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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 02:46 PM

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Information in this article, originally published March 14, 2006, was corrected March 15, 2006. Rep. Rodney Tom lives in Medina. A previous version of this story incorrectly said he's from Bellevue.

Bellevue representative switches parties to run for senate

Seattle Times chief political reporter

OLYMPIA — Two-term Republican Rep. Rodney Tom of Medina says he is quitting the Republican Party to run for the state Senate as a Democrat.

Tom will challenge incumbent Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue.

"I realized the far right has complete control of the party and for me to be effective for my constituents I need to be a Democrat," Tom said today.

He said being a Democrat is not only a better fit for the changing political demographic of the Eastside's 48th Legislative District, but a more comfortable fit for his ideology, which includes support for legal abortion, gay rights and higher taxes for transportation.

Tom was set to make an official announcement this afternoon. He said this morning that he has told Democratic Senate leaders and a few Republicans.

"A couple said they were surprised I didn't do it sooner," Tom said.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, is one of Tom's closest Republican friends.

"He's been a real asset to the caucus and I think he'd be an asset to the Senate, but I'd rather see him on the correct side of the aisle," Jarrett said.

Tom will run against Esser, who served two terms in the House before moving up to the Senate. He is up for re-election this November to a four-year term.

Esser could not be reached this morning.

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There is already a Democrat in the race against Esser. Debi Golden of Bellevue, who narrowly lost a race against Tom in 2004, announced her candidacy in January.

She said that in recent days she had heard from people that Tom was considering switching parties and joining the Senate race.

She said she will stay in the race, despite the warm welcome Tom is getting from Democratic leaders.

"While I find that he is a very nice guy and we have a lot of similar beliefs, I don't think he would represent the district quite as well as I would," Golden said.

Golden works at Bellevue Community College in business planning and court interpretation.

The 48th Legislative District covers some of the state's most upscale suburbs, including Bellevue, Redmond and Medina. It was once solidly Republican but in recent years voters have shifted. Tom's seatmate in the House is Democrat Ross Hunter. Voters in the district voted for Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004.

It is heavily populated by high-tech workers who Tom says have helped to moderate the politics of East King County.

"I don't think that district has moved at all," said State Republican Party Chairwoman Diane Tebelius.

She said she hadn't heard from Tom, but that others called her this morning to tell her about the switch.

She said that Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and, by a sliver, 2004 gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, won in the district.

"I'm not concerned about Luke fitting that district," she said. "I don't think Rodney is correctly analyzing the voters in his district."

Tom said he now considers himself a Democrat and expects that his final six months in the House will be spent as a member of the ruling Democratic caucus.

"We welcome him into the Democratic Party," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. "We've enjoyed working with him."

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said that she began talking with Tom in the final days of the legislative session that adjourned last week.

"I think he felt frustrated in the House Republican caucus and he didn't see much of a future for himself there given the issues he was interested in," Brown said.

"I see him as someone who could easily fit within our caucus."

Tom is a Realtor and said that when he first decided to run for the Legislature, he saw himself as a fiscal conservative who would fit best in the Republican Party.

"In the old days if you were a businessman you were a Republican," he said. But as the district changed, he said, the Republican Party has gotten more conservative and come under control of what he says is the "far right."

"I've come to the realization to be effective in that district I need to run as a Democrat," he said.

Staff reporters Ralph Thomas and Andrew Garber contributed to this story.

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

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