Hoover told investigators the incident began after a Republican senator returned from giving a speech at a rally and wanted to post related information and photos on her Web site. Hoover raised concerns, given the constant ethical debate over the use of public funds for political purposes.
Several lawmakers disagreed, but Roach became angry, according to the investigation.
“Senator Roach’s comments quickly devolved into a vicious and personal attack on me,” Hoover wrote. “She said I didn’t advocate for the caucus and didn’t do my job … and should be fired.”
The Senate report says several witnesses corroborated his account. One person told an investigator that watching the incident was “like the driver of the car kept backing up over the victim again and again.”
“What have I really lost?”
Roach disagrees with the account. She has appealed decisions by the Senate and GOP leaders to reprimand her and ban her from the Republican caucus. Her appeal was denied.
Today, her fellow Republican senators retreat behind closed doors to discuss legislation and strategy without her.
Roach says she doesn’t care.
“What have I really lost?” she asked. “Surely it’s much ado about nothing. It doesn’t affect anything. I’m the ranking member. I give floor speeches. I work my district. I answer e-mails. I sign on amendments. I have my own amendments.”
Roach pointed out several issues she’s taken on outside Olympia, such as organizing the first community meeting to figure out how to protect Lake Tapps from potentially being drained. Recently, after years of negotiations by different groups, an agreement was reached to protect the lake as a municipal water supply.
She also helped draft a get-tough-on-crime initiative, which took effect in 1995 and put in place stiffer sentences for armed crimes.
Another time, Roach said, she got a complaint that the state Department of Transportation was going to put a roundabout on a state highway in her district. “Who do you think held a meeting to stop that? Who do you think dogged that to the end until they took it off their list? You have to be dogged,” she said.
Being a lawmaker isn’t everything, Roach said.
She’s traveled to 34 countries since her children grew up, going to the “hard places” such as East Timor, Nicaragua and Tibet.
She founded a charity in 2004, she says, to provide supplies to a school district in Honduras. She makes regular trips there, taking books, clothes, toys and other supplies.
At this point in her life, running for Congress or governor no longer holds the appeal it did when she was younger, said Roach, who now has 13 grandchildren.
She plans to stick with what she’s doing.
“I spend a lot of time being a state legislator, but it isn’t the most important thing in my life,” she said, waving a picture of her grandchildren. “You have to have your priorities right.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org