OLYMPIA — Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler apologized for using racist slurs during interactions with his employees and promised to take diversity training, as Washington’s longest-serving elected official faced questions and concern from a handful of fellow Democrats.
Kreidler’s apology on Monday came after a story published Sunday by The Seattle Times and public radio’s Northwest News Network in which half a dozen state workers recounted Kreidler’s use of racist slurs and derogatory terms for people of Mexican, Chinese, and Italian or Spanish descent as well as transgender women; alleged that he mistreated staff; and said he asked employees of color for unusual favors.
On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Washington State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said in statements or through spokespeople that they had never heard Kreidler use derogatory language.
“However, it’s clear his behavior toward others has been inappropriate, disturbing and unacceptable for an elected official of any party on numerous occasions,” Podlodowski said in prepared remarks.
“It’s time to reevaluate whether Mike can still serve the people of Washington state with their full faith and trust,” she added.
Through a spokesperson, Ferguson said he was “deeply disappointed and troubled by these reports.”
In addition to the use of the racist slurs, two former employees said Kreidler, 78, asked them for unusual favors. One former executive assistant, who is Korean American, said Kreidler repeatedly asked her to help him communicate with his Korean neighbors. And a former policy analyst who is from India said Kreidler asked for help arranging a trip the commissioner was set to take to that country.
Other former staff members recounted demeaning treatment from Kreidler, including a time when he allegedly threw a folder at an assistant who booked him a flight in economy class, not business, for a trip to a conference in Switzerland.
In a statement released Monday through his office, Kreidler apologized: “Words matter and I know they can have a lasting impact on the people who hear them, regardless of my intent.”
“It pains me deeply to think that the careless words I have used in the past — even if infrequent — could have hurt someone,” Kreidler said in the statement. “I am sorry for any pain I have caused and for taking attention away from the accomplishments and efforts of the people I work with here.”
Kreidler made a separate apology to the agency’s staff in an email sent late Friday afternoon, before the Sunday story was published.
“I will be joining the rest of the Executive Team in attending in-depth training in diversity awareness over the coming months,” Kreidler said in that message.
Details are still being worked out, but agency spokesperson Stephanie Marquis said, “We expect it to take a total of eight to 12 hours, although that is uncertain until the exact course content and provider are identified.”
Kreidler said he intends to remain in office and fulfill his duties, she added. He was elected to a four-year term in 2020.
Outside of regular elections, there are few ways for an elected state official to lose their position. The Washington Constitution allows the Legislature to vote to impeach a state official, but only for “high crimes or misdemeanors, or malfeasance in office.” Citizens seeking to recall a state official must not only gather enough signatures to put the recall measure on a ballot, but must also effectively argue that the official has violated the oath of office, or “committed misfeasance or malfeasance.”
The stories by Kreidler’s former employees have revealed a disparity between the commissioner’s public image as a progressive Democrat and his management style leading the 260-person agency.
Elected commissioner in 2000 after serving in the state Legislature and Congress, Kreidler has advocated for the federal Affordable Care Act and reproductive health, has pressed insurance companies to cover medically necessary gender-affirming treatments and pushed to protect consumers against surprise health care bills. He’s also pushed to ban the use of credit scoring in setting insurance rates, calling it a discriminatory practice.
None of the former employees coming forward now have recently filed complaints against Kreidler.
But a story last month by Northwest News Network first detailed workers’ allegations that Kreidler had mistreated staff. The commissioner’s office dismissed the complaint within a week.
On Monday, Office of Insurance Commissioner Chief Deputy Michael Wood sent an email to staff explaining why he and other top officials didn’t take action on that complaint, and sharing responses given to reporters before that story was published.
That reasoning includes the assessment that “All agency policies are established by the authority of the Commissioner, and any disciplinary action taken against any OIC employee is taken under the authority of the Commissioner.”
Therefore, an “investigation to determine whether the Commissioner should take disciplinary action against himself has no rational purpose,” Wood wrote. “If the Commissioner fails to follow a policy he has set, then he is accountable to himself…”
That’s not the case with other state elected officials.
Inslee and Ferguson are bound by their own anti-harassment and nondiscrimination policies, according to spokespeople, as are Lt. gov. Denny Heck and State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal.
In a statement, Heck said he read the accounts of Kreidler’s conduct, and “When leaders fail to meet this standard they ought to apologize and take corrective action if they want to retain public trust and confidence in their leadership.”
Asked Monday about the new accounts of Kreidler’s conduct, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk repeated the governor’s statement from last month for the earlier story.
“All leaders, including elected leaders, owe their employees respect and dignity,” Faulk wrote in an email. “Commissioner Kreidler has acknowledged his responsibility to do better and the governor hopes he takes the necessary steps to effectively lead that office in a way that affirms the dignity and value of every employee.”
This story was produced in conjunction with Northwest News Network, a collaboration of public radio stations in Washington and Oregon.