Understanding Rodney Tom would teach Democrats a lot

State Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom Credit: John Stang

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 Moreover, he was a man who left behind a party that was rigid, out of touch and out of date.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.

Not the answer I expected.

“You supported Dino Rossi for governor in 2004. Do you now prefer Chris Gregoire?” “Yes! I think she’s doing a great job.” He listed several issues of mutual agreement, particularly education spending, and then he stoutly defended his support of transportation taxes. No hesitation on any question whatsoever. The man had found his home.

So why, seven years later, did he take a walk? Two issues stand front and center: The Democrats’ position on state spending, which Tom considers intellectually indefensible, and the party’s blind loyalty to the Washington Education Association, which Tom, and a growing number of progressives, considers morally indefensible.

Tom initially supported Gov. Gregoire’s spending plans, but was alarmed when she continued spending at levels too high to pay from existing taxes. When the recession hit, a financial hole became a canyon and it was plain that serious spending reforms were required. But instead the top priority for Tom’s Democratic colleagues was raising taxes to help cushion public employee unions from the impact of the recession. With a $2.5 billion shortfall facing the state in early 2010, several ideas to reduce, reform and restructure state spending were prepared that Tom supported. The Democratic leadership insisted that a “balanced approach” first required a repeal of Initiative 960, the law requiring a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes. Tom, who supported a cigarette tax, agreed, much to his regret.

“As soon as I-960 was repealed, all those proposals to reform state spending vanished,” he tells public audiences. With the supermajority requirement gone, and the Democrats holding a 31-18 majority, they pushed through a sales tax increase during a down economy. Tom ended up opposing the very budget he had been asked to help write, incurring public criticism from the Senate Majority Leader at the time, Lisa Brown. Sen. Margarita Prentice, then the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, dismissed Tom as a “very conflicted individual." The onetime rising Democratic star was kicked to the sidelines.

Lesson learned? Ah, no. Tom bided his time in the wilderness, and when Republicans made headway in the next election, reached across the aisle to work on fiscal restraint and education reform (while continuing to support the Marriage Equality bill and pro-choice legislation).

One hopeful sign was a charter school bill, which had impressive bipartisan support and the numbers to pass. But the Democratic chairs of both the House and Senate Education committees refused to allow their members to vote on the legislation, sinking it. That infuriated Tom and several prominent education reformers like liberal Seattle investor Nick Hanauer, who publicly lit into the party he has donated millions to over the years: “It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every important education reform issue. … We oppose charter schools. We oppose higher standards for kids. We oppose high standards for teachers. … We oppose accountability in all its forms. We oppose competition in any form. … We cling to the status quo while we fail the most vulnerable year after year. Washington state is now known as a reform backwater, a joke."

Anger over Democratic obstruction led Hanauer and others to fund the charter school initiative that passed last November against union opposition. In Seattle, being pro-union means you’re pro-education. Outside Seattle, it increasingly means the opposite. Danny Westneat, take note.

On the spending side, the Democratic leadership in both houses was using what Tom calls “Enron accounting” to create a patch quilt budget that kind of, theoretically, balanced. Pension reform? Forgetaboutit. The unions did grudgingly agree to pay 15 percent of the cost of their health plan, up from 12 percent. But most people in the private sector, if they have health insurance, pay about 25 percent. Tom came up with his own plan, dubbed "5-5-25" —  a 5 percent reduction in the state workforce, a 5 percent salary reduction, plus workers paying 25 percent of their health plan. Eventually, he and two equally fed up Democratic colleagues joined the Republicans and took control of the budget process, forcing through a budget far different than what Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp would have passed. The center of gravity in Olympia was shifting.

It shifted again when the Republicans surprisingly gained another senate seat in last November’s elections. With the budget still under water, the stage was set for the historic vote that vaulted Tom into the Majority Leader’s spot earlier this month. It last happened 50 years ago when progressive Republicans, including Dan Evans and Slade Gorton, put their votes behind Democrat William (Big Daddy) Day to seize power in the state House. This was back in the era when politicians didn’t mind being called “Big Daddy”.  But the House vote in ’63 was sprung on the majority Democrats at the last minute. In the Senate, the plan for a Majority Coalition was made public weeks before the organization vote. Several other Democrats, including senators from Federal Way and Lake Stevens, have now accepted chairmanships under the Majority Coalition plan.

Several of Tom’s critics insist that Washington voters want a liberal majority. But the voters last November didn’t vote liberal – they voted libertarian. Yes on legal marijuana and same-sex marriage, but also yes on charter schools, and (by 64 percent) to restore the two-thirds supermajority requirement to raise taxes. To make sure their point was heard, voters also scotched two tax increases affecting the banking and oil industries. When voters side with bankers and oil men against the government, that is a sign that new taxes aren't welcome from either party. Jay Inslee, who can read an electorate, campaigned not to raise them, and wisely reiterated that position after winning the governorship.

As the Senate slowly assembles a budget over the next few months, the senator calling the most important shots will be a Democrat who was busted down to Private by his own party three short years ago. It's bizarre that his critics call him an opportunist, because he picked a fight with his more liberal colleagues on principle, knowing he would be thrown off the leadership ladder in a state dominated by Democrats. Other critics call him inconsistent, but his views — not on parties certainly, but on issues — line up today with where they were when he entered politics. Today Rodney Tom, fiscally conservative, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, probably matches the basic views of the average Western Washington voter more accurately than any other legislator in the capitol.

Republicans on the west side of the mountains should study and learn from his example. Democrats, who love to point out that voters are repelled by the GOP’s stands on social issues, are turning off growing numbers of voters on fiscal and education issues, including at least two of their own senators. The Democrats think the new Majority Coalition is an anomaly. If they don’t change their priorities, it may be a trend.

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