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June 18th, 2003 John Schrag | News Stories
 

Freshman Lawmaker off to a Wobbly Start

Rep. Derrick Kitts nabbed for drunk driving.

     
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IMAGE: stephen voss
Almost from Day 1 of the 2003 legislative session, 29-year-old state Rep. Derrick Kitts has battled the perception that he's more interested in making pals than making policy.

First sessions are often tough on lawmakers, and Kitts has struggled. Although he's well-liked and earnest, his penchant for practical jokes and hallway schmoozing has led some to dismiss the former Portland State wrestling-team captain as a lightweight. The baggage of that frat-boy image will undoubtedly get a bit heavier with the revelation that Kitts, a rookie Republican from Hillsboro, was arrested in February for drunk driving in Longview, Wash.

According to police records obtained by WW, Kitts drew the attention of Longview patrol officer Chris Trevino shortly after 2 am on Sunday, Feb. 16, when the lawmaker drove his white Ford pickup over a parking-lot curb before "bouncing and jolting" to a stop.

Trevino reported that when he approached Kitts, he noticed that his eyes were "bloodshot and sleepy" and he had "noticeable difficulty maintaining his balance." Trevino says Kitts told him he was parking his truck so he could visit a friend nearby. Kitts reportedly told the officer he'd "consumed six drinks" and, when prompted, recalled that he'd been at the Cadillac Ranch, a nearby casino. According to the report, Kitts also told Trevino, "I'm an Oregon state representative."

Kitts says he only mentioned his status as a lawmaker when Trevino asked his occupation. After Kitts told him, he says, the officer seemed more hostile. "From that point on, there was this whole chain of events," says Kitts. "That's when I decided I had to call my attorney and tell him I've got a problem with the way I'm being treated."

The legislator says he was in town visiting a friend and had a couple drinks, not six, at the casino. "I told him and I told my lawyer I had two cocktails," Kitts says. "I don't know why he put in his report that I said I had six drinks."

Kitts declined to take an on-the-spot preliminary breathalyzer test and, after calling a friend, contacted Stephen Petersen, a lawyer from Rainier, who drove to the station. According to the report, on Petersen's advice, Kitts again refused to take a breathalyzer test, which he now says was a mistake.

Under Washington law, failure to submit to a test is grounds for license revocation, according to Longview Police Chief Robert Burgreen. However, Kitts says he gets to keep his during an administrative appeals process.

The arrest appears to be the lawmaker's first serious brush with the law, though a review of court records shows an April 2000 bust for parking in a disabled space.

But legal problems aren't Kitts' only concern. His one-man landscaping business went belly-up: He spent the spring reviewing laws rather than mowing lawns. Money was so tight that he gave up his apartment, and he says he now rents a room from a friend in Hillsboro on the nights he's not in Salem. In fact, for his police report, Kitts listed the state Capitol as his address.

As for legislation, the gum-chewing ex-grappler is best known for his proposal to ban any state official--including university presidents and medical examiners--from earning more than the governor (whose salary is now at $93,000). His other big bill is a call for a "High-Tech Hall of Fame" in the Capitol. Kitts also is a co-sponsor of House Bill 2885, which would allow the state to revoke the driver's license of anyone convicted of drunk driving three times. Introduced in March, the bill passed both chambers and is now awaiting the governor's signature.

In Kitts' case, he may end up avoiding even the first strike. Longview lawyer Kevin Blondin, who is now representing Kitts, says that if Kitts completes a required alcohol-education program and complies with some other stipulations, the DUII conviction will be removed from his record and replaced with the charge of "negligent driving."

"The court said I've got a good record, so if I stay clean for a year, this goes away," Kitts says.

Making the charge disappear from Kitts' political record will be more difficult. "Drunk driver" never looks good on an opponent's direct-mail piece, and Kitts needs every vote he can get. Last November, he beat Democrat Aron Carleson by less than 200 votes, stressing his small-business background and conservative social politics--he's anti-abortion and pro-school voucher.

--WW intern Mike Kiefer assisted in researching this article.

 
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