HOW DOES state House Speaker Frank Chopp react to tales of deficient home repair work and hefty contractor bills, told by a scribe who passionately supports homeowners' rights legislation?
"I had a guy who left me with a bill," Chopp replied in an interview, detailing a botched food bank renovation that cost $14,000 plus interest.
"We deal with contractors on housing all the time," added Washington's most influential legislator. "For better or worse, I know the field. We know there's a problem."
How does this jibe with the guy who received a "Schrammie" from KOMO/4 pundit Ken Schram for "leaving homeowners in a lurch" and blocking homeowners from being able to sue for negligent construction?
Or the cuts aimed at Chopp from liberal Democrats and their allies in the legal profession who depict him as carrying water for the arch-reactionary Building Industry Association of Washington?
"It seems the only thing that will make a difference is relentless pressure on Frank Chopp, tying him and his Democratic representatives to the BIAW and their Affordable Housing front PAC," Sandy Levy, an attorney who represents victims of shoddy construction, wrote in a recent e-mail.
Debate within the state's Democratic Party is furious. At the center of the infighting, however, lies an important consumer issue:
What recourse is there for a new homeowner whose basement floods because the builder has failed to waterproof a foundation wall? The builder blames the weather. Or what happens when floors haven't been leveled, or a builder fails to properly seal toilets.
The it's-not-my-fault game can go on and on, with nobody offering to fix the house.
The Democrats' disagreement hinges on one question: Is the homeowner's best recourse summed up by the famous war cry, "Sue the bastards!"
State Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, the bill of rights' most aggressive advocate, argues: "The courtroom is the one place in America where the ordinary citizen is on an equal footing with the most powerful and influential."
And Chopp replies: "When you put in lawyers and create a litigious situation, you drive up costs and create a situation for games playing. ... If you just add lawyers to the mix, it does not necessarily create circumstances for resolving a dispute. Mediation can help a lot. Arbitration can help at times."
The state Senate has, in the past two sessions, voted in favor of Weinstein's legislation. And for two years, the House Judiciary Committee has voted for the bill. The Democrats have a 63-member majority in the 98-member House.
Yet, Chopp has refused to allow a House floor vote.
Why? Pick your explanation.
Chopp's critics say the speaker is playing footsy with the BIAW, and directing the builders' financial resources away from attacks on House Democrats. The BIAW is deploying its dollars and front groups against a fellow Democrat, flaying Gov. Chris Gregoire in radio and TV ads.
Chopp vehemently denies that he is coddling the BIAW. He ticks off legislation, passed by the House, which the BIAW has adamantly opposed.
"Their tactics are ridiculous, disgusting, over the top," Chopp said of the BIAW. "They have given no money to the Truman Fund or the House Democratic Campaign Committee."
Chopp says he wants a three-level approach to homeowners' rights. He wants the state Department of Licensing to strengthen requirements and regulation of contractors who build, alter and repair homes.
He proposes a centralized consumer protection office for home construction and repair. It would advise residents on their rights, on working with contractors ... and carry a listing of complaints against contractors.
He would review "potential remedies" for shoddy construction, looking at "a variety of dispute methods, such as arbitration and mediation" for the Legislature to consider when it meets in January.
A panel, headed by state Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, has been tapped to hammer out compromise legislation. Homeowner advocates fear that they are going to get hammered.
"My guess is that Chopp will do a very weak version of a home buyer rights bill," Weinstein said in an e-mail.
Levy is fearful of an ersatz "reform" in which homeowners will find their "rights" expensive to pursue. "In King County, the usual costs of an experienced construction mediator are $350 to $410 an hour, with minimum costs equal to one day," he said. "That is simply more than most people will spend just to get their builder to negotiate."
Tom is hinting at a solution along lines proposed by Chopp.
"How do we fix the underlying problem rather than making the lawsuit easier?" he asked in an interview. "If we come about a holistic approach, fine. If it is just about how we sue builders, we're not going there."
In such circumstances, I'm drawn to a wonderfully expressive Italian word:
Enough. Get this resolved. Delay is unacceptable.
Sure, we need standards for contractors, and a clearinghouse where consumers can learn the rules and check the records.
But legal recourse needs to be part of the package. The compromise needs teeth, even if the BIAW bares its fangs.