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Originally published Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 7:04 PM

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Political maverick Rodney Tom flexes muscles in Olympia

From his first days in Olympia, state Sen. Rodney Tom stood out as a political misfit. Elected to the state House as a Republican in 2002...

Seattle Times political reporter

State Sen. Rodney Tom

Age: 49

Residence: Medina

Work history: Realtor for more than 18 years

Political experience: Elected in 2002 as a Republican in the state House and served two terms. Switched parties in 2006 and was elected as a Democrat to the state Senate. Re-elected in 2010.

Family: Married, two children

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My biggest beef with Tom is his hypocrisy regarding education. He claims to want to... MORE
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From his first days in Olympia, state Sen. Rodney Tom stood out as a political misfit.

Elected to the state House as a Republican in 2002, one of Tom's first acts was to sign on as co-sponsor of a controversial gay-rights bill opposed by most in his party.

As Tom recalls it, he was confronted by an irritated GOP legislative leader who demanded to know "What kind of Republican are you?"

Tom answered a few years later, when he switched allegiances to the Democratic Party, citing differences with the GOP on social issues.

Now it's the Democrats' turn to feel betrayed by Tom.

The Medina lawmaker shook up the Legislature this month when he joined another rogue Democrat to team up with 23 Republicans and announce a new "Majority Coalition Caucus" would be running the state Senate next year — with Tom as its leader.

If that coalition holds when the Legislature convenes next month, Tom's ascent to Senate majority leader would mark the high point of a maverick political career. Although he's not entirely trusted by either party, his swing vote in a closely divided Senate has made Tom a power player in Olympia.

Critics slam Tom, 49, as an egotistic opportunist who has burned political supporters who helped get him elected.

"The man obviously has no allegiance to any set of ideals or core values," said Mary Lindquist, president of the state teachers union, who doorbelled for Tom in 2006, when he switched parties and upset incumbent Republican Luke Esser to win his Senate seat.

But Tom and his defenders say his alliance with Republicans is just what voters say they want — politicians setting aside party labels to work together.

"I think the public is eager for us to try it and I think the public is very eager for us to succeed," said state Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Elite address

A lanky former real-estate broker, Tom represents the 48th Legislative District, a swath of suburbs between Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish, including parts of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond. It's territory that once leaned Republican but has shifted to favor Democrats.

Tom lives in the state's wealthiest ZIP code, 98309 — also home to Microsoft founder Bill Gates — in a 7,700-square-foot waterfront Medina home assessed at $5 million, which he shares with his wife, Deborah, two children and a cat.

Having made his fortune in real estate, he now lives off investments and income from his wife's family trust fund, according to personal financial-disclosure reports filed with the state.

Despite his comfortable life, Tom says, he retains a frugal mindset from his modest upbringing in Bellevue's Eastgate neighborhood. He lived at home and worked his way through business school at the University of Washington because his parents could not afford to pay his tuition. To this day he cuts his own hair and makes weekly runs to Costco.

In fact, Tom views Costco as something of a model for state government. "If you were to sum it up, I'm a Costco guy. My political philosophy is a Costco philosophy. I don't want cheap stuff. I want good quality stuff and I want it at the best price and affordability you can have," he said.

But, Tom says, too often government wants to shop at Nordstrom.

For example, he views many new high schools as unnecessarily opulent "Taj Mahals." Schools can be built cheaper, he says, and the state should redirect some school-construction money to classrooms instead of trying to raise taxes.

Tom has pushed to privatize or eliminate parts of state government to save money, but those efforts frequently have stalled out after resistance from fellow Democrats.

For example, he proposed shuttering The Public Printer, the state's in-house print shop since 1854, and contracting out its work to private vendors. The department remains, though it recently was merged with four other administrative agencies to cut costs.

He backs higher taxes on the rich at the federal level, and has supported higher taxes on cigarettes and soft drinks, but Tom is all but ruling out general tax increases as a solution to the state's latest $1 billion budget shortfall.

Even in the face of a state Supreme Court ruling that the state has not adequately funded public schools, Tom says higher taxes are not the answer.

"God bless the Supreme Court, but they can't impose new revenue," Tom said, calling funding plans floated by a state schools task force "like kids around a Christmas tree."

Other Democrats and education advocates say new taxes are needed if the state is serious about K-12 school funding. In her final, lame-duck budget proposal this week, departing Gov. Chris Gregoire called for more than $1 billion in new or extended taxes for education.

Latest clash

The leadership coup is just the latest clash between Tom and the more liberal wing of the Democratic caucus.

After his switch to the Democratic Party, Tom rose in power in the Senate, becoming the Democrats' chief budget writer on the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2010. But after helping to craft the Democrats' budget, Tom voted against it, saying it didn't go far enough to curtail government spending — a move that angered party leaders and led him to lose his budget post.

Earlier this year, Tom joined two other conservative Democrats and Republicans in a surprise takeover of the Senate floor. They used their power to push a budget proposal that made more cuts than Democrats had wanted to education and social services, as well as calling for changes in the budgeting process.

That effort led to a marathon Senate floor fight and accusations of bad faith from angry Democrats.

For the 2013 session, Tom and his allies said, it was better to announce their plans up front. Their coalition would include all 23 Republicans along with Tom and fellow breakaway Democrat, Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch.

The group would have a one-vote edge over the remaining 24 Democrats.

Under the proposal, Tom would be majority leader and Sheldon would be president pro tempore. Republicans would control chairmanships of the most powerful Senate committees, including the budget-writing and education panels. Democrats have been offered chairmanships over several lesser legislative committees — an offer that Democrats have not accepted.

While Tom and Sheldon announced their alliance with Republicans as though it was a done deal, it won't become official until the Senate convenes next month and formally picks its leaders.

Tom's coup would effectively depose Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who had been head of the Democratic caucus and their choice to lead the Senate. Tom was in that caucus meeting and voted for Murray, too, while remaining silent about his own plans.

Tom said the subsequent announcement of the new majority coalition was not intended as a personal attack on Murray. But the fact that Murray hails from Seattle's 43rd Legislative District — the same liberal district represented by House Speaker Frank Chopp — well, that played a role.

"To have the senator from the 43rd negotiate with the speaker from the 43rd ... I don't think that gives us the best product," Tom said. "I think you need a broader spectrum."

Action faulted

Murray said he respects Tom's intelligence, but good lawmaking requires more than smarts.

"His analytical skills are far better than mine and most people's in this place. But you also have to have the political ability to build relationships," he said.

Former State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said he doesn't believe Tom had to anoint himself majority leader if his goal was to win budget concessions.

"He could easily have forced a very moderate bipartisan budget to be adopted without changing the entire leadership structure in the Senate," said Vance, who is also a former state legislator. "What's driving this is not ideology or principle or high-minded stuff — it's really simple, it's a whole lot more fun to be majority leader than a back bencher."

But Tom's defenders say he is not motivated by personal glory.

"My experience with Rodney doesn't support the assertion that he is just looking for power," said state Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, who also represents the 48th District. Eddy, who is retiring this year, said Tom sincerely wants to find a way to better fund schools.

Eddy dismissed Democratic outrage over Tom's actions. "The whole loyalty to your team thing leaves me cold when after years of Democratic majorities, we still have this abysmal record on education," she said.

Tom says he didn't give much thought to partisan affiliation when he first ran for office. He just assumed as a businessman, he'd be a Republican, so he called former Gov. Dan Evans and lined up support for his 2002 campaign. He served two terms in the state House before switching parties and winning election for the state Senate.

In 2010, when Tom ran for re-election, Republicans tried to take him down, lining up behind businessman Gregg Bennett, who raised $590,000 — more than any other legislative candidate in the state that year. Republican allied groups kicked in an additional $84,000 for ads against Tom.

Meanwhile, Democrats came to Tom's defense, with the state party paying for $25,000 in ads for his campaign. Tom won re-election with 53 percent of the vote.

If he runs for re-election in 2014, Tom expects Democrats will challenge him in the primary because of his deal with the Republicans. But he doubts the GOP will back him either, since he has no plans to switch parties again.

"I am a man without a country now," Tom said. "If this was about personal ambitions, you would not do what I am doing."

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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