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Rodney Tom Tells What it’s Like to be a Man in the Middle – Proud of Vote That Turned Senate Upside Down

Average Voter Thinks Both Parties are Crazy, He Says -- Interest Groups Push Lawmakers to Extremes

State Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, one of the three Democrats who triggered the biggest upheaval in the Legislature in the last 25 years.

OLYMPIA, June 15.—There are some – a very brave few – who might dispute him for the honor, but Rodney Tom can stake a pretty fair claim to being the most independent cuss in the Legislature. Where some might say they don’t like party labels, the Bellevue senator proved it when he switched his own from Republican to Democrat in 2006.

Then there was the time he voted against his party’s budget – a budget he wrote. And of course, there was that little incident this year that turned the Senate upside down, put the minority party in the driver’s seat, and changed the course of the session. Some, like state Sen. Margarita Prentice, have called him “a conflicted individual.” But to hear Tom tell the story of his 10 years at the statehouse, there is nothing inconsistent at all. It’s the record of a lawmaker who lives life in the middle.

“I have knocked on 30,000 doors over my political career, and I would say that if you were to sum it up, the average voter out there thinks both parties are crazy,” Tom says. And you get the idea that sometimes he agrees with them.

Tom is really the unsung member of the Democratic threesome that voted with the 22 Republicans this year and upended the Legislature. Together with state Sens. Tim Sheldon, D-Hoodsport, and Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, Tom managed to derail a Democratic budget plan that would have worsened the already dire budget situation the state faces next year, by shunting some $300 million in current expenses into the next budget. Their dramatic vote on the Senate floor allowed Republicans to dicker with the House Democrats and forge a bipartisan spending plan that eschewed major trickery and kept most programs reasonably whole. But while Sheldon, the most conservative Democrat in the Legislature, has never made his position a secret, and Kastama has been forced to explain his position time and again as he campaigns for secretary of state, Tom didn’t make a speech that dramatic night of March 2. And he hasn’t been quite so outspoken — except when people ask.

So that’s what Washington State Wire did.

“This isn’t a sporting event, our team against their team,” Tom explained over a cup of coffee at a Medina Tully’s. “It’s not about us versus them. It’s about how can 49 members in the Senate and 98 members in the House and the governor move the state forward. And so obviously I have been on the outside of the Republican Party. I am not dead center in the Democratic Party. So to me to not be perfectly aligned is kind of back home, and frankly, in a suburban swing district, that is where the voters are.”

All About Sustainability

State Sens. Jim Kastama, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon huddle in the rear of the Senate after they cast their vote March 2.

Back when Tom entered the University of Washington as a freshman in 1981, tuition was $353 a quarter, or $1,059 a year. He could pay his own way with a full-time summer job at a Farmer’s Insurance office, and by working part-time during the school year. His father was an auto mechanic in Eastgate; his mother cleaned houses. Their contribution was to allow him to live at home. It’s the kind of arrangement that just wouldn’t be possible today. Tuition next year will be a whopping $12,383 — the sort of tab that can’t be financed with a minimum-wage job.

Since 1981 costs have risen, but more importantly the state has ratcheted back its support for higher education. What it amounts to is a tax on college-bound youth and their parents, so that money can be spent elsewhere, says Tom, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. And the steep increase in tuition is a warning that there is something seriously out of whack about the way state government has set its priorities over the last 30 years. Higher education and state-employee pension contributions have taken the brunt when state budgets run short, simply because they are among the few areas where the state has discretion. Tom is not one to say he is dead-set opposed to new taxes that would take a bigger bite of the state’s productivity. But he says state government needs to make big changes, and the moment it becomes possible to raise taxes, or relieve pressure in other ways, all talk of reform seems to go out the window.

“What we have is sort of like a ship that adds barnacles after barnacles, instead of just saying that we need to take a look at the total scope of our activities and where we go from there,” he said.

Tom, who made his career in real estate, said it was concern over education financing that convinced him to enter politics. He attended an auction for his local Medina schools where $250,000 was raised. “I was looking at the items that were bought and I thought those seemed like they should have been a part of the education program. And then I started to think, I’ve done well in business – what happens to the kids who grew up like I did in Eastgate, where their parents don’t have two nickels to rub together, just trying to make it? They can’t raise $250,000. What happens to those kids? That’s really what drove me into politics.”

The Day His Mother Cried

Of course, there’s a key decision any budding politician has to make – which team? His parents had been Republicans, he was in business and it was sort of expected that those in business will be Republicans – and Tom says it really wasn’t something he thought he needed to think about. But when he won that first election and found himself in the House Republican Caucus meeting room, he says he found that his fellow Republicans didn’t put out the welcome mat for a fiscal conservative who took moderate positions on social issues. One of the first bills he signed onto was a gay-rights measure; he had a 100-percent voting record with NARAL. It wasn’t a good fit, he says.

“Everybody talks about a big tent, and the Democrats are a much bigger tent,” he said. “I can tell you with all the stuff I’ve done lately, I might not be their best friend, and I don’t know what they’re saying behind my back, but they have always treated me fairly to my face, and that just wasn’t going on in the Republican Caucus. I felt that if I was going to truly represent this district and have an impact that I was better off as a Democrat, because of my social views. I thought there was room in the Democratic party for someone who feels there are reasons we need fiscal sanity and that we truly need some of those progressive issues to be addressed.”

It was probably a mistake to run as a Republican in the first place, he says. “People ask, are you going to switch back again? And to me that is weird, just because I act in the middle. No I am not. But I think it is not for the weak of heart to change parties.”

There was that scene, for instance, when he had to come out to his parents. He says his mother cried.

Voted Against Own Budget

Tom and state Rep. Kelli Linville, the twin Democratic budget-writers of 2010. It was the last budget either would write.

After two sessions in the House as a Republican, Tom switched sides when he filed to run in the 2006 election for Senate. He quickly rose within the majority Democratic ranks, winning a position as budget-writer for the caucus in 2010. That forced him into a difficult spot. The state faced an enormous shortfall that year, because of ambitious spending plans adopted in previous years and a recession that yanked out the rug. Tom voted with his party to suspend Initiative 960, the measure that required an all-but-impossible two-thirds vote to raise taxes – and almost immediately talk of big reforms ended. Tom hoped to jettison the state liquor stores and the state printer. But labor rallied to their support and his fellow Democrats heeded the rumblings of umbrage from their biggest campaign supporter. Democrats wound up with a plan that would raise nearly $1 billion in new taxes in the first year alone.

“It came to a point where we needed to get 25 Democrats to vote for a budget, and it wasn’t a budget that I could see myself voting for, because of what I was seeing in the economy,” Tom said. “I just didn’t think we had realized that it was a reset point, and we weren’t going to bounce out of this thing in a one-year period. I had that conversation with my caucus a lot. I generally like to think of myself as a very positive person, but you know, it kind of comes back to my business principles, the Jack Welch principle – face reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.

“And people would sit there and say, well, why are you so negative? It is kind of that American concept, we all want to be positive, but if you go over the cliff and smile, it doesn’t help any.”

Cracks Begin to Show

So that was the end of Tom’s short career as a budget-writer. Next came perhaps the most dramatic vote of his career, the one that changed the course of the Senate. But what many beyond legislative circles may not understand is that it had been building for some time. Within the Legislature a group of moderate Democrats had banded together during the 2010 session, calling themselves the Roadkill Caucus, taking more moderate business-friendly positions than the rest of the Democrats and standing aloof from the drive for tax increases. Tom was drawn to it. Largely because Roadkillers threatened to vote as a bloc, Senate Democratic leaders were forced to negotiate a bipartisan budget with the Republicans in 2011.

Deep cracks became apparent among the Senate Democrats early this session, when Senate Education Chair Rosemary McAuliffe put her foot down on a pair of business-backed bills that would have permitted charter schools in this state and enacted a more rigorous teacher-evaluation process. The Washington Education Association, which Tom calls the most powerful interest group in the state, was firmly opposed. And what happened next was seemingly without precedent – certainly no one could remember anything like it. Tom and fellow Roadkiller Steve Hobbs announced they would stand with the Republicans on the committee and take no votes on any bills. That shut down the Education Committee and angry back-room confrontations threatened to shut down the Senate itself. “There are two ways to play that game, and the only negotiating strength was had was to say, well, you’re not going to get enough votes to pass anything. We played that card and nobody blinked.”

Ultimately the governor stepped in and brokered a compromise that Tom calls “Washington lite” – it isn’t the rigorous proposal that was originally suggested, and there’s a good chance that in practice it will have little effect. The charter-school proposal was dumped entirely.

The play set off a series of moves that led ultimately to the dramatic vote on the Senate floor March 2. Harder-line members of the Democratic caucus insisted that their party leaders remain firm on the budget, and Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and Senate Ways and Means Chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle, essentially stopped talking with Republicans – though of course there are infinite nuances in everyone’s explanations. Then Murray rolled out a budget that dug the state’s hole deeper. Centrist Democrats were forced to decide whether to take a stand. In the end, three agreed to vote with Republicans. It was the first time in 25 years anything like it had happened.

One Minute’s Notice

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown has a frank and open exchange of views with Tom on the Senate floor the night of March 2. Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, and Senate Democratic Floor Leader Tracy Eide fold their arms and breathe deeply.

Right up until the minute before the vote, Tom said he had no idea whether it would come together. “It was surreal. You know, people think it was perfectly choreographed. But my only notice was one minute prior, a text message from [Senate budget lead] Joe Zarelli. And boom, the next thing you know, [Sen. Don] Benton is standing up, and then it was really, kind of a – wow, the world is a different place.”

Tom watched the crowds fill the spectator benches overlooking the Senate. “There were all these blue suits filling the galleries. It was the Washington full employment act as far as the lobbyists up there watching it were concerned. It was clearly a historic moment. It was interesting watching people’s reactions sitting down there on the floor. And it was isolating. The three of us eventually withdrew to the back of the chamber, just because it was kind of a weird feeling when you are surrounded by members who at that point in time think you are the devil reincarnated.”

Washington State Wire snapped a few photos as they stood in the rear. Brown and Murray walked over, and there appeared to be a heated conversation, inaudible from the press table in the front of the chamber. “It was kind of, how could you guys do this to us?” Tom recalls.

Huge Outpouring

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, leads the 25-member coalition into battle at a March 15 news conference. Standing with Hewitt are Kastama, Tom and Sheldon.

Yes, it was tough. Tom had to explain himself to his constituents, and there were plenty of angry Democrats in his 48th District. There were thousands of emails, most positive. Tom says he didn’t face the same campaign Kastama did, where activists doorbelled homes in his Puyallup district and urged neighbors to put up signs saying, “We’re watching you.” Nor did Democrats come to him with offers of big transportation projects in return for a reversal. But maybe it was because people knew he wasn’t going to budge. “They knew it was going to be like talking to a brick wall,” Tom says.

For the next week, as the Legislature descended into chaos and furious Democrats had to decide whether even to recognize the new leadership in the Senate, Tom says he and Sheldon and Kastama went everywhere together. Safety in numbers.

A Bipolar System

The funny thing is that the final budget deal is one that every lawmaker seems to be taking home proudly, he says. But it takes a centrist coalition to make something like that happen, and to achieve a balanced result. The fact that it is so difficult demonstrates how the power of interest groups in campaign financing has polarized politics, he says.

“People are always like, well, you sure are friendly with those Republicans. Well, you know, boy, they spent $800,000 against me in my last race, so I can’t say they are in love with me. And the problem is that when I go to the natural allies of the Democratic Party – the WEA, if anything they are going to spend money against me, labor will probably spend money against me, the trial lawyers – well, maybe they like me. But the big natural big-dollar allies aren’t there. And you know, you can be pretty favorable to the business community, but just because I don’t have that R behind my name, they are probably going to spend money against me. So that’s one of the big issues, this campaign no-man’s land.

“I always tell people the second most important election this year is Sen. Kastama’s, for the simple fact that I hear on the street that people love what we did. Everybody is taking credit for it, but I don’t think it would have happened if the three of us hadn’t done what we did. I’m okay with that.

“But if Kastama can’t get the kind of backing and funding that I think he should get, because I think he would make a great secretary of state, I think it really sends a message to everybody that has even a tinkling of going out on the edge that if you want to have a political future, that maybe it is a nice thought, but it is not survivable.”