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Cantwell, adviser go back for years
Seattle Times staff reporter
Even in political circles, where friendships and memories are long, the connections between Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and consultant Ron Dotzauer stand out.
A fixture on the political scene for more than 30 years, Dotzauer has been an adviser to Cantwell in all of her races since the mid-1980s, including her current re-election bid.
Though Dotzauer and Cantwell seem diametric opposites — he is gregarious and jovial while she is serious and intense — both love the mechanics of government and, over the years, the links between them have become personal, political and financial.
When Dotzauer opened his consulting firm in 1985, Cantwell, then in her mid-20s, was his first employee. They began dating, and they continued a relationship after she was elected to the Legislature in 1986. At the time, he was also a registered lobbyist in Olympia.
Dotzauer managed Cantwell's first Senate campaign in 2000, and she loaned him thousands of dollars, which he has yet to repay. Four years ago, Dotzauer's wife, Cynthia First, a Snohomish County Public Utilities District commissioner, testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about Enron's business practices, one of Cantwell's signature issues. Cantwell is a member of the committee.
That same year, Dotzauer registered as a federal lobbyist in D.C., though he says he never talks to Cantwell about his clients. Still, his consulting firm's debut on Capitol Hill made a small world even smaller, and some of his contracts focused on influencing her votes.
Cantwell, who likely will face Republican Mike McGavick in her re-election bid this year, did not agree to an interview for this story.
In the end, the story about Dotzauer and Cantwell may be simply one of a long friendship, the kind of thing that gets attention only during an election year. But tracing the connections shows how a relatively small circle of powerful people interact and shape public policy.
"Meeting of the minds"
Dotzauer is a compact guy with a barrel chest and a booming laugh. He's known for his love of horses and cowboy hats, and his cellphone rings with a Willie Nelson song. He drives a hybrid Lexus and fills his F-350 pickup with bio-diesel.
Dotzauer said he first met Cantwell in 1983, when he was Jackson's state director and she was organizing the local effort of U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston's presidential campaign.
"It was a serendipitous meeting of the minds," said pollster Don McDonough, who has known the two for decades. "She had ambition and was interested in politics, and he was a guy who had been involved [with politics] for quite some time. They became good friends and maintained a friendship throughout."
About two years after they met, Dotzauer asked Cantwell, an Indiana native, to join his public-affairs firm, then called Northwest Strategies.
"She was deciding whether she was going to go back to Indianapolis or stay here," Dotzauer remembered. "At the time I said, 'Look if you're interested in a career in politics, Washington state is much more amenable to women running for elected office than Indianapolis.' ... In the meantime, I'm going to start this little agency."
Joe King, former state House speaker, has known Dotzauer since King contemplated a run for the Legislature from Clark County in the late 1970s. Dotzauer was considered a local powerbroker, the kind of guy you took to lunch before announcing a campaign.
"Ron has an ability to know where the center of the public is," King said. "He does it better than any pollster. He just has an instinct."
After serving one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Cantwell lost her bid for re-election in 1994 and became an executive with RealNetworks, where she earned millions in stock options.
A few years later, she began contemplating a run against U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. At the Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant on Elliott Avenue in Seattle, Cantwell met and discussed her political future with King, Dotzauer and McDonough.
Dotzauer's advice: Don't get into the race.
"My recommendation in 1999 was, 'Maria, go enjoy some life. You have enormous wealth, you've earned it, set up a foundation to go and make those investments,' " Dotzauer said.
But Cantwell decided to run — and she wanted Dotzauer to manage her campaign.
King said Dotzauer's strengths and weaknesses balance Cantwell's. Dotzauer knows which issues resonate with voters but is too impatient with the process of governing.
"Maria gets the electoral part, the policy part and the legislative part," King said. But, he added, "Maria is not as good at the electoral part as Ron is."
Cantwell beat Gorton by 2,229 votes, and Dotzauer chalked up his third statewide win, making him one of the most successful political operatives in Washington history.
On Capitol Hill, Cantwell quickly confronted energy issues, including the Snohomish County Public Utilities District's fight with the former energy giant Enron, a legal contest that could have cost each ratepayer hundreds of dollars.
In May 2002, Dotzauer's wife, Snohomish PUD commissioner First, testified before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, saying: "We know who the robbers are in this situation. It's Enron."
Dotzauer said he never talked to Cantwell, a committee member, about energy policy, although it has been a lifelong interest of his. He said he also didn't consult Cantwell before starting his lobbying operation in Washington, D.C., in 2002.
But politics is a small world, and their paths would soon intersect.
A change of position
Dotzauer was indirectly retained by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's most powerful business group, to persuade Congress to make it harder to sue big corporations.
In October 2003, a Republican-backed legal-liability bill died in the Senate. Both Cantwell and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray cast votes that helped kill the measure.
At the time, Dotzauer's firm, now called Strategies 360, was working to energize the state's business community to lobby elected officials on the bill.
In January 2004, the Association of Washington Business (AWB) touted a new group called the Class Action Lawsuit Reform Coalition, co-chaired by Dotzauer's partner, former Democratic Gov. Gardner, and AWB President Don Brunell.
From the beginning, Brunell said, the effort targeted Cantwell.
The work paid off. Cantwell and other Senate Democrats opposed to the earlier legislation switched positions, and in February 2005 the Senate voted 72-26 to limit the ability of people to file class-action lawsuits. Murray still voted no.
"We concentrated on Cantwell. I like to think we had something to do with it because we put an awful lot of pressure on her," Brunell said.
Michael Meehan, Cantwell's aide, said the bill passed by the Senate was a compromise that included several changes Cantwell insisted on to get her support.
Dotzauer said he never talked to Cantwell about class-action reform or any other issue his firm was involved in. He also said he never sought to highlight their friendship to win new clients.
These days, Dotzauer speaks of Cantwell with pride, as if he was able to detect a certain spark within her years ago. His profile in the current campaign is low, but, as always, his advice is heard.
"I'm really proud of what she's done," he said. "I thought she'd have a career here. I turned out to be right."
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company