Opinion

For Sen. Roach, hot water is habitat

Combative state Sen. Pam Roach is in hot water – again – with Washington Senate colleagues and top leaders of the chamber. This time, the 24-year veteran lawmaker is accused of mistreating other members, legislative staff and the public. Such problems have dogged Roach since at least 1998.

Senate actions – ranging from warnings to admonitions, reprimands or sanctions – have followed a half-dozen times. To no avail, it appears.

What’s different this time is that Roach’s behavior has drawn a rebuke from Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, the presiding officer of the Senate. Owen, a Democrat, has long served as a calm and decorous figure who controls the ebb and flow of floor action. His exasperation is an indication Roach, who serves as president pro tem during his absences, has entered a new realm of controversy.

What set Owen off is that Roach cut off a witness testifying from the Attorney General’s Office and also lashed out publicly against representatives of a special interest group that gave money to her election opponent Cathy Dahlquist last fall. During a recent hearing on a bill sought by the food industry, Roach let an industry figure know of her displeasure and the bill’s likely fate, saying: “Because you know what? I won.’’

Owen laid out his concerns about these – and other incidents involving staff – in a letter to Roach dated Feb. 13. It outlines a more than 16-year history of misbehavior by the volatile lawmaker, whose frankness about the use of political power is undoubtedly scary for those who prefer to murder legislation in backroom settings.

Despite Roach’s protests that she’s persecuted by GOP leaders, this is really about abusive workplace conduct, not politics. Senate employees are entitled to respect and a chance to do their work without being berated or publicly shamed. On this, the Senate’s record is abysmal.

At least for now, thanks to Owen, Roach is barred from contact with staff of the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee, which she chairs, unless she is chaperoned by fellow Republican Sen. Kirk Pearson of Monroe.

Owen has threatened further action but he ultimately needs backing from Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler’s Republican leadership team, as well as Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson’s Democratic team – if anything more happens. One real possibility is securing a Senate majority, or 25 votes, to remove Roach as committee chair. But her recent and deft manipulation of minority Democrats into electing her president pro tem puts all that in doubt.

Roach has always ducked opponents’ blows.

According to Owen, Senate leaders warned Roach in 1999; they reprimanded her in 2003 over retaliation against an employee; they concluded in 2008 that she violated rules for a respectful workplace; in 2009 they found her actions toward Republican Senate counsel violated workplace policy, which led to a reprimand and limits on contact with GOP caucus staff; after GOP leaders reaffirmed limits in 2010, a bipartisan committee found in 2012 she violated the workplace policy again.

Roach escaped further sanctions in early 2013. Senate Republicans needed her to form a 25-member Majority Coalition Caucus, and restrictions were removed.

It’s past time for Roach to change her ways, and time for the Senate to stop enabling her. If Roach were in the private sector, her behavior would not be tolerated socially or legally. She should not get away with it just because she's elected.

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