Switch hitter: Rodney Tom bats .250 in 2013 session

When Democrat Rodney Tom joined Republican Senators last December, some Olympia watchers hoped for a new era of bipartisanship. That didn't happen.
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State Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom

When Democrat Rodney Tom joined Republican Senators last December, some Olympia watchers hoped for a new era of bipartisanship. That didn't happen.

When the legislature finally closes shop in budget years, I'm often reminded of an old Charles Addams New Yorker cartoon. A doctor emerges from the maternity ward and looks at a rather peculiar-looking man. "Congratulations," he says. "It's a baby." 
Congratulations, Olympia. It's a budget. Late, ugly, on the eve of a government shutdown. The long, difficult labor has produced, for better or ill, a roadmap for the new biennium.
Both sides claimed a tired victory. Republicans touted funding education, Democrats were happy to have preserved some social services and closed some tax loopholes. But Democrats were left with what might have been had they controlled the legislature. Republicans were left with a business-as-usual budget without many of the "reforms" they'd hope to get. The budgets of recent years always feel less like a miraculous birth and more like Olympia has coughed up a gag-inducing hairball. 
Even with a slightly better economic picture, the politics of gridlock seem to be sticking around. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Last fall, it looked like the Democrats would control the governorship and both legislative houses, but two apostate senate Democrats, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, swung the senate majority to a coalition dominated by Republicans.  It was a big political gamble, the outcome uncertain even for those who initiated the coup. Said Rodney Tom, who became majority leader in the Senate, "If I was doing this for political ambition, I must be an idiot because I have no clue going forward how this works."
With that comment, Tom set the bar for himself, appropriate for a guy who wants to measure the results of schools and teachers. What Tom did, he says, he did not do for political gain, but for the greater good. He was standing up for the little guy, the non-Seattleites, the regular folks who hate partisanship in Olympia. He went on: "Most people are non-political. They think both parties are crazy and what they want is for us to find solutions instead of getting in this partisan gridlock where it’s all about the next election cycle and I think that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish here. Let’s focus on solutions."
Of course, for a man who has been in both parties and feels at home in neither, and who is distrusted by both conservatives and liberals, Tom is in a precarious situation trying to bring people together from groups he's both rejected. 
Most people, I would wager, would see the new state budget less as a solution and more of a kicking the can down the road —business as usual, and crafted by people highly conscious of the next election cycle. Long-term funding of education is still to be resolved. Tax breaks and loopholes: the work of closing them has barely begun, so Boeing and the bull semen lobby are happy. A fairer, more progressive tax system in Washington? Barely discussed. A bipartisan package aimed at keeping Washington's transportation system competitive? It couldn't pass Tom's Senate, running afoul of gridlock. All the more remarkable because roads and bridges seem to be one thing right and left, Dry side and Wet side can usually make a deal on. If ruling from the center was supposed to ring in a new era of cooperation and enlightened governance, we're still waiting.
In taking the gamble, Tom became the owner of the process. Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times says, "This is Rodney Tom’s state now. As much as it is anyone’s in politics." Crosscut's Olympia-watcher extraordinaire John Stang writes that "Rodney Tom took a gamble and won." What kind of a win for Tom remains to be seen. He effectively held his coalition together. But no one emerged unsoiled from the sessions, special and otherwise. The future political balance of power will undoubtedly shift with elections, with revenge-seeking, with shuffles at the top. The particular dynamics that allowed Tom to mount a successful coup won't necessarily be repeated in the future. The politics of finger pointing and partisanship remain unchanged. So does the determination of the parties to elect more reliable members and increase their majorities.
It is interesting to see some dynamics shaping up. One trend was how much the Eastside was a player in Olympia's decision-making. Ross Hunter and Rodney Tom from the same Bellevue district were battling over the budget even as they were session roommates in Olympia — the pillow talk must have been fascinating. Judy Clibborn, pragmatic Democrat of Mercer Island was working hard to get a transportation bill passed only to see it fail once then be resurrected in the House, only to die in the Senate. Eastside GOP moderates Steve Litzow and Andy Hill played key roles in Tom's coalition. 
The Eastside is split between Blue and Red politically, and Tom is an apostle of Purple. A centrist coalition of the suburbs, acting as a balance between urban and rural interests, has emerged but whether it forms a block that can deliver real, sustainable leadership over time remains to be seen. One outcome of Tom's coup will be to undoubtedly energize both parties to lock down the suburbs politically — to partisanize races where they can.
The failure of the transportation package dumbfounded Gov. Jay Inslee and has turned the state's system into a battlefield of social engineering. Doug MacDonald, in his Crosscut series, pointed to some significant problems with some of the House's proposals for this session —too much money for highways and not enough on fixing stuff, like I-5. The big sticking point, however, was the Columbia River Crossing — the planned new bridge between Washington and Oregon. With echoes of the fight between Sound Transit and anti-rail developer Kemper Freeman over running rail across the I-90 bridge to Bellevue, Clark County Republicans are determined to keep light rail — even Portland's light rail — off any new Columbia River bridge.
Arguments against range from rail being a poor investment to worries that it will bring the "wrong" sort of people to Vancouver. Another view seems to be that it will make doing business in Portland too appealing. In other words, if the car commute gets frustrating enough, Washingtonians will stop going to Portland for work and set up shop in Washington. Others argue that the project won't do enough to relieve congestion — in other words, it's not car centric enough. We've seen some of this in the battle over East Link light rail in Seattle, and we're likely to see more as transit-oriented urban areas want more folks to get out of their cars — something that is seen as posing a threat to the suburban, car-centric Republican base and its economic model. 
The Vancouver-Portland contrast is obvious to anyone who has ventured off of I-5 there. Clark County is chock-a-block with ghastly, big box sprawl, Portland is a heaven for cyclists and rail riders and a pioneer of urban planning. Bellevue's big city ambitions have adjusted to making the most of regional rail, while Clark County is trying to fend it off as if it's a case of plague. The bridge is literally caught in the middle.
Tom and his allies sometimes fell into that kind of city-vs.-suburb split in their rhetoric. Westneat caught that in a January column: "The new Senate Majority Leader, Rodney Tom, D-Medina, got into the spirit when he said he’s promoting “middle-class values” instead of a “Seattle-centric approach.” (Translation for Seattle yuppies: You’re insufferable.)" That culture war — implying that Seattle is not for normal people like the rest of the state — has been used successfully by Republican politicians over the years (Slade Gorton is the classic example of the successful Seattle-basher), but demonizing urbanization and city folk it is hardly the stance to take if seeking a moderate, sensible, centrist majority. Allowing the debate to be held hostage to class war politics and city-bashing won't help pave the way to bipartisanship.
Failing to pass the transportation plan might have been not all bad from a policy standpoint — it arguably didn't do enough for transit, bikes or infrastructure repair. But it ended the session on a sour note for the hopes that divisive politics in Olympia were over, the pragmatism reigned, and that Rodney Tom's post-partisan solution politics worked as advertised.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.