In a year when the national political spotlight has followed fiery tea-party candidates arising seemingly out of nowhere to upend the political establishment, Dino Rossi's story is different. Although the U.S. Senate candidate is playing off voter anger and vowing to repeal President Obama's signature legislative accomplishments Rossi is no tea-party insurgent.
At a recent campaign stop in Lynnwood, Dino Rossi’s opening lines were dire and to the point.
“America is in trouble,” Rossi told a Rotary Club luncheon crowd. “If we don’t have a course correction in this election we’re going to wake up 24 months from now in a country we don’t even recognize.”
From bank and car-company bailouts to federal control of health care, he warned, “you’re witnessing the fundamental redefinition of America — and we can’t let that stand.”
It was a grim message, but one that Rossi delivered with a smile, stepping out from behind the lectern and working the room like a salesman, making eye contact with individual audience members as he mixed his own rags-to-riches biography with political talking points.
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In a year when the national political spotlight has followed fiery tea-party candidates arising seemingly out of nowhere to upend the political establishment, Rossi’s story is different. Although he’s playing off voter anger and vowing to repeal President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishments — the Wall Street and health-care overhauls — Rossi is no tea-party insurgent.
A former state senator with as much name recognition as any incumbent politician in the state, Rossi was recruited personally by top Republican leaders to challenge Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. His campaign has been aided by GOP establishment donors, including a billionaire New York hedge-fund manager and the big-business-backed U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Though frequently portraying himself as a reluctant candidate — in his Lynnwood speech he said he’d be perfectly happy out of politics — Rossi, who turns 51 this week, has been in political office or running for office more often than not since he was 32.
After all that time, he’s best known not for any legislative or electoral triumph, but for an election he lost: Washington’s bitterly contested 2004 governor’s race. After two recounts and an unsuccessful lawsuit, Rossi lost to Democrat Chris Gregoire by just 133 votes. He lost a rematch four years later by 195,000 votes.
Despite those defeats, Rossi’s supporters say he couldn’t ask for a better political climate for a comeback, with the economy and government spending topping voter concerns, and Democrats suffering a wave of voter backlash.
“Voters know Dino as a candidate. It’s not like he has been deep inside D.C., and his time in the state Senate was limited,” said Reed Davis, political-science professor at Seattle Pacific University and former chairman of the King County Republican Party. “You can’t wrap the insider label on him.”
Democrats charge there is nothing fresh about Rossi, citing his connections to George W. Bush and Karl Rove to suggest he’d just hand the country back to the same group responsible for running the economy into the ground.
“He is not a new face, au contraire,” said Ron Dotzauer, a Democratic political consultant. “There is a bit of a fatigue factor with Rossi.”
A humble start
Rossi’s biography by now is familiar to anyone who’s heard his stump speeches over the last eight years. His mother fled an abusive relationship in Alaska and lived in public housing for a time in Seattle before marrying his father, a public-school teacher. Rossi grew up poor, the youngest of seven siblings, in Mountlake Terrace.
After working his way through Seattle University as a janitor, Rossi sold real estate and bought his first apartment building when he was 25.
Rossi became a conservative political activist, volunteering for Republican candidates including Slade Gorton and campaigning against Initiative 120, a 1991 measure protecting abortion rights in Washington state. The measure was approved by voters.
He launched his own political career in 1992, running for the state Senate in the newly created 5th Legislative District.
He’d moved his family to Sammamish 18 months earlier from Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood — a move a 1991 Seattle Times column said was calculated in part so he could run for political office in a more Republican-friendly area. Rossi said he wanted to move to a community with more children.
Rossi won the Republican primary, beating a group of pro-abortion-rights rivals as the lone abortion opponent, but he lost to Democrat Kathleen Drew in November.
In 1996, Rossi ran against Drew again and won. Within two years, he’d risen to deputy Republican leader and landed a seat on the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Rossi’s defining moment as a lawmaker came in 2003, when the state faced a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. As lead budget writer for the Senate, Rossi allied with Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and insisted on budget cuts to fill the hole, blocking tax increases favored by some Democrats.
At the same time, Rossi halted some proposed cuts to nursing homes and programs for the developmentally disabled. He frequently cites that as proof he’s “a fiscal conservative with a social conscience.” But Democrats have pounded Rossi for other cuts he unsuccessfully pushed, such as eliminating Medicaid coverage for 40,000 children.
Later that year, with Locke leaving office after two terms, Republicans were searching for a solid gubernatorial candidate.
Rossi, encouraged by President Bush and other GOP leaders, decided to jump in, and he quit the Legislature in December 2003.
Running as a business-friendly moderate focused on pocketbook issues, Rossi appealed to crossover voters he called “Dino-crats” and nearly became Washington’s first Republican governor since 1985. Supporters say he’s always shown an ability to connect with regular voters, with a common-sense message of lower taxes and frugal government.
“When he speaks in front of audiences, there is a genuineness about him that is real and people perceive,” said J. Vander Stoep, a close Rossi political adviser during his gubernatorial runs. “He’s not an angry person and he doesn’t come off as an angry person.”
Rossi’s loss to Gregoire in 2004 was the closest governor’s race in state history. Initially declared the winner, Rossi assembled a transition team for a move into the governor’s office. After two recounts, his victory was reversed, making Rossi a nationally known figure among supporters who remain convinced he was robbed. A judge found no basis for Republican claims of voter fraud.
In the 2008 rematch, Rossi lost by a much wider margin, swamped by a Democratic wave that put Obama into office. Even so, Rossi showed his ability to reach beyond traditional Republican voters, outpolling the party’s presidential nominee, John McCain, by 175,000 votes in Washington state.
After that defeat, Rossi told friends he was done with politics and returned to the business world.
As has often been the case, connections he’d made in politics paid off. He joined an Everett real-estate company co-owned by Tom Hoban, a prominent campaign supporter. Rossi used his celebrity and business acumen to persuade wealthy clients to invest in apartment buildings.
“Every company cares about its brand. Dino Rossi is a very appealing brand to a lot of people,” Hoban said.
Rossi was lured back to politics last spring by GOP leaders who feared they wouldn’t otherwise field a top-notch challenger to Murray, which would have meant essentially conceding a contest that could make the difference in whether Republicans retake a Senate majority.
In his return to political life, Rossi has been aided by seasoned national GOP operatives. His chief campaign spokeswoman, Jennifer Morris, came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. Campaign manager Pat Shortridge was a longtime aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and recently worked on Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio’s successful primary campaign. (Among the interests Shortridge listed in an online bio: “pummeling liberalism with a sack of doorknobs.”)
Rossi also has been aided by millions of dollars worth of independent ads from conservative groups, including American Crossroads, a group conceived by GOP mastermind Karl Rove.
While Democrats have spent years trying to paint Rossi as a radical right-winger, that argument was blunted this year when he faced criticism from the conservative tea-party wing of the Republican base.
Clint Didier, the former NFL player and Pasco farmer who placed third behind Rossi in the August primary, refused to endorse Rossi without promises of stronger stances against abortion, taxes and federal spending. Rossi refused to bow to those demands.
Visit to “stimulus land”
Rossi has steadfastly stuck to the national Republican script in his campaign, relentlessly reminding voters that unemployment remains high even after billions of dollars in corporate bailouts, earmarks and stimulus spending.
But a recent tour of Whidbey Island crystallized the challenge Rossi sometimes faces in making that argument against Murray, the 18-year incumbent who has directed hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money to Washington businesses and projects.
During a stop at Nichols Bros. shipyard in Freeland in Island County, Rossi and company executives ducked out of a light rain to stand beneath giant canvas shelters protecting ferries under construction.
The shelters were paid for with $841,000 in federal stimulus money, and when shipyard CEO John Collins was asked whether the Murray-backed stimulus bill had created jobs, his answer was simple: “Absolutely.”
Besides paying for the shelters, Collins said the stimulus had boosted shipyard orders, helping the company employ 80 more workers than it did a year ago.
Later that day, Rossi visited Krieg Concrete Products, an Oak Harbor business whose owners strongly back Rossi for his business-friendly attitude and his consistent opposition to higher taxes. But Krieg also benefited from stimulus dollars that paid for a county road project.
The Whidbey News-Times commented in an editorial on Rossi’s swing through “stimulus land,” saying he’d chosen a “strange place” to pitch his small-government philosophy.
Chuck Krieg, co-owner of the company, said that was unfair. “He (Rossi) isn’t necessarily arguing that projects like that should never happen, but he’s questioning the overall philosophy of how they are funded,” Krieg said in an interview. “They haven’t been all wise decisions for the country as a whole, nor this state.”
While Rossi has been consistent in his warnings that a $13 trillion federal debt will destroy America as we know it, he’s been vague about whether his demands for less federal spending would mean sacrificing any Washington state road project, military contract or other allocation. He’s backed a ban on earmarks but refuses to say whether that means specific projects would no longer receive money.
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in the regular budget process,” Rossi repeats in answer to such questions. He said he’d reduce federal spending the same way he did with state spending in 2003. That means going through the budget “line by line by line,” he said.
If he is able to defeat Murray, it would be a remarkable turnaround for a politician thought to be finished after two high-profile defeats.
While Murray’s long incumbency would normally be a high hurdle to overcome, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton said this year it may only help Rossi.
“People who want change will not regard seniority as an advantage,” said Gorton, the Republican who rode a similar wave of voter disenchantment to beat 36-year Democratic incumbent Warren Magnuson in 1980.
“The great bulk of voters in the middle wished well for the Obama administration when it started and are extremely disappointed,” Gorton said. “Dino Rossi offers a dramatic change.”
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org