Gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi claims to be a different kind of Republican. GOP standard-bearers in recent years, including gubernatorial candidates Ellen Craswell and John Carlson and U.S. Senate candidate Linda Smith, lost because they were perceived as too radically conservative to suit the moderate Washington electorate. Rossi, in contrast, calls himself “a fiscal conservative with a social conscience.” Washington Republican Party chair Chris Vance embraces this apparent shift to the middle-right, saying Republicans have had it wrong the past few elections. “A snarling, angry demeanor puts people off, especially suburban voters,” Vance says of conservative stridency. Rossi, a commercial real-estate agent and formerly the 5th Legislative District’s senator representing Issaquah and Sammamish, is a charming guy who is praised by his former Olympia colleagues—Republican and Democrat alike—for being easy to get along with.
Yet Republicans and former Republicans active in politics in the 5th District say the Dino Rossi they know has a poor record on the environment, is a member of the religious right who holds extreme views—including, according to one newspaper article, belief that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools—and is a nasty campaigner. Rossi spokesperson Mary Lane dismisses their complaints. “These particular Republicans are sore losers,” says Lane. “It’s a handful of bitter people.”
In 1991, for personal reasons, Rossi moved from Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood to the suburban Sammamish Plateau. The redistricting process after the 1990 census had created a new legislative district in that fast-growing area of King County, and in 1992, Rossi ran for the state Senate against three Republican opponents—Boeing engineer Bob Brady, school administrator Gwen Escher, and retired airplane pilot Dick Welsh. Rossi won, but none of his opponents would endorse him for the general election—an unusual circumstance. He lost the general election to a Democrat. In 1996, Rossi ran again. His Republican primary opponent was a retired Coast Guard captain and cable TV company owner, David Irons Sr. Again, Rossi won the primary, and again his Republican opponent declined to endorse him.
Today, Brady, Irons, and Escher, who has since married and is known as Gwen Escher Derdowski, say Rossi fails the character test. Brady says Rossi sent operatives to disrupt his public meetings in 1992 and engaged in other unseemly campaign activity, including some ugly confrontations. Says Brady: “Integrity is my No. 1 issue.” After campaigning alongside Rossi for months, he says, “I wasn’t ready to jump in and endorse the guy.” Twelve years later, Brady feels the same.
Gwen Derdowski says she wouldn’t vote for Rossi for any office. “He’s a faker,” she says.
Retired pilot Welsh is the only candidate who ran against Rossi in 1992 who now supports him. After the primary that year, Welsh was pretty sore at Rossi and refused to endorse him. Things have changed. Welsh was impressed by Rossi’s skill at steering a no-new-taxes budget through the Legislature in 2003. “Somebody finally had the balls to say, ‘Enough is enough,'” says Welsh. “There’s not many real leaders in the Legislature. Leaders don’t show up down there very often. Dino, he put something together.”
Welsh says he knows why Brady and Escher wouldn’t support Rossi in 1992 and won’t now. “They weren’t Republicans,” he claims. “They were Democrats in Republican clothing.” Brady today is a Republican, but Gwen Derdowski, along with her husband, former Republican King County Council member Brian Derdowski, wound up leaving the GOP in 2003, becoming Democrats.
Welsh cannot explain why his friends Rossi and Irons, who was Rossi’s 1996 opponent and is a lifelong Republican, are feuding. “It’s the damnedest thing,” Welsh says.
Retired businessman Irons and Rossi were friends before they ran against each other, and they worked together in the 5th District, Irons says—sat on the same Republican committees. Irons claims Rossi violated an agreement not to seek endorsements in the primary. He also says that in the general election campaign, Rossi advertising lied about Irons to gain advantage over his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Drew. Irons raised the issue at the time; newspapers in 1996 covered the controversy extensively. “I don’t like to associate with people of that character,” Irons says today. “The man is dishonest.” Rossi spokesperson Lane says Irons is not credible. She says Irons has been tangled in other bitter campaign controversies, including a King County Council race in which he did not endorse his own son, David Irons Jr.
Republican Party chair Vance says there is a larger issue at play here: growth politics. “That whole area was ground zero in the growth debate,” says Vance, who chaired the King County Council’s Growth Management Committee in the 1990s. He says people like Brady, Irons, and the Derdowskis had a lot in common. They were “suburban homeowners, fiscally conservative, agreed with the national Republican Party but opposed growth in their own neighborhood.” The growth battles led to vicious political fights. “You saw a series of really, really awful intraparty battles,” says Vance. “Nothing is more nasty and personal than land use. That’s the environment that Dino found himself in.”
Rossi’s opponents agree with Vance that growth and development played a key role in their differences with today’s gubernatorial candidate. They see Rossi as a tool of developers, someone who received the political and financial backing of powerful business interests that were bent on destroying the area’s quality of life. “Dino Rossi is first and foremost a corporate animal,” says Brian Derdowski. “His primary loyalty will be to those corporate interests that see government as a way to improve their bottom line.” Brady puts it more simply: “At that time, here in Sammamish, we were having uncontrolled growth. Dino Rossi was for the growth. I was not.”
Rossi spokesperson Lane says, “This sounds like the whining of people who are sore losers.” Rossi also touts his membership on the board of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, a conservation project.
But Rossi does enjoy the staunch support of the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), the state’s biggest development lobby. The BIAW has spent $500,000 in support of Rossi, opposing Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Attorney General Christine Gregoire. The BIAW says Rossi backed its legislation an astounding 99 percent of the time in his seven years in the state Senate. In the same period, Rossi only voted for legislation backed by the Washington Conservation Voters 36 percent of the time. The environmental group has endorsed Gregoire.
It isn’t only Rossi’s record on the environment that puts him outside the mainstream, argue his opponents. They believe Rossi’s views on abortion, gay rights, and creationism place him firmly in the religious right wing. Rossi is pro-life and in 1991 worked to defeat Initiative 120, the measure that made Roe v. Wade state law. In his current campaign, Rossi doesn’t stress the issue, however. All of his Republican opponents in 1992 were pro-choice. Says Brian Derdowski: “In that race, Rossi was considered a right-wing extremist.”
Rossi also supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a position so conservative not even the current Republican Congress could pass it into law.
In 1992, he told the Bellevue Journal- American that he supported the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public schools. When asked if the quote accurately reflected Rossi’s views at the time, spokesperson Lane says, “If it’s in there, it’s in there. Let it stand.” Pressed to explain Rossi’s current view on creationism, Lane says, “It’s nothing I’ve ever heard him talk about in recent years.”
Former Republican state Rep. Brian Thomas of Renton represented the 5th District from 1992 to 2000. He enthusiastically supports Rossi’s bid for governor but allows that the former state senator had a rough political start. Says Thomas, “He went into politics an ideologue, but he came out a statesman.” Thomas says in the 1992 race Rossi was the darling of the most conservative wing of the party. “The 1992 race was the vintage ideologue, political-party-hack Dino Rossi,” he recalls. That year, Rossi clashed with candidates like Brady and Gwen Derdowski, who were in open rebellion against the Christian Coalition’s dominance of the state Republican Party. “They were not excited by the coming up of the theocracy,” Thomas says. “They saw [Rossi] as part of that, although I don’t think he ever was. That’s where the power was. It froze everything else out.” By 1996, Thomas felt Rossi had become less rigid. Elected to the Legislature, Rossi learned how to reach out and work with a broad spectrum of people, Thomas says. The process culminated in the biggest achievement of Rossi’s political career, passage of the no-new-taxes budget in 2003 with bipartisan support. “He’s grown a great deal,” says Thomas. Yet even Thomas admits Rossi still has a bit of the religious right in him. “You can see these little tinges of the moralist coming out sometimes: the abortion issue, the gay rights stuff. He just can’t stay away from them. There is still a moralist tinge to his politics, but it is a lot more balanced now.”
Brian Derdowski thinks Rossi has helped knock the GOP out of balance. “Dino Rossi was instrumental in radicalizing the Republican Party on the Eastside,” he says. “He is too extreme on growth management and the environment, and too extreme in his anti-choice views.” Says Bill Elder, a health-care consultant who left the GOP and became an independent after tangling with Rossi and his allies: “Rossi was supported by the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Because of the amalgamation between the religious right and the development community, it didn’t seem to be a party that represents the mainstream.”