Tom says he’ll run as a Democrat, even though he’s shunned as a turncoat by the party for allying with Republicans in 2013 to take control of the state Senate and leading a Majority Coalition Caucus.
Rodney Tom, the party-switching power broker who left the Legislature four years ago, is mounting a comeback bid.
Tom says he will run for his old state Senate seat in the Eastside’s 48th Legislative District, challenging incumbent Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue.
He’ll run as a Democrat, even though he’s shunned as a turncoat by the party for allying with Republicans in 2013 to take control of the state Senate — installing himself as majority leader through a newly formed Majority Coalition Caucus.
Tom, who plans a formal campaign announcement Thursday, says he won’t join with the Republican or Democratic caucuses if elected this time. Instead, he wants to create a third, small caucus of “socially progressive, fiscally responsible” senators.
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“I am going to go down there and try to form a middle,” he said Wednesday. “There is a huge unmet need there that people really do want.”
A wealthy real-estate broker from Medina, Tom has a chameleonic history of party affiliation. He was elected to the Legislature as a Republican in 2002, but he switched to become a Democrat a few years later, citing differences with the GOP on social issues, including same-sex marriage.
Tom rose to become chief budget writer for Senate Democrats, but he grew increasingly frustrated with what he saw as wasteful government spending supported by the party.
By 2013, he essentially switched affiliations again, joining with conservative Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon and Republicans to form the new majority coalition, which he led.
Tom left the Legislature in 2014 when he dropped a re-election bid, citing health concerns and the need to care for his elderly father, who had suffered a broken leg. The GOP-dominated coalition maintained control until Democrats took a one-vote majority with a special-election win this past fall.
If he succeeds, Tom could again upset the balance of power in the Capitol.
Tom said he’s been thinking about running for a while, and he has spoken to Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R- Ritzville, telling Schoesler he won’t rejoin the GOP-led caucus if elected.
He argued that both major parties are in thrall to their fringiest elements and that politics has entered “this absurd reality-TV phase.” Tom says he still identifies as a Democrat and supported Hillary Clinton in the past presidential election.
The 48th Legislative District includes parts of Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland, as well as Clyde Hill, Hunts Point and Medina.
Adam Bartz, executive director of the Washington State Senate Democratic Campaign, called Tom’s move evidence that “Republicans and their corporate special-interest backers” have no other path to retaking a Senate majority.
“They’ll try to deceive voters with a phony Democrat in the 48th, but I think they are not giving voters enough credit to know who Rodney Tom really is,” Bartz said.
Kuderer, an attorney, was appointed to a 48th District state House seat in 2015, won election the next year, and was appointed to the state Senate in 2017 to fill the seat vacated when Cyrus Habib was elected Lt. Governor. She easily defeated Libertarian candidate Michelle Darnell this past year to finish the remaining year of Habib’s term.
Kuderer did not respond Wednesday to emails and phone messages. Her re-election campaign has raised $8,400 as of the end of February, according to a filing with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
On her Facebook page, Kuderer recently boasted of legislative accomplishments this year, including passage of a juvenile-justice reform bill that extends juvenile court jurisdiction to age 25 in an effort to reduce recidivism and racial disparities in sentencing.
But Tom criticized Kuderer for support of raising taxes, and for voting for a controversial bill — vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee — that sought to shield many legislative records from public disclosure.
Tom said a top priority, if elected, is to guard against lawmakers backsliding on public-schools funding. He said new revenue from the growing economy should be prioritized to pay for public education without new taxes.
He also said he’d work to ensure the schools system shows better results with its new funding. He said seniority protections for teachers should be eliminated, with principals given more power over hiring and firing.
“We need to make sure we have the best teachers in the classroom, especially in some of our more difficult schools,” Tom said. “Nobody would even bet on the Seahawks if their player personnel was based on seniority.”