A story Tim Eyman tells about the first time he met Dino Rossi goes like this:
The Republican state senator approached the anti-tax activist with a suggestion: “Why don’t you threaten to do a referendum on any tax or fee increase that passes this legislative session?’”
Eyman told Rossi it would be impossible to bring all those potential taxes to the ballot.
“He replied, ‘Well, the Democrats don’t know that,’” Eyman said. “And he just started laughing.”
Not long after that 2003 conversation at a King County Republican Party fundraiser – which Rossi said might have happened, but he doesn’t remember it – Eyman promised what he called a “voter veto” of any taxes. Months later, the Legislature passed a budget that avoided tax increases.
Rossi, who played a key role in writing that budget, was a dedicated fiscal conservative long before a 2010 campaign in which seemingly every candidate is a fiscal conservative, responding to an economic collapse, an anti-tax movement and concern in the broader electorate about spending, bailouts and debt.
Challenging Sen. Patty Murray, Rossi sounds much the same as he did in his pair of unsuccessful campaigns for governor. The real estate salesman from Sammamish is once again selling himself, his business acumen and most of all his work to balance the 2003 state budget.
He told a voter at a recent campaign stop that he’s going to tackle the deficit “exactly how I did it in Olympia, but on a much grander scale.”
NO TAX INCREASES
Everywhere he goes on the campaign trail, Rossi tells voters that as Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman – “That’s the most powerful position in our state, next to governor,” he says – he balanced the budget without raising taxes.
Rossi and Republicans who controlled the Senate joined with Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, in opposing tax increases to close a $3 billion deficit. They largely prevailed over the Democrats who led the House and worried budget cuts would be too deep.
Writing what was widely described as a no-new-taxes budget, lawmakers rejected proposals for new or higher taxes on cigarettes, candy and liquor.
They did increase the state markup on liquor by 42 cents per liter and raise fees on nursing home residents. Separate from the budget he wrote, Rossi also backed a transportation budget that raised fuel taxes by 5 cents per gallon.
He has made opposition to tax increases a major focus of his Senate campaign. Like other Republicans and some Democrats in Congress, he wants to extend all of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Democratic leaders want to extend most of them, while letting lower rates for the wealthiest taxpayers expire.
Either plan, and especially the full extension, would make it harder to reduce the deficits that Rossi poses as the major threat to the American way of life.
Rossi has a few examples of how he would cut spending – such as canceling stimulus projects, allowing attrition to reduce the federal payroll and a plan for ending Congress’ bank bailout that is based on outdated numbers – but largely says he would figure it out on the job. Rossi says he knows he can do it because he did in Olympia.
“They said, ‘There’s no way you can do this unless you, you know, throw widows and orphans in the street.’ It was complete nonsense,” he said. “Because all the things that you can do that they don’t even talk about, that are kind of small pieces, but they all add up, one line at a time.”
In making the state budget cuts, he tells voters he was willing to stand up to interest groups that demanded more government spending.
He tells the story that puts him up against what he calls “the most radical union on the face of the planet,” which wanted him to raise taxes so he could give raises to “state employees that have no chance of losing their jobs.”
Home health care workers in the Service Employees International Union wanted a more generous contract. Paid $7.68 an hour with no benefits at the time, the workers wanted $9.75 an hour, health coverage and insurance for on-the-job injuries. The Senate balked.
Rossi says 500 SEIU members dressed in purple gathered outside his office window, chanting a song to the tune of “Frere Jacques:” “Dino Rossi, Dino Rossi; cheap and mean, cheap and mean.”
As he tells it, the budget maestro stood at the window moving his hands like he was conducting an orchestra.
The Legislature ended up giving home care workers smaller raises that year, and no benefits. David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775, said the workers who help poor and disabled people weren’t government employees, though they bargain with the state for compensation.
“The narrative that Dino Rossi likes to use (is) that somehow he stood up to government employees,” Rolf said. “These were not white-collar bureaucrats. These are folks that lift (a client) out of the bathtub and make sure she gets to the doctor.”
Facing off with labor groups fits with the pro-business record Rossi established in Olympia.
He supported freezing the state’s minimum wage in years when the state’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average, and in 2003 backed a measure that limited benefits for laid-off workers.
Democrats target those positions now, but at the time, Senate Democrats joined Rossi and Republicans in supporting the unemployment-benefits overhaul. It was part of a series of reforms and tax breaks designed to persuade Boeing to build its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in Washington.
Asked if he ever stood up to powerful pro-business interest groups the way he did unions, Rossi said he didn’t need to; the powerful interests in Olympia are mostly anti-business, he said.
Democrats have criticized Rossi for voting with one powerful business lobby, the Building Industry Association of Washington. As evidence that he was too cozy with lobbyists in Olympia, the state Democratic Party points to a business deal early in his seven-year Senate career, buying an apartment complex in Federal Way with investors that included two BIAW lobbyists.
Rossi has maintained there was nothing improper about the investment. In fact, he brings up the property – Windsor Court Apartments, plagued by drugs and violence before Rossi cleaned it up, booted most of the tenants and sold it at a profit – in talking about his successes in business.
A self-made millionaire, Rossi brings a business background to politics – an understanding of what it’s like to sign the front of a paycheck, he says. He hasn’t managed large payrolls, but has supervised maintenance workers and property managers such as Gloria Stinde, who ran Windsor Court and calls Rossi “the best boss I ever had.”
When Rossi tells audiences about the SEIU’s “cheap and mean” chant, he acknowledges the first charge, but disputes the second.
In a budget that hit state workers hard, he says he protected the most vulnerable state residents from cuts. For his work, he tells audiences, he was applauded by the AARP and groups advocating for the developmentally disabled.
He also was criticized for his cuts. Democrats’ attacks since then, including in this year’s race, refer to his budget’s tightened eligibility requirements for children’s medical coverage.
The budget plan would have made 40,000 fewer children eligible for medical coverage, if that cut hadn’t been rejected in negotiations. Republicans say that even with the change, the budget would have covered 4,000 more children than had been covered in previous years.
A cut that wasn’t made endeared Rossi to one Democrat.
Republicans had gained control of the Senate in the November 2002 elections, but they had only a wafer-thin 25-24 majority. Democrats had an equally narrow majority in the House. The parties would have to work together.
Newly installed as budget chairman, Rossi hit the road, wooing moderate Senate Democrats whose votes he would need.
At the Red Robin restaurant in Federal Way, then-Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, told him she wanted to preserve grants to school districts aimed at preparing young children for kindergarten.
Months later, the Senate budget included money for the program. Rasmussen voted for it, one of four Democrats to cross over. “I told him I would,” she said, “if he kept his promise for early learning.”
ACROSS THE AISLE
Rossi plays up those bipartisan credentials. He worked not just with moderate and conservative Democrats, but also with liberals such as Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, he said. “It’s amazing how much common ground you can find,” Rossi said.
Kline and Rossi worked together on a slate of legislation to crack down on drunken drivers, including a law Rossi authored to require ignition interlock devices for drivers stopped with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or higher.
Rossi was willing to work with Democrats, Kline says, though he noted the drunken-driving legislation wasn’t particularly controversial.
Rossi’s low-key demeanor helped him. “He’s not a grandstander,” Kline said. “I’m not going to name names here, but there are some that will pick up that microphone and say the damndest things.”
On issues in the Senate campaign, Rossi, like Murray, generally toes his party’s line.
He said he can’t think of any issue facing the country now in which he departs from his party. Had he been in Congress in 2008, though, he says he would have opposed the bank bailout that passed with help from both Republicans and Democrats, including Murray, and at the urging of President George W. Bush.
He is opposed to the Democrats’ signature pieces of legislation – the stimulus, the health care overhaul, new Wall Street rules.
Rasmussen said she thinks those hard-line positions will keep Rossi from being as bipartisan in Washington, D.C., as he was in Washington state.
The last Republican Washington sent to the Senate gives Rossi more credit. Former Sen. Slade Gorton predicts Rossi would take a careful look, for example, at the suggestions of President Barack Obama’s bipartisan commission trying to reduce the more than $13 trillion national debt.
“His relatively short time in Olympia,” Gorton said, “was on exactly the subject that is the most important and emergent in Washington, D.C.: How to cause a governmental body to live within its means.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics