|Your account||Today's news index||Weather||Traffic||Movies||Restaurants||Today's events|
Sunday, October 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Dino Rossi: Message shifts to the middle
By Ralph Thomas
Rossi, a former state senator from Sammamish, is trying to become Washington's first Republican governor in 20 years.
Today, Rossi chafes at being pinned with any sort of label, though he has taken to calling himself a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience." When pressed, he describes himself as "probably more moderate to conservative. Not far-right, more like center-right."
Democrats and their candidate for governor, Attorney General Christine Gregoire, have been working hard to paint Rossi as a political chameleon who is trying to hide right-wing extremist views.
Rossi's friends and supporters, meanwhile, describe him as a political pragmatist and a big-hearted fiscal conservative. They say he has adapted over the years and doesn't see government as the place to push moralistic personal views.
Rossi says when he first started out in politics, he was "maybe a little more idealistic than realistic on some things. ... Over time, you kind of temper some of the things you once believed."
In his Bellevue campaign office, there's a talking action-figure doll of conservative commentator Ann Coulter. Press her back and she flings verbal daggers at liberals.
But Rossi is also supported by some big-name Republican moderates, such as former secretary of state Ralph Munro and former Gov. Dan Evans.
Evans and U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona recently cut new radio ads praising Rossi for his role two years ago in writing a state budget that slashed state spending but protected many human-service programs.
"The other side wants you to think Dino is too conservative," Evans said in a 60-second radio spot. "Well, let me set the record straight: Dino Rossi is sensible and practical. He balanced the budget and preserved money for the truly needy. Only a mainstream problem solver could accomplish that."
Though both of his parents were Democrats, Rossi became a Republican in 1980, drawn in by Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign.
He joined the Downtown Republican Club, worked hard at recruiting and fund raising, and in 1990 was named the King County "Republican of the Year."
Republicans "were really more in tune with the world I wanted into the business world," Rossi said.
Rossi, a Catholic, also took up some of the party's conservative social causes. In 1991, he campaigned against Initiative 120, a measure that codified in state law the U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion.
The following year, after moving to the Sammamish Plateau, Rossi dove into his first race for the state Senate seat in the 5th Legislative District.
At the time, Christian conservatives were gaining strength in the Republican Party. Facing three pro-choice Republicans in the primary, Rossi ran to the right and won the nomination.
In 1992, one newspaper article said he supported a GOP platform plank that called for teaching both creationism and evolution in schools. (Rossi said recently he has "no recollection" of ever taking such a position.)
Rossi later lost to Democrat Kathleen Drew in the general election. But he ran again in 1996 and beat her by hammering on her support for then-Gov. Mike Lowry's record $1.2 billion tax increase in 1993.
But Rossi didn't try to mask his views on social issues. His campaign sent out a flier pointing out "night and day" differences between him and Drew on abortion and gay rights, saying she had "sponsored a gay and lesbian art exhibit in the state capitol."
Today, in his campaign for governor, Rossi goes out of his way to avoid discussing his views on social issues.
He still says he is opposed to gay marriage, but is often quick to add, "I'm not running on that issue."
His position on abortion remains unchanged: He opposes it except in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. But he never brings it up on his own.
And, when pressed, he points out that he never sponsored any anti-abortion bills in the Legislature and contends he wouldn't have much say on the issue as governor because the courts have deemed abortion legal.
Instead of those hot-button issues, Rossi now talks almost exclusively about improving the state's business climate and creating jobs. Rossi's critics contend he hasn't moderated his views, he's just stopped talking about them.
Several of Rossi's former Republican opponents in the 5th District refused to endorse him over Drew in 1992 and 1996, and still do not support him in his bid for governor.
David Irons Sr., who still harbors hard feelings from losing a bitter primary battle against Rossi in 1996, said he sees Rossi as "borderline extreme right."
"I guess they're still a little bitter that I beat them," Rossi replies.
The state Democratic Party for months has been relentlessly dredging Rossi's past for proof that he is more conservative than he lets on. The Democrats have a Web site "The Real Rossi" that points out his 100 percent vote rating from the Washington Conservative Union in 2003, and his 6 percent career rating from the Washington State Labor Council.
Throughout more than half of Rossi's legislative career, Republicans were in the minority in the Senate. Early on, his biggest achievements included pushing through legislation to crack down on drunken driving and increase penalties for people convicted of molesting children.
Rossi didn't really rise to prominence until he was named to the Senate budget committee in 2001. As the ranking minority member on the committee, Rossi became chief spokesman for his party in attacking the Democrats for overspending. He talked constantly about how the state could save hundreds of millions of dollars by contracting more government services out to the private sector.
But after he was handed the reins of the budget committee last year, he stopped talking about privatization. Facing Democratic control in the House and governor's office, he began reaching out to a handful of Senate Democrats for help in solving a record $2.7 billion shortfall.
Democrats and the Gregoire campaign have pounded Rossi for his proposal to eliminate Medicaid coverage for an estimated 40,000 children.
But what they don't point out is that Rossi also fought to restore more than $100 million that Democratic Gov. Gary Locke proposed cutting from nursing homes and programs that serve the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
"Most conservative Republicans generally consider human-services social spending to be pouring water on the desert," said J. VanderStoep, former chief of staff to Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and one of Rossi's campaign advisers. "Not Dino. He sees the value of every human soul."
Hours after the polls closed in last month's primary election, Locke appeared with Gregoire and proclaimed that Rossi is every bit as right wing as Ellen Craswell, a Christian conservative who won the GOP nomination in 1996 but was trounced by Locke.
VanderStoep said the comparison is absurd. "Ellen was in politics to change the moral fabric of our society," he said. "Dino believes it's the church's job, not the government's job, to change people's morality."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland said Rossi's record in the Legislature is that of a pragmatic deal maker whose views have been shaped by growing up in a family on the brink of poverty. "His life experience says that when people are having a difficult time they need help, but that government can't fix every problem and it shouldn't try," Finkbeiner said.
John Carlson, the conservative talk-show host who lost to Locke in 2000, calls Rossi a "common-sense conservative" and says, "Dino has adapted to the reality that Washington is a moderate state."
Former Gov. Evans agreed. He said that while he differs with Rossi on some social issues, those pale in importance compared to his views on improving the business climate and reining in was he calls an arrogant state bureaucracy.
"Twenty years of one-party rule in Olympia creates a lot of barnacles," said Evans. "It's time for a change."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company
Back to top