It was two days before Election Day and Republican Dino Rossi, Tlingit, said he’d done everything he could to win his election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Washington’s 8th Congressional District.
He’s got name recognition from two terms in the state Senate, plus two appointments to the state Senate to finish unexpired terms; three earlier campaigns for state and federal office; and a business career that is centered in the 8th District. At one point, polls showed him ahead of Democrat Kim Schrier after the Republican-dominated Senate’s confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
No matter. In the waning hours of the election, Rossi was campaigning like a guy who knows what it’s like to lose an election by 133 votes (for governor in 2004).
“I’ve done everything I can,” Rossi said on Nov. 4 about his campaign for Congress. “I’ve doorbelled 8,000 houses -- I’m on my second pair of shoes -- and we’ve made 300 calls a day to voters.”
There’s a lot at stake for Rossi. If elected, he will become the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and will be one of at least three Native members of the U.S. House of Representatives. He will get a platform for his brand of compassionate conservatism (he supports Dreamers and tighter border security, and coverage of preexisting conditions while further reforming the Affordable Care Act); fiscal conservatism (he supports the Trump tax cuts, but believes there’s too much new revenue going into the Treasury for the national debt to be escalating); and his penchant for working across the aisle (“The other guy is a human being,” he said he told state legislative rookies during his last stint in the state Senate. “I never attacked people. I tried to attack ideas with better ideas.”)
If he loses, he risks becoming the Harold Stassen of Washington politics, a four-time also-ran.
There’s a lot at stake for Democrats too. All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are on the ballot nationwide, and Democrats see this election as a referendum on the Trump administration -- and an opportunity to take control of the House. The 8th District has never elected a Democrat to the House, but has sided with Democrats for president in the last seven presidential elections. Democrats see the House seat as winnable and have spent millions promoting Schrier, a physician.
Schrier’s campaign ads have presented Rossi as a career politician who once supported raising taxes and tuition and cutting support for programs that benefit the state’s most vulnerable (he’s served in public office for about 10 years, and gets credit from Democrats he served with for finding solutions to tax increases and budget cuts in the final state budget when he chaired the state Senate’s Ways and Means Committee in 2003).
Rossi’s ads have defended his record -- and labeled Schrier “Dr. Tax” for her support for Medicare for all, which he claims will lead to higher taxes, as well as supposed increases in energy and fuel taxes.
On Election Eve, a New York Times poll showed Schrier leading Rossi by 3 points.
Where he stands on issues
In this and his three previous campaigns, Rossi presented himself as a political moderate given to negotiation and compromise. As chairman of the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, a position that put him at the helm of writing the state’s budget, Rossi worked across party lines to achieve a balanced budget without raising taxes. He also spearheaded legislation to punish drunk drivers and child abusers, fund a salmon hatchery in Muckleshoot Tribe territory, and fund Hispanic/Latino health clinics and programs for Washingtonians with developmental disabilities.
During his latest stint in the state Senate, Rossi voted no on a bill to establish a paid family leave insurance program (the state Senate approved the bill). He supported legislation to prohibit cell phone use on highways, require coverage for 12-month refills of contraceptive drugs, authorize urban school districts to build in rural areas, regulate the commercial use of biometric data, establish fees for copies of public records, and prohibit localities from permitting safe-injection sites for heroin users.
He offended Native leaders in 2008 during his second run for governor when he said the state wasn’t getting a large enough share of revenue from Tribe-State gaming compacts, and tied it to campaign contributions from Tribal Nations to Democrats. Tribes “have laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Democratic Party, directly into my opponent’s campaign,” he said at the time.
The Seattle Times, which endorsed Rossi this year for Congress (the only Republican it endorsed in six congressional races), reported then that campaign contributions to Gov. Christine Gregoire’s campaign were badly timed but not connected to gaming compact negotiations, which had taken place over the course of several years. Rossi’s comment continued to haunt him this campaign, with him receiving little known support from Indian Country.
In its endorsement this year, The Seattle Times called Rossi “a pragmatic lawmaker with a demonstrated record of working across the aisle with Democrats for solutions that work for the greater good.”
The Times wrote: “Fighting and divisiveness has led to a hopelessly dysfunctional Congress, where people fight over issues, not push for solutions. Rossi has shown he can work across the aisle.”
Two Democrats who worked with Rossi during his service in the state Senate agreed.
Former state senator Mark Doumit served with Rossi in 2003, when Rossi chaired the Senate’s budget committee, aka Ways and Means, and the state was facing a massive post-911 budget shortfall. TV ads promoting Schrier claim that Rossi, at the time, supported balancing the budget by cutting Medicaid, cutting raises for state employees, and raising taxes on nursing homes and tuition at colleges and universities.
“Those issues were issues we worked on,” Doumit said, adding that Rossi had three or four Democrats as co-writers of the budget. “He tried to find common ground. After the budget went over to the House, we continued to negotiate. Over the course of the session, most of the issues we debated had been reconciled.”
The cuts Schrier’s ads cite didn’t happen. And nursing homes actually asked the Legislature for a tax of $6.50 per bed per day so they could obtain more matching federal dollars and an increase in overall funding.
“The budget that went to the governor’s office was bipartisan,” Doumit said. “I voted yes, as did Sen. Rossi.”
Doumit said of Rossi’s style, “He had a very likable approach. He had a reputation as being affable and likeable.”
Brian Sonntag, a Democrat who served as state auditor, said Rossi was supportive of efforts to restore the auditor’s office’s authority to conduct audits of state and local government agencies’ performance. The authority was ultimately restored by a voter-approved initiative in 2006, funded by a 0.16 performance sales tax.
Sonntag believes Rossi would work in a collaborative way in Washington, D.C.
“If you start off looking for a bipartisan approach, you can get there,” Sonntag said. “If you start off with that divide, the divide gets worse. If you focus on principles, not politics, you can accomplish a lot.
“Voters are tired of dividing on partisan labels. Most people aren’t part of the extreme. There’s a vast middle, and he’s one of those people. He is a good guy.”
Here’s where Rossi stands on issues, according to his website and a survey by VoteSmart.
· Abortion: Supports only in cases of incest, rape and to save the health of the mother.
· Balanced budget: Opposes balancing the budget by reducing defense spending or increasing income taxes on any tax bracket.
· Economic growth: Opposes federal spending as a means of promoting economic growth, but supports lowering corporate taxes as a means of doing so. “I support increasing small-business tax credits [and] fully repealing the estate tax,” Rossi said, adding, “The recent tax cuts for the middle class should be made permanent.”
· Energy and environment: “I favor an all-of-the-above approach to energy policy, including preserving our state’s dams and supporting nuclear power, which has been and will continue to be important to our nation’s energy infrastructure,” Rossi said. He also supports government funding for the development of renewable energy. Of his environmental record on the state level, he said: “I have campaigned on environmental issues, including calling for converting the state motor pool to hybrid and plug-in vehicles, providing a sales tax exemption on hybrid vehicles, replacing fish-killing road culverts and implementing congestion relief projects that would eliminate millions of tons of carbon emissions produced by cars stuck in traffic.”
· Gun control: Supports legislation to prevent modifications “that turn legal weapons into illegal ones.”
· Health insurance: Supports tax incentives for small businesses that provide health insurance for their employees, and supports reducing health care mandates. “Reducing mandates will reduce cost [of insurance] by bringing more companies into the marketplace and giving Americans more choices to find the right health insurance product for their individual needs,” he said. He told ICT that he supports allowing consumers to buy insurance across state lines.
· Immigration: Supports improving the guest worker program for those who want to enter the United States legally. “A legislative immigration ‘fix’ must also include a humane and compassionate approach to those here under the DACA program,” he said. “Deporting hundreds of thousands of people to a country that they may have never known and left when they were young is not logical.”
· Medicare and Social Security: “I will keep our word to our senior citizens by protecting and preserving Medicare and Social Security for everyone who has paid into it,” Rossi said on his website. “It’s their money. I will work to ensure that everyone gets 100 percent of the Social Security they are entitled to while reducing fraud and abuse.”
Rossi at a glance
1959: Born in Seattle to John and Eve Rossi. His father is a first-generation American of Italian ancestry; his mother is Tlingit from Klawock, Alaska.
1982: Graduates from Seattle University with a bachelor’s degree in business management. Begins career in commercial real estate.
1987: He and the former Terry Cale marry. They eventually have four children.
1992: Loses first bid for state Senate.
1996: Elected to the state Senate.
2000: Reelected to the state Senate. Chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which writes the state’s budget.
2004: Loses race for governor of Washington to the state’s then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire. The 133-vote margin is the closest margin in an election for governor in U.S. history.
2005: Invests in the start of a local bank, buys an interest in a Minor League Baseball team.
2008: Loses second bid for governor, receiving 46.76 percent of the vote to Gregoire’s 53.24 percent. Returns to commercial real estate.
2010: Loses bid for U.S. Senate, receiving 47.64 percent to Sen. Patty Murray’s 52.36 percent.
2012: Appointed to the state Senate to complete the four months remaining in the term of Cheryl Pflug, who resigned to serve on the board of a state agency.
2016: Appointed to the state Senate after Sen. Andy Hill’s death. Rossi served until results were certified in a special election that took place 11 months later.
2018: Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Washington state’s 8th District.
Richard Walker is an Indian Country Today correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington.