Freshman senator lashes out at speaker
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — In a place where genteel debate is the protocol, state Sen. Brian Weinstein's trash talk about the Legislature's most powerful figure stands out like a belch in church.
Over the past few days, Weinstein has lashed out at House Speaker Frank Chopp — a fellow Democrat — for killing a bill that would require warranties on new homes.
Weinstein essentially has accused Chopp of being in bed with the powerful Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), arch-nemesis of the left, and even has called the speaker a "dictator."
Actually, on that latter point, Weinstein had a small clarification: "I didn't call him a dictator. I said he was acting like a dictator."
Chopp couldn't be reached Monday. But House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler questioned the wisdom of Weinstein's tactic.
"It's not usually how legislators try to get things passed — by throwing grenades at the speaker," said Kessler, D-Hoquiam.
Weinstein, a trial lawyer from Mercer Island, is in his first term in the Legislature. As chairman of the Senate Consumer Protection and Housing Committee, his priority this year is the so-called Homeowners Bill of Rights.
The legislation, Senate Bill 5550, would mandate a variety of warranties on new homes to protect homeowners against faulty construction. For instance, it would require a five-year guarantee against defects caused by water leaks and a 10-year warranty against structural defects.
The BIAW has lobbied hard against the bill, warning that it would dramatically increase costs, drive many homebuilders out of business and damage the state's economy. The group also argues that homebuyers already have ample rights to sue builders.
But Weinstein and others contend homebuyers in this state have no recourse when defects turn up.
Weinstein has been dogged in his push for the bill, hounding reporters to write about it and making sure his colleagues are tuned in when the issue made the news.
Senate passed bill
The bill passed the Senate 30-19 last month and was approved last week by the House Judiciary Committee. The next day, however, Chopp told The Associated Press that the bill needed more work and was dead for this session.
Weinstein immediately went on the offensive.
Over the weekend, a blog published by the alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger quoted Weinstein as saying he saw no point in working hard for a bill if "a dictator can just pull the rug out from under you."
In an interview with The Seattle Times on Monday, he pointed out that Tom McCabe, head of the BIAW, often speaks fondly of Chopp and once even suggested the speaker would make a good governor. And Weinstein noted that, according to a lobbying disclosure form filed by McCabe, the two had dinner earlier this year.
"If you start connecting the dots, you see he [Chopp] has some kind of understanding that he isn't going to hurt them this year," Weinstein said.
Weinstein said he tried to get the homebuilders to negotiate with him on the warranty bill, but they refused. Now, he says, he understands why.
"They knew they had an ace in the hole," Weinstein said. "They knew Frank was going to kill it."
McCabe disputed the assertion that the builders refused to come to the table, noting that they showed up at every committee hearing Weinstein held.
"But they weren't hearings," McCabe said. "They were inquisitions. He was nasty to anyone who didn't agree with his idea."
McCabe acknowledged talking to Chopp about the bill. Did the speaker promise to kill it?
"Not really," McCabe said. "We talked about the bill. He listened to reason, which Weinstein wouldn't do. I think that guy's irrational."
"It's a tough job"
Chopp's decision to block the bill also riled Rep. Brendan Williams, who was leading the push in the House bill.
Williams last week threatened to resign his seat, telling The Olympian newspaper that he saw no point in being a legislator if "right-wing thugs like the Building Industry Association are allowed to run roughshod over the process."
He was sounding much more conciliatory Monday. "I don't seen any gain in the politics of self-immolation," said Williams, D-Olympia.
He said he realizes Chopp has to balance a lot of competing interests, such as between business and labor.
"It's a tough job," Williams said. "While I disagree with him on this bill, I don't disagree with his leadership as House speaker."
Chopp, now in his sixth year as speaker, has never been shy about using clout to block high-profile bills — even things being pushed by some of his biggest allies.
And Weinstein isn't the first legislator to compare Chopp to a dictator. But the last one who did — the late Rep. Ruth Fisher — waited until she was quitting the Legislature.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said she has urged Weinstein to tone it down and "to focus on the policy rather than the person." Weinstein, however, said he figured politics was supposed to be a "contact sport."
"I haven't been here long enough to play by some of the rules that some people play by," Weinstein said. "But I don't mind taking off the gloves when I know I'm right."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882
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