About midway through the 2015 legislative session, state Rep. Jesse Young was talking with House staffers about his sensational idea to build a toll bridge made of retired Navy aircraft carriers.
The Gig Harbor Republican’s legislative assistant feared a backlash about the idea, which eventually stalled in the Legislature. So, according to accounts from two people in the room, the assistant repeatedly urged Young to get some community feedback.
The suggestion didn’t go over well. Young unleashed a “heated” tirade, one ex-House staffer said, calling his young assistant stupid and telling him, using the f-word, to shut his mouth.
“I was blown away by that,” the former staffer said. “I wasn’t prepared for that kind of escalation and obviously neither was the legislative assistant.”
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The two staffers since have left the Legislature but asked not to be named, saying that doing so might interfere with their legislative work at their current jobs.
Similar outbursts at staff members and others have been common for Young, according to interviews with five people who worked with him during his first two years in the Legislature or on the campaign trail.
Most interviewed asked not to be named by The News Tribune and The Olympian because they fear losing their jobs, or because speaking out could hurt future job prospects at the Capitol or interfere with their legislative work.
One who did speak on the record was Kerry French, Young’s campaign manager in 2014. She said she saw him lose his temper frequently, and said she quit his campaign a week before the election because he would berate her, and often.
“I told him several times it wasn’t OK to talk to me like that,” French said.
Young discounted the allegations about his behavior, saying they stemmed from disgruntled former employees who were exaggerating or fabricating their stories because they were fired or left on bad terms.
“I feel as if I’m being falsely accused,” he said.
He said he hasn’t berated staffers or sworn at them, but did say he has raised his voice at employees and used profanity in the workplace.
As for the Navy bridge incident, he said he remembered it ending differently.
“Well, I don’t think I yelled at (the assistant),” Young said. “I probably told him I was done hearing his opinion, though.”
The accounts of mistreatment might shed light on an investigation last year by the state House administration.
It concluded Young had a “pattern of hostile and intimidating behavior” toward legislative assistants, according to a Dec. 13 letter sent to the lawmaker and obtained by The Associated Press.
The House has not disclosed the details of the investigation.
The letter, written by House Counsel Alison Hellberg, says reports of mistreatment “are taken very seriously both to protect staff from mistreatment and the institution from legal exposure.”
Young denies the broad allegations in the House’s letter. Three former employees of the legislator interviewed by the newspapers said they experienced no yelling in the workplace.
Yet Hellberg wrote the accounts of misbehavior by Young were “credible and serious” enough to restrict him from working with a legislative assistant for at least a year. The House also barred him from having a state-funded district office for at least a year, though Young said he closed his district office voluntarily.
The House letter says the restrictions could change in a year if Young takes anger management treatment and respectful workplace training. He said Thursday he hasn’t done so, because he has no anger problems.
Young had five legislative assistants through his first two years in office, with one of them temporarily assigned to the lawmaker for a brief time, according to House records.
Young, first appointed to the House in 2014, hired high-powered Tacoma lawyer Jack Connelly in January to fight the House decision. He has yet to file a lawsuit.
Young said the complaint to the House was made by Fallon Stidd, his most recent legislative assistant.
He said Thursday she was generally a good employee, but in a March town hall meeting in Gig Harbor he said Stidd lobbed accusations after quitting her job because she was dissatisfied after not living up to Young’s standards.
“The fact of the matter is, I was the best boss this girl ever had,” Young said at the town hall meeting, according to a video taken by the progressive group Indivisible Gig Harbor.
Young later told The News Tribune and The Olympian he regretted calling Stidd, who is 36, a girl.
She declined a request from the newspapers to respond to Young’s comments.
Many of the accusations involving Young’s temper come from current and former employees at the Capitol in Olympia.
The former House staffer who saw Young yelling about the aircraft carrier bridge idea said he witnessed “dozens” of outbursts from the lawmaker in a two-year span. Some of them left House employees in tears, the ex-staffer said.
That includes people who weren’t Young’s assistants. The House letter addresses his behavior only toward his own legislative assistants.
“I would probably say there wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t hear or see him lay into somebody,” the former staffer said.
One current legislative staffer who used to work for Young said she saw routine “screaming fits” and “meltdowns” by him. She asked not to be named for fear of hurting future job prospects and interfering with her legislative work.
The “fits” often came with an extra bit of hostility, she said.
“I got called a c---” regularly, said the staffer. Young denies that.
Another ex-legislative staffer said she saw Young yell at former state Rep. Linda Kochmar in a House GOP caucus meeting, where lawmakers from the party gather to talk as a large group.
“It was yelling and he was just unglued,” said the one-time House employee, who asked to stay anonymous for fear the matter would interfere with her work, which deals with the Legislature.
The former staffer present at the aircraft carrier bridge incident said he saw Young “lash out” and be “outright mean” to other lawmakers in caucus meetings.
Kochmar, of Federal Way, alluded to a caucus disagreement with Young when asked by The News Tribune and The Olympian whether such an incident occurred, but declined to give details.
She said she “just believed (Young) was passionate about what he was talking about,” and that it didn’t bother her “in the least.”
Most interviewed who said they’d seen or experienced outbursts from Young said they typically were borne out of simple disagreements or day-to-day questioning of Young’s decision-making.
On the campaign trail
French, Young’s campaign manager in 2014, said she saw Young lose his temper frequently because of normal stresses of running for office.
Before her time with Young, she was in the Navy for about 20 years, working as a chaplain’s assistant. About 10 of those years were in San Diego; French retired while at the naval base in Kitsap County.
French, 50, said she couldn’t remember whether Young ever swore at her but said the yelling became so bad she addressed it with him.
Even with her pleas for him to stop, French said, she routinely was screamed at during weekly staffing calls on Sunday nights.
“I used to call it the weekly staff beating” as a dark joke, she said. She added: “It was humiliating when he did it to me in front of people.”
The ex-House staffer who witnessed Young yell at an assistant over the aircraft carrier idea said he participated in conference calls where Young would “verbally berate people.”
French, who now works at a national security nonprofit in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said she thought Young had “his heart in the right place,” and is a good lawmaker who shares her political values.
She said he simply has a “communication problem” that needs to be addressed.
Legislative administration has said it’s working to respond to a records request by The News Tribune and The Olympian for complaints against state lawmakers and investigations into their conduct over a five-year-period.
Young acknowledged that French spoke to him about feeling mistreated. But he said she was exaggerating about conference calls in which he demanded she improve her work performance.
He said he and other campaign workers had raised their voices on the calls, but said it was never overboard, defamatory or laced with profanity.
“If berating is a matter of, ‘Am I screaming at you, defaming your character and insulting you in front of people,’ then no I’ve never done that,” Young said, speaking generally about his treatment of staff. “I’ve disagreed strongly and told people that they need to get their job done.”
He said he has used expletives in the workplace in a casual manner, but never to insult employees. He also showed the newspapers text messages from a former legislative assistant — who Young said he believed to be one of those making accusations against him — saying the assistant would love to work for Young again.
As for the House letter, Young said it was leaked for political gain and was misleading, calling it “unofficial.” While the House administration is nonpartisan, the chamber is controlled by a Democrat majority.
The letter was only a part of ongoing discussions over the complaint, Young said, likening it to an opening bid in a negotiation.
“That was their attempt to say, ‘This is what we would like for you to consider,’ ” he said.
The House’s chief clerk, Bernard Dean, said he couldn’t confirm or deny whether further investigation was being done.
Asked if the letter was part of a negotiation and not a final penalty, he said, Young “does not have an assistant and does not have a district office.” He said, “those were conditions that were imposed.”
Young also said the House administrative staff told him at one point the matter would eventually be resolved in his favor.
Dean said that, “if there were no merit to the allegations,” the House would publicly correct the record “one way or another,” since the letter is no longer confidential.
To date, no statement has been made.
No issues for some
Not everybody who worked with Young said he was prone to losing his temper.
Two of Young’s former campaign managers and one current legislative staffer who worked for the lawmaker said they experienced no over-the-line yelling in the workplace.
Leslie Pleasants, Young’s campaign manager in 2016, said the legislator has a naturally loud voice that could be mistaken for yelling.
She left Young’s campaign about a month before the election, but praised him as a boss, saying she quit because she wanted to spend more time with her two kids.
Beth Whelihan, a volunteer on Young’s 2014 campaign who took over as the campaign manager near the end, said he was a great boss.
“He’s very easy to work for and very easy to understand and very easy to get along with,” she said, later adding: “I would work for Jesse in a hot second and not even think twice about it.”
Whelihan now runs a small business in Eatonville.
Outside of the Legislature, Young works as a tech-industry consultant. He’s known at the Capitol as a pro-life fiscal conservative who has a focus on trying to create jobs.
State Rep. Dan Kristiansen, the House GOP Minority Leader, declined to comment on the accounts of Young’s temper.
Besides the anger allegations, the House letter to Young said “ethical concerns were also raised during the course of the investigation and those are still under review.”
It does not detail what the ethics questions are. The Legislative Ethics Board did not confirm or deny if an investigation of Young is underway. Complaints become public when a preliminary determination in an investigation is made.
For now, the House’s conclusion that Young’s behavior has been hostile and intimidating is warranted, said the staffer who said Young called her the c-word.
“There’s almost a badge of honor in surviving Young’s office,” she said.