Washington State senator Adam Kline, a 64-year-old Democrat with a tidy silver beard, may seem like the perfect legislator to represent the diverse 37th District, which stretches from just south of Capitol Hill, through Rainier Beach, down to Renton. The 12-year incumbent is chair of the senate's powerful Judiciary Committee, which oversees criminal law. He's active in his district Democratic Party organization, returns calls quickly, and champions a progressive agenda. His quarterly newsletters show a warmth and charisma foreign to most Olympia dispatches: "I love to write these newsletters—it's the second best part of this job," he gushes in the current issue. "The first is hearing back from you."
But there's a problem: Although writing his newsletter and hearing from constituents are his favorite parts of the job, when it comes to job number one—passing legislation—Kline is less successful.
In 2007 and 2008, Kline introduced 75 bills. Only seven passed. Most did little of substance—patching a loophole, amending a travel-reimbursement provision, clarifying a definition, or making other tweaks to the law. Meanwhile, Kline's more ambitious bills have died. For example, last year, Kline failed to pass an uncontroversial bill that would have raised the threshold at which small-time property crimes are considered felonies, saving the state money and offering offenders more recovery services.
"He is considered a very ineffective legislator," says one former legislator who watches state politics closely. Kline's notoriously bad temper has alienated fellow Democrats and renders him incapable of striking deals with conservatives around the state, the former legislator says. (Kline reportedly blew up at state senator Margarita Prentice at the annual Democratic caucus a couple of years ago.)
According to several current legislators and nonprofit leaders who have worked with Kline on legislation, his committee meetings routinely disintegrate into chaos, with senators talking and sometimes yelling over one another. Routinely, they say, Kline holds hearings on bills without first notifying stakeholders.
Over the last several sessions, Kline has pushed two criminal-justice reform measures, both closely watched by legal-services nonprofits, to no avail. One would have amended the three-strikes-you're-out law to remove nonviolent robberies from counting toward lifetime convictions.
"This is the sixth or seventh time I have introduced the bill... and never gotten [the bill] to a floor vote," Kline says matter-of-factly. Meanwhile, an overdose-prevention bill, which would provide amnesty from prosecution for people who call medics for a fatally overdosed person, has died in Kline's own committee four years in a row. This session, which began January 12, another legislator is expected to introduce the bill instead.
"It is a good idea have people other than me do this because I'm seen by some folks as a little too progressive," Kline says. Some bills pass easily, he says. "Then there are bills that the legislature pushes because, at some point in the future, we want to see them happen. But they may not happen while I am in the senate, or even when I'm still alive."
Kline blames a timid legislature and his liberal Seattle roots for bridling his controversial bills. "There is a reputation that you bring here, and it takes years to overcome. I have been working on it, doing outreach and shaking hands, and I think I'm making a lot of progress."
But that isn't stopping other Seattle senators. Ed Murray, a second-year state senator and former member of the state house (D-43), has passed 10 bills (of 53 introduced) in the last two years, including one creating a state domestic-partner registry.
I asked Kline to cite some of his recent accomplishments. "Oh, boy. You're catching me kind of flat-footed here," he said.
Christie Hedman, executive director of the Washington Defender Association, defends Kline, saying he "has been a very strong and passionate advocate for what are oftentimes politically unpopular causes, especially those relating to poor people in the criminal-justice system." She cites two successful bills passed in 2005—including a bill to help get DUI offenders into treatment—that Kline sponsored.
When pressed for examples of his greatest work, Kline points to two pieces of bad legislation he blocked. Both were in 2002. One would have expanded wiretapping; a second, he says, would have classified some political activity as terrorism.
But passing good legislation four years ago and blocking bad legislation seven years ago is a weak record for a senator in one of the key districts that should be driving the state's progressive agenda. This year, Kline says he plans to reintroduce many of the same bills that failed last year. But unless he changes his strategy—involving stakeholders, effectively managing meetings, and not blaming his liberal district for his own shortcomings— Kline may be doomed to squander two more years in the senate.