by George Howland, Jr.
A run-in with Puget Sound's pistol-packing mama!! A financial hole that exceeds $2 billion -- 10 percent of the state's budget!!

When Senator Jim West (R-Spokane) ascended to the position of Majority Leader of the Washington State Senate last December, he knew he would face both personal and fiscal challenges, but did he really dream the 58th Legislature would be like this?

Approaching the halfway mark of this year's legislative session, West is fighting well on both personal and budgetary fronts, though the war is far from over. If West can continue his early successes, however, he will not only advance the Republicans' fiscal agenda of no new taxes, but also demonstrate that he is a leader who can maintain control under incredible stress.

The session has given West a thorny personnel matter that no politician would envy. Senator Pam Roach, R-Sumner, has been at the center of an imbroglio as Byzantine as it is bizarre.

Roach is one of the Legislature's most colorful characters. Hailing from the rural areas of South King County, Roach is an expert marksman, a religious conservative and a hell raiser. She favors leather bomber jackets, muscle cars and the political equivalent of a blitzkrieg. Her temper is notorious and hasn't cooled whatsoever during the current session.

On the second day of the session, two of Roach's legislative aides, Tabitha Wells and Dan Honkomp, quit. Speculation about the reasons immediately began circulating -- the juiciest of which claimed that Roach had pulled a gun on Wells. Roach has denied it entirely. Yet she has also told Tacoma's News Tribune that the incident occurred but has been taken out of context and blown out of proportion.

The second version goes like this: Roach originally hired Wells to work on her hard-fought re-election campaign this last summer; Wells lived with Roach and her family for part of the campaign. During this cohabitation, late one night, Roach heard some noise, grabbed her gun, and went downstairs to find Wells trying to quietly come into the house without disturbing anyone.

Meanwhile, Roach says she hired a new aide, Kelly Hinton, who logged onto her former employees' computers in search of constituents' requests for assistance. Hinton, Roach continues, discovered "inappropriate e-mails." Roach's lawyer, David Osgood -- a dedicated civil libertarian well known for beating City Hall in court -- says the e-mails contained "a lot of office gossip, [and] a lot of backbiting," including calling the Senator "a bitch."

Roach felt the e-mails violated Senate workplace policy against inappropriate use of state equipment and turned them over to the Secretary of the Senate, the body's administrative director.

Her action backfired. The Secretary of the Senate suspended Hinton and began investigating whether he and Roach had broken the rules by obtaining private e-mail correspondence of her former employees.

Ultimately the Senate's leadership, including Majority Leader West, formally reprimanded Roach for creating a hostile work environment. The Senate's leaders also asked the Legislative Ethics Board to conduct an investigation into whether Roach violated state ethics law with the e-mail fishing expedition.

"They are busy shooting the messenger," complains Roach.

Titillating as all this may be, it is also significant. As Roach is quick to point out, Majority Leader West has faced serious problems on account of his own temper. Back in 1998, he left a message on a lobbyist's answering machine, saying among other things, "You're dead." West was charged with telephone harassment and agreed to serve nine months' probation in exchange for dismissal of the charges. Three years before, Roach continues, West admitted he almost slugged a then 74-year-old colleague.

As majority leader, West cannot afford such fits of pique. Roach is testing him. She has gone to war in the press over her employee brouhaha, claiming West has a vendetta against her. "He is mean," she says. Her lawyer, Osgood, says West is passing out findings on Roach that have not been approved by other Senate leaders. "He's a little bit out of control," Osgood contends.

Many other legislators across the political spectrum disagree. They say West has done a fine job handling a very difficult situation. They praise him for holding his temper in check and not using the press to fight the battle with Roach.

West himself says Roach committed "minor offenses, nothing major." That's why the Senate's leaders chose to reprimand her and now would like to move on. "If she will let us," he says cautiously.

All indications, however, are that she is not yet ready to do so.

Roach's rebellion could have implications for West's leadership later in the session because the Republicans control the Senate by the slimmest of margins, 25-24. She has threatened to bolt the party and become either an Independent or a Democrat.

Nowhere is that more important to the Republicans than on the budget. West believes the fundamental goal of this session should be to improve Washington's sputtering economy. That starts, he believes, by passing a no-new-taxes budget. Since the state faces a $2.4 billion budget deficit in a biennial budget of around $22 billion, this will require deep cuts in health care, education and the state work force. Before the session began, many predicted West could not keep his caucus united in the face of such cuts.

West, however, found an unlikely ally in Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, who proposed a no-new-taxes budget in December.

In January, to make a political point, Senate Republicans skillfully used the supplemental budget, normally a housekeeping measure that adds whatever funds are necessary to continue government services through the end of the current biennium in June. They adopted many of Locke's ideas, setting his cuts in motion four months early. Not only did West keep his entire caucus together, but he also picked up four Democratic votes.

Last week, the Democrat-controlled House followed suit, although they softened the cuts somewhat. West and his allies in the business community say momentum is moving their way on the budget.

The House Democrats don't have a simple response. Many of their key leaders, including Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) and Finance Chair Jeff Gombosky (D-Spokane) believe that the budget crisis can only be solved through a combination of deep cuts and new revenues. They are not anxious, however, to proclaim a need for new taxes. Not only is that dicey politically, but the Democratic caucus is not united around that position.

"Any ideas to raise revenues are very controversial," says Gombosky. "When the governor says he doesn't want a general tax increase because it would do real harm to the economy, that has an impact." The Democrats respond to the clear, simple Republican message with a long-winded description of the process they will carefully undertake to find the least painful cuts, followed by an equally complicated discussion of possible revenue sources they will explore once the cutting process is completed. "We don't get out of this [budget mess] by winning the contest for simplicity," Gombosky points out.

While that's true, no one can ignore the fact that West's simple message is influencing the terms of the debate. If he can hold his caucus together along with his temper, the West will be won.

Publication date: 03/06/03

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