Politics & Government

Scorched-earth politics, ‘odd characters’ in 31st District Senate race

Cue the big-top music. It’s election time again in the 31st Legislative District.

Here’s the candidate who says she is a Democrat yet compares President Barack Obama to serial killers. In the other ring, another Democrat is assisting a Republican colleague in hopes of defeating the sitting senator who he says is mentally ill.

Now direct your attention to that controversial incumbent. She has the backing of not just political foes in the labor and business camps but also a caucus that not so long ago denounced her “hostile behavior” and “lack of boundaries.”

See the documents that show her accepting campaign checks at a taxpayer-funded location, a spectacle that might be the main event in any other race.

Don’t miss the sideshow about European access to oil and a reclusive Turkish cleric, which all somehow has relevance to politics in Enumclaw and Buckley.

Take it all in, knowing that it’s still not as weird as the last time state Sen. Pam Roach ran for re-election.

But there are still more than three months left until the general election.

Odd characters

Roach is the longest serving state senator at 24 years. Famed in Olympia and in her district in the shadow of Mount Rainier as a fierce advocate for her causes and constituents and an even fiercer boss and co-worker, she’s known for her confrontations with staff that led Republicans to kick her out of their private meetings from 2010 to 2012.

Circling her now are two challengers. Unusually, one is a fellow Republican, two-term Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, abandoning a safe House seat to take Roach on. The other is Democrat Lynda Messner of Bonney Lake, whose online rhetoric and questioning of Obama’s birth certificate have called her Democratic affiliation into question.

“I’m in a really odd place right now, dealing with odd characters,” Dahlquist said. “I don’t know where these people have come from.”

Dahlquist was talking about Messner and John M. Torres Jr., a lawyer who has become a figure in the campaign. Torres says that while he was considering a run for judge against Dahlquist’s fiancé, Dahlquist disparaged Torres for not being able to speak Spanish like her fiancé. Dahlquist says she said no such thing.

Roach is directing reporters to Torres for dirt on Dahlquist and the district’s other member of the Legislature, Democrat Rep. Chris Hurst. The former police detective has joined Dahlquist in an unorthodox joint advertising campaign that describes how they “work as a team to do what’s best for the citizens.”

That’s just a taste of the vitriol coursing through the district in east Pierce and southeast King counties as voters receive their ballots for the Aug. 5 primary.

Roach accuses Dahlquist of being a racist and her supporter Hurst a bigot. On the other side, Dahlquist calls Roach unstable and Hurst says in a questionnaire he believes Roach is suffering from “a deepening mental illness.” Together Enumclaw Reps. Hurst and Dahlquist have said under oath that Roach “might have given aid and comfort to enemies of the United States.”

The race has spawned a barrage of claims and counterclaims, five separate complaints of campaign finance violations, three ethics complaints and a dismissed police report. There are so many that Roach needs a spiral-bound notepad to keep track of them. “It’s divided into ‘them’ and ‘me,’ ” she said.

So far, the only action by any authorities is to tell Hurst to personally reimburse his campaign for $79.77 he should have reported as aid to Dahlquist, with no fines.

Unlikely allies, enemies

Roach says the alliance with Hurst, who bills himself as an “independent Democrat,” calls into question Dahlquist’s conservative credentials.

Hurst has launched many of the attacks on Roach, and his campaign is the biggest contributor to Dahlquist, who has raised more than $95,000 to Roach’s more than $122,000.

“Who’s running against me?” Roach said. “Is it Hurst or Dahlquist?”

Hurst said the two of them have long talked about who would run and said when the illness and death of his mother kept him from having the time to gear up for a campaign, he struck a deal to support Dahlquist.

“Both of us have known for some time there was a moral obligation to get her out office because of the terrible things she does and the ways in which she abuses her power,” Hurst said.

The race is full of strange bedfellows, in fact:

A survivor

If voters can wade through the firefight, the Aug. 5 primary will mainly be a referendum on Roach.

Is she the ethically challenged, erratic bully that Dahlquist and Hurst describe? Or is she a champion for the people of her district, America and the world, as she would have it?

Either way, Roach is at the peak of her influence.

Republicans and renegade Democrats seized control over the budget in a 2012 palace coup, and they needed Roach’s vote to maintain control. They allowed her to return to their caucus meetings.

A year later, the group consolidated its control over the Senate. The Senate lifted its restrictions on Roach’s contact with staff and made her chairwoman of the Governmental Operations Committee, with power to set the agenda on a range of topics including elections, public employees and contracting, and local government authority.

Roach is one of a few conservative Republicans who have pushed back at times against the Senate majority, but the coalition has held together.

A chart created by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation scored Roach as Washington’s most effective lawmaker in the current term, using a standard based on how far her proposed legislation advanced.

Her re-election, time after time, may have as much to do with her intensely local approach as her legislative accomplishments and conservative views on issues such as gun rights.

She’s vocal in battling state agencies that are at odds with constituents, whether over a custody battle, land-use restrictions on Lake Tapps or attempts to close Rainier School for the developmentally disabled.

Her staying power is also because of her opponents. Democrats have a hard time in this right-leaning district. A Republican challenged Roach in her last race in 2010, but he turned out to have a teenage conviction for improper touching of younger family members and a trail of strange behavior that Roach skillfully exposed.

Quick to seize on any perceived weakness, she has been attacking Dahlquist on several fronts, including for stepping down as the lead House Republican on education in frustration over being shut out of talks on a bill. (Dahlquist says now that she knew at the time she would be leaving the House to run for the Senate.)

“Have I ever quit?” Roach asks. “The answer to that is no, and when you send someone to Olympia you want someone with the tenacity, the know-how, the effectiveness, the integrity of Pam Roach.”

Against ethics advice

But Roach’s activities offer fertile ground for opponents’ attacks.

In multiple ways, she’s operating in conflict with what state government’s ethics arbiters say is allowed.

Ethics law prohibits use of public resources for campaign purposes. Opinions by the state Legislative Ethics Board spell out what that means.

The board decided in a 2002 case that the law “prohibits incumbent legislators from using their legislative addresses and phone numbers as contact points for recipients of campaign mailings or other campaign documents.”

Roach’s campaign mailing address and her legislative mailing address are the same post office box in Auburn.

She’s listed the address for years on campaign advertising, state disclosure forms and appeals for campaign checks. She’s also listed it for years on official communications with constituents.

Records show the Senate pays to rent the box and for Roach to drive the 22 miles to the post office and back to her home, a farm between Auburn and Black Diamond.

In 2013, for example, the Senate reimbursed her for more than 100 round trips to the post office, including on days when she separately reported receiving campaign contributions from donors such as Anheuser-Busch, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Teamsters Local 763 and the Gun Owners Action League.

Then there’s the matter of the phone, which is more complicated.

The Senate has paid more than $7,500 worth of Roach’s phone bills dating back to 2007. Since at least December 2011, the Senate has paid for the actual phones, buying an iPhone for her at that point. That’s an allowable practice for senators but one that is apparently rare because it comes with a total ban on using the phone for campaign purposes.

The number listed on Roach’s phone bill is a phone number she has used as a campaign contact at times, including in 2010 and 2011.

Hurst, who publicized the expenses, says that use has continued into this year; he’s talked to her about politics while she was on the phone. Roach says she’s had a second, campaign cellphone for the past year and a half. Hurst says Roach should turn over her phone records to show whether she has been using the phone for campaigning.

Other expenses paid by the state have included subscriptions to news sources such as The News Tribune and SiriusXM satellite radio.

Roach notes that Senate administration signed off on her expenses.

“Do you think they’d pay me if I wasn’t entitled?” Roach said.

Senate policy allows senators up to $7,800 a year in reimbursements for expenses, on top of a $42,106 salary and a stipend of $120 for each day the part-time Legislature is in session.

Another set of questions involves one of Roach’s many trips to far-flung global destinations.

One was a 2013 trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan. The sponsors paying for the trip and similar ones in other years bill them as a way to build friendship between the Turkish and American people.

But ethics lawyers have advised lawmakers against going on these trips. The Ethics Board’s counsel determined that as it was not an official trip or connected to a legislative purpose, it would violate a ban on gifts of more than $50.

Roach was the only Washington lawmaker to go in 2013. She said participants discussed the movement of Azerbaijani oil to Europe, which she says is critical to keeping Europe from dependence on Middle Eastern oil. She said she was chosen from hundreds of dignitaries to go on Azerbaijani television.

“I think building relationships in today’s world is part of being a legislator. The world is bigger. Our constituencies are bigger,” Roach said. “I like reaching out. I love the people of the world.”

She founded a school in Honduras and has a health clinic named after her there. She has traveled to Romania and the Philippines. She was named a “Freeman of the City” in Livingstone, Zambia, which she says means that she can never be found guilty of a crime there.

Dahlquist and Hurst make sweeping accusations in an ethics complaint about the Azerbaijan trip. They question whether Roach put American interests and troops at risk.

The trip’s sponsors have ties to an influential and rarely seen Muslim cleric in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Guelen, who is embroiled in a high-profile feud with the government of Turkey. Guelen’s worldwide movement operates charter schools in the United States and around the world along with paying for local and national politicians’ trips to Turkey. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables say the movement promotes tolerance and science but has been accused of having a hidden Islamist agenda.

Roach says she has filed her own ethics complaint about Hurst and Dahlquist’s complaint.

“It is bigotry. It is racism,” Roach said.

Hurst and Dahlquist say in their complaint that the movement requires gender segregation and covering up of women’s arms and legs. Roach said that’s especially insensitive to other cultures. She said Dahlquist must think only “showing cleavage is acceptable.”

Issues not an issue

The two are not so different on the issues. Both Roach and Dahlquist are wary of new taxes, both for roads and for schools. They both see other ways to fix education funding shortfalls identified by a court decision.

Dahlquist says it’s Roach’s way of getting her way that’s the problem. “She bullies. She’s just a fear-mongerer. She kills people’s bills, and it’s all out of spite.”

Dahlquist explained to the Municipal League of King County in a questionnaire: “I actually feel sorry for her. She needs help, and many good Republicans have tried to help her, but she refuses. She calls them names, yells and screams and then creates some conspiracy that everyone is out to get her, that leadership hates her or that her colleagues are delusional or they are not ethical or whatever she can make up in her mind ... it’s crazy.”

Roach said Dahlquist “simply is a liar.”

“She can make these accusations,” Roach said, “but people who know me and know Olympia know I am successful. They know I work well with others, and they know that she does not.”

Roach says Hurst is the bully, pointing to a May phone conversation between Hurst and Torres as proof. The details are disputed, but it’s clear that Hurst suggested Torres shouldn’t run for judge because of a previous alleged assault. Torres, who denies the assault happened, went to police over the conversation. Police concluded Hurst didn’t commit any crime.

There is still a third candidate in the race, and she isn’t hiding. But it’s not always easy to figure out her positions.

At a recent meeting of 31st District Democrats at a Bonney Lake fire station, Messner gamely addressed a skeptical but polite crowd in a classroom decorated with Sept. 11, 2001, memorials.

She told them partisan politics and attack ads are getting in the way of Congress working together and the Legislature funding education.

But in a series of earlier Internet postings, Messner had ranted against Obama, Hillary Clinton and others.

She told Democrats at the fire station that some of those postings came as an emotional response to the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, explaining she was alarmed that no one had come to the embassy’s aid.

She avoided specifics, but did say she would caucus with Democrats if they would have her.

In conversations afterward with Democrats, she sometimes sounded like she belonged. “Corporations are being better represented than the people are,” she said.

But when a judicial candidate confronted her about whether she now thinks Obama was born in the United States, she wasn’t sure.

“Some people are saying that his birth certificate was a fake. Other people are saying that he went to college on a foreign student visa,” Messner said.

“He’s the only African American president that we’ve had, and he’s the only one who’s ever been questioned with regard to his citizenship,” said the exasperated candidate for judge, Karl Williams.

The three-way race has left many Democrats baffled. No candidate represents their positions, said Diane Kerlin, a retired librarian in Edgewood who serves as the membership chairwoman for the district party.

“People who live in other parts of the county have said, ‘Oh, you poor guys who live in the 31st,’” Kerlin said.