The skills Republican Dino Rossi deploys as a politician were largely honed over nearly three decades as a real-estate salesman. He seems almost always to be in a cheerful mood, even when he's on the attack. And he knows how to sell himself.
OLYMPIA — Five years ago, when then-state Sen. Dino Rossi was pushing for deep spending cuts to address a huge state budget shortfall, hordes of union members marched outside his office chanting — to the tune of Frère Jacques — “Dino Rossi, Dino Rossi, cheap and mean, cheap and mean.”
Now, as he makes his second run for governor, Rossi’s opponents are going all out to paint him as evil incarnate, a heartless right-wing ideologue. Their ads and Web sites often feature a picture of a shifty, sinister-looking Rossi.
There’s a reason Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and her allies want to burn this image of Rossi into voters’ brains: He comes across in person and, more important, on TV as an affable, reasonable sort of guy.
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As Rossi says repeatedly these days in his stump speech, “If half the stuff she’s saying about me were true, I wouldn’t even vote for myself.”
The skills Rossi deploys as a politician were largely honed over nearly three decades of work in real estate. He seems to almost always be in a cheerful mood, even when he’s on the attack. And he knows how to sell himself.
His ability to connect with voters may help explain why recent polls suggest another tight race for governor despite a number of political strikes against Republican Rossi in Democrat-dominated Washington.
He has staunchly conservative views on abortion and gay rights. He’s been less than clear where he stands on global warming, and has misgivings about government-funded health care. He has been chummy in the past with President Bush — he even named his kids’ dog Dubya.
Yet in 2004, when then-Attorney General Gregoire was widely considered a shoo-in for governor, Rossi came within a whisker of becoming the first Republican elected governor here in nearly a quarter-century. He finished less than 2 percentage points behind Gregoire in last month’s primary, and most polls show this year’s rematch a near dead heat.
Seattle pollster Stuart Elway points out that in modern times, the only Republicans who managed to get elected to statewide office have been abortion-rights moderates.
While Rossi may be well right of Washington’s electorate, he gets around it by simply not talking about the most divisive hot-button issues, Elway said.
“He comes across as the most moderate candidate the Republicans have put up [for governor] in 20 years,” Elway said. “People apparently respond to his personality. They like that he’s easygoing and relatively soft-spoken.”
When he ran for the Legislature in East King County, his campaigns were focused more on issues than personality, Rossi said. But it’s just the opposite running for governor, he said: At least 60 percent of the job is selling yourself to voters.
His campaign’s media strategy, he said, is to “just have me talking to the camera, so hopefully people will connect and understand who I am and where we’re going.”
“He’s always smiling”
Rossi, 48, was born and raised in Seattle. His childhood had its share of hardships — an alcoholic mother, an ailing father. On the campaign trail, he talks a lot about his humble “I-thought-everybody-drank-powdered-milk” upbringing.
It’s a story that plays well with his supporters.
“I’ll be there to help you with anything you want,” Skagit County Commissioner Don Munks told Rossi at a recent campaign fundraiser in Mount Vernon.
Munks, a cattle rancher, figures he has known Gregoire three times as long as he’s known Rossi — but he’s never found her as approachable as the former state senator.
“They are clearly both very driven people,” Munks said. “He just comes across as being very sincere, genuine. I’m sure she is too, but she has a hard time getting it across.”
Curt Cleaveland, who was one of Rossi’s closest friends when they attended Seattle University in the early 1980s, said whenever people met Rossi back then, it was “practically automatic” they would like him.
“Some of this sounds cliché,” said Cleaveland, an airline pilot who lives in Burien. “But he is a genuine guy. He’s never told me a lie, even a white lie.”
As was the case when he was in the Legislature, Rossi has a knack for catchy sound bites. The overarching theme of his campaign is that, after more than 20 years of Democratic governors in Olympia, it’s time for a change.
“It’s been the same people shuffling around these state agencies back and forth for a generation,” Rossi said. “It’s been the same people down there smoking each other’s exhaust for a very long time.”
Though Rossi was first elected to the state Senate in the mid-1990s when Christian conservatives dominated the state Republican Party, he’s avoided being branded part of that movement.
That’s partly because he’s extremely disciplined about sticking to his moderate-sounding message.
Early in his political career, Rossi spoke openly about his opposition to abortion and gay rights. Now, he never brings up such issues and, when pressed, says he has no plans to make policy in those areas.
Instead, he talks mostly about state-government spending and such issues as transportation, education and the business climate.
Former state Sen. Shirley Winsley, a moderate Republican from Pierce County, said Rossi is more conservative than he comes across. But she said he is also a political pragmatist whose strongest suit is his ability to turn on the charm.
“He has such a good personality,” Winsley said. “He’s always smiling.”
But Democrats say Rossi is a political chameleon who is using that smile to deceive voters. They say Rossi admitted as much last year while speaking to a Republican club in Pierce County.
“I’ve found you can do pretty much anything you want if you do it with a smile on your face,” Rossi said. “It’s amazing what you can get away with if you do it with a smile on your face.”
The rules of politics
As a real-estate salesman, Rossi likes to say, you don’t get paid until you find a way for both the buyer and seller to be successful. He says that same rule applies in politics.
Rossi’s biggest political achievement came in 2003, when as the Senate’s chief budget writer he played a key role in tackling a record $2.3 billion state budget shortfall. He did it by aggressively courting several Democrats and persuading them to go along with an array of deep spending cuts.
“Olympia is about relationships,” Rossi said. “It’s people skills.”
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane says it is clear Rossi has a talent for building personal relationships. “He’s a very friendly person to talk to,” she said.
But she said she doesn’t think there’s a lot of substance behind Rossi’s sunny disposition.
“With Gov. Gregoire, you pretty much know that she is going to be intellectually involved with the issue,” Brown said. “With him, I didn’t really see that.”
Gregoire has a reputation as an active manager, a details person who is well-versed on a broad spectrum of topics.
Sen. Darlene Fairley of Lake Forest Park, the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget committee in 2003, said that’s definitely not Rossi’s style.
“He’s not good at coming up with ideas,” Fairley said. “But, frankly, as a salesman, you’re not selling something you made, you’re selling something somebody else made.”
Rossi has no real experience as an executive, so it’s hard to know what kind of manager he would be.
He says his approach as governor would be to set an overall vision for the state and then sell that vision to the public and political leaders. A governor shouldn’t micromanage, he said, and needn’t know “every nook and cranny” of public policy.
“We can hire managers,” Rossi said. “We need a leader.”
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org