When you prevent a popular lawmaker like Ed Murray from being the new Senate Majority Leader, don’t expect bouquets from the Seattle media — especially if you're a Democrat who wins the coveted position with Republican votes. So, when Rodney Tom ascended to the Senate's top job, he was called “two faced” by online columnist Joel Connelly. The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat called him a Seattle basher. Even worse, he called him rich. And The Times’ Ron Judd, always a subtle touch, dismissed him as Benedict Arnold. In Seattle’s liberal and left wing blogosphere, “betrayal” is one of the milder words flying around.
But when Rodney Tom walked away from the Republican Party seven years ago, the media reaction was different. Quite different.
In 2006 state Rep. Rodney Tom, from Bellevue-Medina’s 48th District, switched parties and successfully won a state Senate seat as a Democrat. The media portrayed him as a new kind of Democrat, a fiscally moderate, pro-education and socially liberal legislator who could win in the suburbs. Moreover, he was a man who left behind a party that was rigid, out of touch and out of date. In short, when Rodney Tom switched from Republican to Democrat, the problem was the Republican Party. But when he walked away from the Democrats, the problem was Rodney Tom. He’s an opportunist, a hypocrite, a cynic, an unprincipled manipulator, etc.
He’s actually none of those things. I once thought he was, and said so, which is why I understand where his critics are coming from. But I was wrong back then, and so are his critics today. Rodney Tom is one of the most unique, original political figures I’ve come across in more than 30 years (and I’ve come across most of them). He’s intellectually consistent and doesn’t respect people who aren’t. He’s ambitious but utterly fearless about the consequences of his actions. An odd combination, that.
I first met Rodney Tom back in 2002 when our 7-year-old sons played on the same Little League team in Bellevue. We’d pass time in the outfield kibitzing about kids, work or whatever, and he eventually told me about his campaign for the legislature. He was a neophyte with no apparent political passions, but he had four things going for him. First, an impressive network of friends and supporters committed to helping him. Second, he was attractive, articulate and energetic. Third, he was a hard worker willing to knock on thousands of doors to meet the voters, and fourth, always important, he had exquisite timing. The House seat was open, no other serious Republican candidate was running for the job, and the Democrat was beatable. That November, the voters sent Rodney Tom to Olympia.
The Republican caucus was not a natural fit for Rodney. A social liberal, avid outdoorsman and anti-smoking activist, his goals ranked low or no on the Republican agenda.
I think the moment he contemplated a divorce from the GOP came in 2005, when he was heckled at a large Republican gathering in Bellevue for supporting a higher gasoline tax to pay for more transportation spending. He called the crowd’s reaction “completely inappropriate.” Months later, he announced that he was leaving the Republican Party and would run against incumbent Republican state Sen. Luke Esser. Again, good timing. 2006 was a Democratic year and Tom outdistanced the popular, easygoing Esser by 6 percentage points.
Back in early 1994, I interviewed another Republican legislator who jumped parties early in the Clinton administration. “Now that you’re a Democrat," I began, “are you supporting Gov. Mike Lowry for re-election?” The legislator faltered, hemmed and hawed. Follow-up questions about tax hikes and Hillarycare brought similar responses. She lost her next campaign handily.
My interview with Rodney Tom the day after he left the Republican Party started off in a similar vein. “Since you’re now a Democrat, do you think Hillary Clinton would make a good President? (this was a year before Senator Barack Obama became a candidate). “Yes, I think she’d make a great president!” he said.
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