Uncivil Debate: Wash. House Lawmaker Slams Majority Leader’s Spouse

Washington House Republicans lambasted trial lawyers during raucous debate last week, but when one lawmaker singled out the Democratic House majority leader’s husband for scorn, the place erupted in shouts.

An eventual apology was angrily rejected.

The presiding officer, who tried in vain to keep the peace, called it the worst breach of decorum he’d ever seen in the Legislature.

The dustup involved two of the most powerful lobbies in Olympia, Wash. — trial lawyers, who often support Democrats, and the insurance industry, which often backs Republicans.

The debate was over the proposed Insurance Fair Conduct Act, which would prohibit the practice of delaying or denying a claim without proper cause. It would allow the policyholder to collect triple damages if the insurance company unreasonably denied a claim or violated unfair practice rules.

From the start, Republicans denounced trial lawyers as money-grubbers who would hurt insurance companies, clog the courts and drive up premiums.

“I wouldn’t even refer to this as the full employment act for trial lawyers — it is the full retirement act because they’ll be able to retire when they make all this money at the expense of the people of Washington state,” said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, deputy minority leader.

He said trial lawyers were pushing “an extreme, radical bill.” He and others said consumers already are well served by the state attorney general and state insurance commissioner. In last winter’s windstorms, more than 45,000 claims were filed and only three complaints were received, Ericksen said.

Insurance Committee Chairman Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, retorted that the industry has some bad apples.

“There is no incentive for insurance companies to pay claims on time or at all,” he said, adding that the incentive is to “benefit their bottom line at the expense of the innocent consumer.”

Back and forth it went, with Speaker Pro Tem John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, trying unsuccessfully to rein in the rhetoric.

Rep. David Buri, R-Colfax, soon blistered trial lawyers, saying they want to “continue to cheat and plunder our policyholders.”

On the other side, Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, accused “our friends on the other side of the aisle” of defending the practice of unscrupulous insurers cheating consumers.

Then it got personal. Rep. Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said it is “very, very concerning” that only trial lawyers are pushing the bill.

“This is not for the consumers,” he said. “This will increase costs to the consumer. It is a sad day.”

After being gaveled down for impugning the sponsors’ motives, he said, “Look out! The train is coming through! The Keith Kessler train is coming through and you better get out of the way.”

“Whooo woooo!” Roach cried, mimicking a train conductor tooting a whistle.

Keith Kessler is one of the state’s most prominent trial lawyers, a former president of the state trial lawyers and the husband of House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

Lovick sternly admonished Roach again for breaking House rules of decorum. Lawmakers aren’t supposed to refer to colleagues by name or criticize members’ families.

An angry Lynn Kessler demanded an apology. None was forthcoming and the House broke for 15 minutes while Lovick waited for lawmakers to simmer down.

Kessler stormed across the chamber to confront Roach and other Republicans.

“What is wrong with you?” she asked. “You can insult me, but not my spouse!”

Eventually, when the House reconvened, Roach offered an apology of sorts. He said debate had gotten heated on both sides, and added, “However, that is no excuse to disrespect the institution and I want to stand an apologize for that, because I do respect the institution and I want to make sure everyone that may have been offended … that I apologize for that as well.”

The bill then passed on a mostly partyline 59-38. The Senate-passed measure returned to the Senate for concurrence in amendments before it goes to the governor, who is expected to sign it.

“I signed up for the job, my family didn’t,” Kessler, still furious, told reporters later. “… I have never in my 15 years here heard anyone insult not just the member, because it was personally an insult to me, but then to step over that to a spouse or a family member.

“It’s outrageous. His apology was a slap in the face.”

She said Roach is “just the epitome of someone who shouldn’t be in the Legislature. If you can’t be an adult here then you have no business being here. He made this institution look pretty shabby.”

Roach said later that he wasn’t sorry about blasting trial lawyers, but shouldn’t have personalized it.

Roach, whose mother, Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, is also known for speaking her mind, said he will reach out to Kessler after the dust settles.

“You see a lot of heated, passionate debate around here. That’s nothing new. We will always find a way to come together and get things done.”

Keith Kessler said he listened to the debate on TVW’s Web site after his wife called him. “I thought, ‘What has happened to common courtesy?’ He attacked my wife. I have never witnessed a personal attack on the House floor before. It was demeaning.”