Rodney Tom, who has long worn his independence in the Washington state Legislature as a badge of honor, is running as a Democrat — but getting help from interests that usually support Republicans. He is challenging Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, in the Eastside's 48th legislative district.
OLYMPIA — In his bid to return to the Washington state Senate as a Democrat, Rodney Tom is getting help from groups that usually support Republicans.
Tom, who was first elected to the Legislature as a Republican and later turned Democrat, in late 2012 helped put Democrats in the Senate minority by joining Republicans in a governing coalition.
He’s back knocking doors this year in the 48th legislative district, challenging Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, for the seat he gave up when he retired in 2014.
Tom wears his independence as a badge of honor, and has said that if elected, he doesn’t want to caucus with either Democrats or Republicans. Instead, he’d try to pull together a small caucus of centrists.
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In his district, “Even the hardcore partisan people are like, man, we need a middle,” Tom, who made his career as a real-estate broker, said in an interview.
In the meantime, outside spending groups that usually aid Republicans are supporting Tom.
As of Monday, Republican-leaning groups have spent roughly $193,000 on ads in support of Tom.
Of that, $186,000 comes from a political-action committee called Citizens for Progress Enterprise Washington, with the balance coming from the Mainstream Republicans of Washington.
Citizens for Progress Enterprise Washington was one of the biggest players in last year’s 45th District special Senate election, which became the most expensive legislative race in state history.
In that race, the group spent more than $1 million in favor of Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund, or against Manka Dhingra, the Democratic candidate who prevailed.
In 2016, the group spent nearly $400,000 to help Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, in his unsuccessful re-election bid. Most of that money was spent against the Democratic candidate, Lisa Wellman.
This year, Citizens for Progress Enterprise Washington has gotten nearly all its funding from another committee, Enterprise WA Jobs PAC.
In 2016, Enterprise WA Jobs PAC donated heavily to another outside spending group that helped elect Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, in a high-stakes race.
This year, Enterprise WA Jobs PAC has gotten much of its money from the Washington Association of Realtors and Building Industry Association of Washington.
Another donor is Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris), which since 2012 has also contributed more than $500,000 to Republican political-action committees in Washington.
Nathan Gorton, of the Washington Association of Realtors, said his group supports Tom because of his long history as a Realtor. The association supported Tom over a Republican more than a decade ago when he switched parties, said Gorton, a government affairs director for the association.
“We endorsed Rodney then, which made Democrats happy,” said Gorton, adding later: “Rodney’s knowledge on real-estate issues is really helpful.”
In his Senate bid, Tom is also drawing on people usually associated with GOP campaigns. His campaign manager worked last year as a field organizer on Republican Englund’s 45th District state Senate campaign.
Campaign-disclosure filings also show that Tom’s campaign lists the same treasurer used by the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and Englund’s campaign.
“I’m just trying to go out and get quality people,” Tom said, when asked about those personnel choices.
And Tom’s campaign is employing a political consulting firm, the Minnick Group, that this year is working for three Republican state House campaigns. Tom has paid that firm to provide political mailers, digital ads and consulting services, according to campaign filings.
Tom downplayed help by outside spending groups and pointed to individual contributions given to him by Democratic donors.
“The business community is looking for somebody who is a business-friendly Democrat,” said Tom, who accused Kuderer of being anti-business for her support of creating a state bank.
Kuderer said Tom was being “intellectually dishonest” for calling himself a Democrat.
“You and I both know he’s going to have to caucus with one of those two (parties) and it’s not going to be the Democrats,” she said.
Kuderer, who was first appointed to replace former State Sen. Cyrus Habib when he was elected lieutenant governor, was elected to the post last year. In an interview, Kuderer said she supports a state bank to help local governments fund infrastructure projects.
An attorney, Kuderer said she wants to pass a capital-gains tax, with that money going toward relieving the hefty property-tax increases her district has incurred from last year’s court-ordered school-funding deal.
As of Monday, the Democratic-leaning New Direction PAC has spent about $131,000 on independent expenditures supporting Kuderer, and about $22,000 against Tom.
Independent Bill Hirt, who has not reported raising any money, is also running for the seat.
The 48th District Senate race, along with one in the 26th District and a handful others in swing districts, may turn into competitive, high-dollar races that could swing the balance of power in Olympia.
Since Dhingra’s election in the 45th District last fall, Democrats have held the Senate by a single vote.