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Tuesday, October 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Senn's past battles shape campaign for attorney general

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the final weeks leading up to the election, Deborah Senn's bid to become Washington's attorney general has morphed into something of an anti-campaign.

Instead of offering the usual litany of groups who support her, the Democratic nominee for the state's second most powerful office is mostly talking about who doesn't want her there.

There's the United States Chamber of Commerce, which spent $1.5 million on an ad campaign to try to knock her out of the Democratic primary last month. The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) was by far the biggest contributor to a campaign that began airing attack ads against her last week. And a political-action committee that exists to elect Republicans to state and local office is spending $1.3 million to defeat her.

To Senn and her supporters, every dollar big business spends against her is another reason to vote to make the consumer advocate and former insurance commissioner the state's top lawyer. As attorney general, Senn would be charged with enforcing state laws and regulations, and she'd have the power to investigate and prosecute businesses.

"She must be good for the general public, because big business wants to make money at the disadvantage of the general public," said Nels Ekroth, 86, of Seattle, who contributed $525 to Senn's campaign

But some of those spending money to defeat Senn say they want an attorney general who understands business' needs and respects the role business plays in serving consumers and providing jobs. Senn, they argue, is not that person and Republican Rob McKenna is.

"She's pro-government, bottom line," said Tom McCabe, BIAW executive vice president. "We certainly don't need an attorney general who is pro-government, someone who will always take the side of a government agency over business."

Such sentiments on both sides obscure a more-nuanced picture that doesn't fit the black-and-white caricature of an anti-business crusader that Senn's detractors and supporters seem determined to paint.

To be sure, Senn, 55, has long battled big business. Her tenure as Washington's insurance commissioner from 1993-2000 cemented her reputation as an uncompromising — some would say unreasonable — consumer advocate who could rub people the wrong way.

But Senn's advocacy in and out of government is less easily characterized: She has helped some businesses, including a few major ones, while her most ambitious effort — reform of the state's individual health-insurance market — hurt some of the people she wanted to help.

As insurance commissioner, Senn focused on broad reforms in health insurance. In the competitive markets for property, life and casualty insurance, she targeted specific problems: She did away with higher premiums and coverage denials for victims of domestic violence, while eliminating contract reviews for property/casualty insurers.

Senn also wrote rules for toxic-waste cleanup after large businesses, such as Boeing, complained about protracted liability battles with their insurers. Auto insurance, another competitive market, also remained largely untouched during her terms.

Both supporters and detractors are looking to her performance as insurance commissioner as a possible predictor of how she would fare as the state's top attorney.

Lawyer, TV reporter

Senn, a Chicago native, began her law career prosecuting air- and water-pollution cases for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in 1979. She became a state lawyer representing consumers and small businesses in utility-rate cases, then moved to Alaska in 1983, where she worked as a television reporter and lawyer.

According to Senn, she helped "deregulate" residential garbage collection outside Anchorage in the early 1980s when she represented Charlie's Garbage before a state public-utility commission.

Charlie, a pony-tailed man in a yellow pickup, had been banned from collecting garbage, in part, because officials were concerned that his efforts would stop people from going to the dump on Saturday nights, depriving residents of a prime opportunity for socializing.

Senn said she learned shortly after moving to Seattle in 1985 that Charlie won his case.

In Washington, Senn worked for the Legislature's telecommunications committee and the House energy and utilities committees before becoming a lobbyist for women's groups.

In 1990 she lost a bid for a state House seat, but she won election as state insurance commissioner in 1992. She was re-elected in 1996, and four years later she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator.

Since then, Senn has been a partner in a law firm that represents plaintiffs with asbestos-related health claims. Over the past 2½ years, she said, she opened her own expert-witness business, and she has testified in about 20 "bad faith" insurance cases that have pitted small businesses and individuals against some of the insurers she once regulated.

"I feel like I've continued to help consumers since I've left office as insurance commissioner," Senn said.

Senn would not discuss her fees, but one attorney who hired Senn earlier this year said the former commissioner charged the standard rate for such work, about $250 an hour.

The attorney, Julie Mersch of Las Vegas, said Senn worked on behalf of a businesswoman who was denied coverage on $50,000 worth of equipment stolen from her company. Senn's credentials as insurance commissioner added heft to her testimony, which focused on the insurer's legal obligation to cover the loss, Mersch said. The case was settled out of court.

In another case, Senn testified on behalf of a California homeowner whose family was exposed to asbestos and mold during a faulty cleanup of a burst water pipe. Senn said she testified about corporate structures that allow a company to evade financial responsibility, and about the insurer's duties and obligations. That case also settled out of court, she said.

Campaign contributors

Senn had raised more than $700,000 for her campaign as of Oct. 14. Most of the 3,192 donors gave small amounts, but a few larger contributors stand out: $11,266 from the Washington State Democratic Central Committee; $12,000 from the family of prominent banker and philanthropist Jack Spitzer, who died this summer; $26,000 from two out-of-state law firms specializing in class-action suits on behalf of shareholders.

Among her endorsements are 28 trade or union groups, and an eclectic assortment of business people, including Group Health's chief executive officer Cheryl Scott and the owner of a marble and tile store in South Seattle.

If elected, Senn said, she would make government more responsive to public-records requests; continue cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation; punish the perpetrators of identity theft and help victims clear their credit and public records; and crack down on money-lending companies that exploit vulnerable people.

She also said she would join investigations into gas prices and prescription-drug availability already under way by other attorneys general.

"Most businesses treat people fairly, give them a product or service for their money, and there's not a problem," Senn said. "Every day, you have business interactions like that. But sometimes people are treated unfairly. That's what the attorney general's office was created for."

Health-insurance battle

Although Senn wants to talk about the new office she's seeking, opponents keep reminding voters of the battle that arose in the individual health-insurance market when she was insurance commissioner.

Senn's reforms were part of national and state reforms in the health-care industry. In focusing on the difficulties experienced by people who were not covered by an employer or group plan, Senn's office forced insurers to cover pre-existing conditions three months after initiating coverage and changed the rules to allow policyholders to enjoy the same coverage even if they changed jobs.

Insurers said those changes and others were too expensive and eventually stopped selling new individual policies. Some companies returned to the market after Gov. Gary Locke summoned key players to negotiate a fix. Senn was not invited.

Insurers complained that Senn politicized her office and failed to maintain a voluntary accreditation program that cost consumers more in premiums because it meant additional time and money preparing new filings for Washington that may already have been approved in other states.

But the lingering sting seems to have more to do with what the industry said was Senn's unwillingness to talk things through with them.

What her supporters see as a take-no-prisoners attitude, the insurance industry saw as unnecessary grandstanding that impeded their ability to respond to market changes.

The collegiality the industry had previously enjoyed with the Insurance Commissioner's Office was replaced with suspicion, and lobbyists who had helped shape bills and regulations in the past were suddenly shut out, said longtime lobbyist Basil Badley, who represented life, health and property/casualty insurers in Olympia when Senn was commissioner.

"Everything was contentious," said Badley, who is retiring in December.

Badley credited Senn with helping to computerize the office, but said her confrontational style would be disastrous as attorney general.

Victoria Doyle, 47, of Tacoma, however, said Senn's willingness to confront big companies saved her life. When her insurer stopped covering anti-rejection drugs she needed to stay alive after a heart transplant, Senn's office stepped in to negotiate and cajoled the company into paying for the drugs, said Doyle, who appears in an television ad for Senn.

"At the time, there was no appeals process and no expedited appeal. They could have waited until I was dead to deal with it," she said.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com.

Research editor Katherine Long contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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