STATE Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom made a habit of turning state politics upside down. He did it again Monday when he announced he won’t run for re-election. But this time you might wonder, what will become of the Legislature without him?
The Medina Democrat was one of the most significant players at the Capitol in recent years, and no doubt the single member who had the greatest effect. Disowned by Democrats and not quite a Republican, he walked a lonely path.
Yet those who value bipartisanship, moderation and fiscal responsibility will note his example as among the finest the Legislature has to offer. Together with a handful of other lawmakers, Tom prevented one-party rule from prevailing during the tough years following the Wall Street meltdown. He helped steer the Legislature down the middle. And now that he is leaving, voters ought to be very, very nervous.
Tom’s influence helped block massive tax increases, ended the slashing of higher education and stopped stratospheric tuition increases. Crucial reforms were enacted, the most important: a four-year balanced-budget requirement. The rule should prevent the sort of unsustainable spending that got the Legislature in so much trouble during the recent recession, if lawmakers allow it to stand.
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Tom, currently the Democratic leader of a largely Republican Senate majority, never cared much for party labels. He wore both during a dozen years in state politics, and neither fit him well. He started as a Republican in the House but felt marginalized because of his moderate positions on social issues. He changed parties to run for state Senate in 2006 and found himself appalled at Democratic resistance to fiscal reforms.
Disenchanted with his adopted party’s deference to labor unions, trial lawyers and other special-interest groups, Tom was among those who pressed for compromise with Republicans. He joined two other Democrats in voting for a GOP budget in 2012, effectively handing control to the other team. He finally crossed the Rubicon at the start of the 2013 session, when he and fellow Democrat Tim Sheldon of Potlatch formed a coalition with 23 Senate Republicans and forced the remaining 24 Democrats into the minority.
Their move changed the course of the Legislature, providing a balance with the Democrat-controlled House and governor’s mansion. As Democrats scoffed, the Majority Coalition Caucus wrote a budget that contained spending reforms and avoided general tax hikes. Yet, leaders invited Senate Democrats into negotiations and forged a deal reflecting both parties’ principles.
Under Tom, the caucus really wasn’t a Republican majority plus two. Instead, it emphasized down-the-middle principles and downplayed divisive issues like guns and abortion.
“We kept our focus on the things people care about — jobs, education and the budget,” Tom said.
Odds are, his choices limited his political future. Tom was likely in for a huge battle this election season; his fellow Democrats were determined to beat him at the polls. If the Republicans won an outright majority, he might have been dumped as leader.
But this was one of the many refreshing things about him: Tom simply didn’t care.
As he prepared to launch his campaign, he insists polling showed he probably would survive; it was his need to care for his 85-year-old father, who was hit by a car, that led Tom to exit.
Tom leaves unbowed and with much to be proud of — perhaps the most independent lawmaker in the Legislature’s history. Ultimately, what he represented is important: the idea that solutions serving citizens, rather than special interests, are born in the middle.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).