This week Pam Roach stepped down as Washington’s longest-serving sitting state senator to assume a narrowly won seat on the Pierce County Council, a gig that pays more than double her Senate salary, and on which she’ll sit alongside her son Dan. She departs Olympia after 26 years, leaving a legacy as a rock-ribbed, law-and-order antitax crusader who fought off numerous challengers over the years and regularly broke Senate decorum with relish. The people in Olympia who will miss her most are Democrats.
The popular image of Roach is of a suburban-Mormon-granny version of Yosemite Sam: a gun-toting hothead quaking with fury. Volumes could be compiled about her legendary temper. Stories circulate of shrieking fits and playground taunts, of brandishing guns at staffers and conniving to out closeted gay Republican colleagues.
She’s been described variously as contentious, bipolar, unhinged, and crazy—and that’s by her fellow Republicans. She’s been banned from her own party’s caucus room, prohibited from communicating with GOP staff, and urged to seek anger-management counseling. Last summer her brazen backroom dealings—as well as a meeting at Applebee’s—attracted the attention of the FBI. Last month she was kicked off a state task force for verbally abusing underage victims of sex trafficking, telling them that they “probably spend their money on drugs.” She leaves in her wake a trail of sputtering, appalled colleagues. And now she’s trading her Senate seat for a big pay raise and a shorter commute.
Among Democrats in Olympia, Roach’s illustrious career is spoken of with something like fondness. She was known to buck her caucus and side with Democrats on labor issues to service her working-class constituency in beleaguered Pierce County, Washington’s Rust Belt. Former Democratic senator Adam Kline—a fellow hothead on the opposite end of the political spectrum—praises her for putting principle above party loyalty. “A lot of senators will take a stand when it doesn’t matter,” Kline says, ”She would do it when it did matter, when she was the 25th vote.”
Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the ACLU of Washington, applauds her recent bipartisan foray in support of the Washington Voting Rights Act, which passed out of the Senate committee Roach chaired but was ultimately left to die by fellow Republicans last year. “What happens inside Olympia is so insular that it’s extremely difficult to get a sense of who the heroes and the villains are. Pam Roach just happens to be one of the most famous examples [of a villain] because she’s done a lot of things that made the news. That’s what people see; they don’t see the thoughtfulness, the policy positions you wouldn’t expect her to hold.”
Narayan is a regular attendee of Roach’s annual Legislative Shootout, a tradition she took over from her former boss, the late Senator Kent Pullen, in which legislators and staffers are invited to the local firing range for a down-home afternoon of target shooting and potato salad. Backed by the NRA and various local gun-fetishist organizations, the event nevertheless attracts unlikely political players from across the ideological spectrum. “It’s actually a great exercise in building camaraderie,” Narayan says. “I even improved my shooting scores over the years.”
My personal fascination with Pam Roach began last August with a photo she tweeted depicting her unusual method of watering the lawn. It’s a POV shot of a garden hose spraying out a car’s open driver’s-side door onto some grass and bushes with the caption: “Innovation. I water the yard moving the car backwards so I can talk on Bluetooth as well. Multi-tasking!”
I found this instantly hilarious and strangely endearing: The state’s most senior sitting senator waters her own lawn from the comfort of her car using the maximum amount of nonrenewable resources in a scenario that resembles the setup to a “What could go wrong?” blooper video. Slapstick worst-case scenarios include accidentally hitting the gas too hard and soaking the car’s interior; dislocating her arm; wrecking the car; or even strangulation by garden hose. But this is the way she does it, and by God she’s proud enough to share it. There’s probably a loaded gun within reach, too.
Further review of Roach’s Twitter timeline yields a portrait simultaneously disarming and repellent. Pictures of her adorable grandchildren alternate with angry recriminations against local media. Sometimes the two merge, as in a picture of her 5-year-old granddaughter wrestling in an organized tournament against boys with the caption: “Lily (5) pinned the boys in her matches Sat. There is no ref as [the Tacoma News] Tribune attacks me. Boys don’t like strong girls.” This refers to the cascade of bad press over last summer’s story about FBI scrutiny of Roach’s campaign misdeeds, which played into the Trib’s endorsement of her opponent in the Pierce County race, in which they described Roach as overbearing, combative, and potentially toxic.
Pam Roach is a colorful character, a rare breed. She’s the employee who’s stuck around so long it’s become an HR problem. She’s like a scheming, bumbling small-time villain in an early Coen brothers film. She’s a doting grandma and matriarch of a large family, but also a rage-fueled tyrant with a persecution complex and dozens of ongoing feuds. Even her staunchest opponents concede that she’s beholden to no one. She’s possessed by unchecked rage and ambition, seemingly heedless of consequences, even from her own party.
Sound familiar? She was a Trump supporter, too. Perhaps understanding what makes Roach tick could grant some insight into the train-wreck appeal of her party’s current president-elect. Roach gave her opponents belittling nicknames—she routinely referred to 2014 challenger Cathy Dahlquist as “Dalquits”—long before the era of “Crooked Hillary” and “Lyin’ Ted.” And despite her many foibles, she held on to her seat in a labor-heavy district with straight-shooting appeal to that much-scrutinized creature, the white working-class voter.
“She’s fucking crazy,” says writer and progressive commentator David Goldstein. He was the one who first published the recording of her notorious “Roses” speech on his politics blog, HorsesAss.org. In the clip Roach berates her fellow senators—on the Senate floor, no less—for moving some flowers off her desk. The clip is accompanied by Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars, edited in by some anonymous legislative staffer.
Goldstein has observed Roach for years, and dismisses her wild-card appeal to progressives. “It’s not like she disrupted anything. In a fantasy world she might’ve fucked over the Republicans on behalf of the Democrats, but she never did,” he says. “She’s a low-tax, trickle-down Republican.”
This is true. In her quarter-century-plus as a legislator, Roach was a staunch opponent of LGBTQ rights, an enemy of abortion rights, and a steadfast supporter of the most reactionary and draconian elements of the gun lobby and law enforcement. She was Tim Eyman’s best ally in Olympia, lending institutional support to his many unconstitutional initiatives. Her occasional bipartisanship on labor policy, budget, and civil liberties and her enduring bedevilment of the Senate GOP don’t change the fact that she’s a hardcore religious conservative hell-bent on strangling the government in a bathtub.
Nevertheless, it’s certain that Roach’s replacement will be a more conventional, disciplined Republican. Ultimately, it’s difficult to see her departure from the Senate as anything but a net loss for progressives. Narayan remembers his work with Roach on the Washington Voting Rights Act with bemused gratitude. “She wouldn’t exactly follow protocol to the letter, and that meant there was never a dull moment,” he says. “A lot of bills got hearings that otherwise wouldn’t have.”
The Senate Republican caucus retains its one-seat majority pending a special election this year for the GOP-held 45th. A split legislature continues to thwart Democrats on key proposals like education funding and newtaxes on capital gains and carbon emissions, crucial fiscal issues that fall well outside Roach’s maverick streak.
A tenuous status quo remains.
Most of all, though, her departure means an end to the long-running one-woman show that lent an air of bombast and comic menace to the picayune political atmosphere of Olympia. Progressives lose a convenient totem of fangs-bared conservatism just as a far more vicious, narcissistic, and chaotic Republican assumes the presidency. There are no winners here.
“What we lose with Pam Roach,” Goldstein says, “is the ability to brand the Republicans in Olympia as the party of Pam Roach.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the senator from whom Roach took over the Legislative Shootout. It was Sen. Kent Pullen, not Bill Pullen.