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OLYMPIA – When a finalist for a high-ranking job at the office of the Washington Insurance Commissioner sat down with Mike Kreidler last fall for an interview, the woman was excited to work for a small agency with a record of advocating for marginalized communities.

But Kreidler, Washington’s longest-serving current statewide elected official, immediately turned the conversation to her race and ethnicity, according to the job finalist, who is Japanese American and born in Hawaii.

His first question was whether her great-grandparents came over to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations or pineapple plantations, said the job applicant.

Kreidler went on to say he didn’t consider people of Japanese descent a minority or disadvantaged based on his experience going to school with many of them, according to the woman who spoke on the condition she wasn’t named for fear of damaging her career in state government.

By the end of the interview, she had already decided to withdraw her application.

“At one point I looked around, because I wasn’t sure if I was in one of those hidden camera shows,” said the woman, who currently works in a high-level position at another state agency. “Personally, I was just in shock. It was racist and highly offensive. ”

That job finalist is one of half a dozen former or potential employees who disclosed to The Seattle Times and public radio’s Northwest News Network instances of Kreidler being demeaning or rude, overly focused on race and using derogatory terms for transgender people and people of Mexican, Chinese , Italian or Spanish descent, as well as asking some employees of color for unusual favors. The instances are from 2017 to 2022.

Three former employees recounted how Kreidler, 78, used the racial slur “wetback” in a staff meeting when telling a story from decades ago about a friend’s racist reaction to Kreidler’s soon-to-be wife, who is Mexican American. In an interview, Kreidler said he didn’t recall the specific event, but acknowledged that he’s told that story over the years, “and if somebody took offense to it I feel bad about it.”

In another group meeting, Kreidler described a neighborhood in Tacoma as “Dago Hill,” which he said was a common nickname. In other instances, people heard Kreidler describe an old friend as a “Chinaman” and transgender people as “men with tits.”

Their stories reveal a disconnect between Kreidler’s public image as a progressive Democrat and his management style leading the 260-person agency.

A former policy analyst who is from India said Kreidler asked him to help arrange the commissioner’s travel to that country. A former executive assistant who is Korean American said Kreidler repeatedly asked her to help the commissioner communicate with his Korean neighbors. Another former executive assistant claims Kreidler threw travel documents back at her for booking an economy-class airline ticket – rather than a pricier business-class seat – for him to attend a climate change conference in Switzerland.

These stories by people – some of whom didn’t want to be named out of concern for career ramifications – build on a report last month by Northwest News Network that detailed workers saying Kreidler mistreated staff. Some point to the departure of five of Kreidler’s seven top deputies since March 2020, and an employee satisfaction survey showing high levels of dissatisfaction throughout the agency, as signs of dysfunction.

Kreidler said he’s been ahead of his time in pushing to stop discrimination, and that he’s worked through the years to be “politically correct.”

The insurance commissioner also acknowledged that he is often curious about people’s personal histories, such as his conversation with the job finalist.

He conceded to “every once in a while” using outdated or derogatory terminology.

Asked if he had any medical or cognitive conditions that might contribute to him making such remarks, the office in a statement said Kreidler “does not discuss his medical conditions or status with the media.”

Kreidler said he feels bad if he offended people. “I take a great deal of pride in what we’ve been able to accomplish here, in being able to help on issues of discrimination and to minimize it in society,” he said.

“There’s more that needs to be done to make sure people aren’t being harmed, and the last thing I want is to ever be in a position where anything I say or do overshadows that.”

A former state lawmaker and member of Congress, Kreidler was elected insurance commissioner in 2000. He is the top state regulator of Washington’s insurance industry, which includes approving rates and advocating for consumers and policyholders, with an annual salary of $ 140,110.

As a commissioner, Kreidler has advocated for a federal Affordable Care Act and reproductive health care, and founded a national climate-change working group among insurance officials. In Washington, he has pushed to make sure insurance companies cover medically necessary gender-affirming treatments and has worked to safeguard consumers against surprise health care bills.

And for the past two years, Kreidler has taken on the insurance industry in a quest to ban the use of credit scores to help determine insurance rates, calling it a discriminatory practice that hurts people in marginalized communities.

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