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Originally published July 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 17, 2007 at 1:33 PM

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Corrected version

Rossi group replaying themes of 2004 race

Former GOP candidate says nonprofit is a way to help solve state problems. But Democrats say it's a way to launch a 2008 campaign while evading campaign- finance laws.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Dino Rossi is traveling the state, raising money from supporters and giving several speeches a week about how the "folks in Olympia" are mucking up Washington's business climate and driving the state toward fiscal calamity.

In other words, Rossi is doing and saying many of the same things he did and said during his 2004 campaign for governor — a race the Sammamish Republican lost by a mere 133 votes to Democrat Christine Gregoire.

But Rossi says he isn't a candidate for anything right now — and that he's still months away from deciding whether to seek a rematch against Gov. Gregoire in 2008.

Most of the fundraising and public speaking Rossi does these days is on behalf of the Forward Washington Foundation, a nonprofit group he formed last year with the help of some of his key political advisers.

Rossi says the foundation is a sincere effort to offer solutions to the state's most pressing problems.

"My goal was to really focus on small-business issues, budget issues — things that I feel are being neglected in this state," Rossi said.

But Democrats say Forward Washington is nothing more than a de facto "Rossi for Governor" campaign.

"This isn't philanthropy," said Kelly Steele, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "This is for the promotion of Dino Rossi and Dino Rossi alone."

Based on a complaint filed last month by the Democratic Party, the state Public Disclosure Commission next week will begin investigating whether Rossi is using the nonprofit to skirt campaign-finance laws.

As a so-called 501(c)4 nonprofit, Forward Washington is allowed under federal law to accept unlimited donations. Rossi said the group so far has raised about $125,000.

But unlike political candidates and committees, Forward Washington is not required to report where the money came from.

As the foundation's president, Rossi said he is being paid $75,000 a year — an amount he said won't come close to covering what he has put into the group. The group's executive director, former congressional staff member Ted Dahlstrom, is making $50,000.

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At the group's most recent gathering earlier this week in Issaquah, Lorin Walker, a local Democratic activist, asked Rossi if he would disclose "who's behind you and who's paying your salary."

He declined, saying the group has met all of its disclosure requirements.

After the meeting, Walker said she thinks Rossi should be required to reveal his backers.

"It's very clear, these are campaign events," she said.

Former Republican state Sen. Dan McDonald, who serves on Forward Washington's board, said he is convinced Rossi would have launched the nonprofit regardless of whether he had any desire to run again. He chastised the Democrats for their "sad and cynical view of the world."

"I'm glad that he has chosen to not sideline himself," McDonald said. "And I'm proud to be part of it."

"Increasingly common"

Rossi, a former state senator, isn't the first politician accused of using a nonprofit group as a pseudo campaign.

In fact, his Forward Washington Foundation is similar to a group once created by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother.

In 1995, after narrowly losing his first bid for governor, Jeb Bush created a nonprofit public-policy group called the Foundation for Florida's Future, which employed some of his former campaign staff members and consultants. He was elected governor three years later.

More recently, John Edwards, the Democratic Party's 2004 candidate for vice president, primed his current bid for president by forming a nonprofit, anti-poverty group called the Center for Promise and Opportunity. The group raised $1.3 million, much of it going to cover Edwards' travel costs and pay his political staff, according to The New York Times.

"It does seem to be increasingly common," said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, a national campaign-finance watchdog organization. "If you don't have an elected office to keep your name in circulation, you have to come up with something else."

5 speeches a week

Forward Washington is hardly a high-profile organization.

It is based out of a small, sparsely furnished office in Bellevue. Across from a vacant reception desk, a bookshelf sits empty except for two copies of the book Rossi self-published in 2005 — "Dino Rossi: Lessons in Leadership, Business, Politics and Life."

So far, the foundation has published a handful of newsletters and policy statements on its Web site. But the bulk of the foundation's activity has been Rossi's speaking engagements, which Dahlstrom said have been averaging five per week.

For the past month, Rossi has been touring the state promoting the foundation's "Washington Idea Bank." The plan, he says, is to solicit suggestions from regular citizens, then offer the best ones to the Legislature and governor.

About 35 people showed up for the Idea Bank gathering this week in Issaquah. The suggestions put forward included ending public funding for arts, teaching more phonics in school and imposing a moratorium on new laws.

Other suggestions had a more liberal bent, such as providing health insurance for all children, including kids of illegal immigrants, and public financing for political campaigns.

"Smell test"

On the group's Web site and at each event, Rossi bills the foundation's efforts as nonpolitical. But Democrats have been on a mission to prove otherwise. They point out that the group's first executive director was Mary Lane, one of Rossi's closest campaign advisers in 2004.

Democrats have been sending a staff member armed with a video camera to nearly every Forward Washington event, just as they did at Rossi's 2004 campaign appearances.

Their footage shows that Rossi hasn't altered his message much — covering many of the same issues, even including some of the same anecdotes and turns of phrase.

Rossi also has been using many of the talking points that Republican leaders in the Legislature came up with earlier this year to criticize the budget increases Gregoire and the Democrats approved.

"Someone's paying him to give the same stump speech he gave four years ago to Republican audiences all around the state," Steele of the state Democrats said. "And somehow that's not a campaign? ... It doesn't pass the smell test."

Rossi says he thinks the public should be more concerned that "Christine Gregoire's political operatives are following a private citizen around with a camera."

And he brushes off the Democrats' criticisms.

He says if he had wanted, he could have been much more aggressive in using Forward Washington to push his message — through mailers and phone banks.

And he says it should surprise no one that his pro-business, fiscally conservative message has changed very little since he first ran for the Legislature in 1992.

"I'm still the same person," he said.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Information in this story, originally published on July 12, 2007, was corrected on July 17, 2007. The name of Massie Ritsch, spokesman CQ for the Center for Responsive Politics, was misspelled in a story Thursday CQ about Dino Rossi and the Forward Washington Foundation.

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