SEATTLE – Dino Rossi is “an affable, likable guy” who will work with others “to find common ground.”
You would expect an assessment like that from his fellow Republicans. But those words came from Democrats who worked with Rossi when he was a Washington state senator.
Voters weren’t overwhelmingly swayed Nov. 6.
Rossi, Tlingit, received 92,900 votes to Democrat Kim Schrier’s 104,520 votes in results posted on Election Night in Washington’s 8th Congressional District. Rossi was winning in four rural counties and urban Pierce County, and Schrier was winning in King County, the state’s most populous. As the night closed, the Secretary of State’s office reported there were 239,946 ballots on hand to be counted -- 107,000 of them from King County, and 108,750 from Pierce.
Rossi knows what it’s like to wait; he was briefly governor-elect of Washington in 2004, only to lose by 133 votes after a manual recount -- the narrowest margin in a governor’s race in U.S. history.
Should the results in the 8th District turn Rossi’s way, he would become the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and one of five Native Americans in U.S. House – the others are fellow Republicans Tom Cole, Chickasaw, Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District; and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District. Other Native candidates elected Nov. 6: Democrat Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District; and Democrat Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District.
Rossi was calling voters shortly before polls closed and didn’t have time to look beyond the evening. Asked if he planned to run for office again if the results didn’t go his way, he only said “We’ll see” before returning to the phone.
With control of the House at stake, Democratic and Republican party officials and interest groups funneled millions into Washington’s 8th District, reportedly making it the costliest congressional race in state history. The 8th District has been represented by a Republican since it was created in 1983, but Democratic presidential candidates have won the district in each election since 1992.
“We were outspent by $10 million,” Rossi campaign manager Andrew Bell said. “It’s hard to say how much that influenced the election.”
Bell said 8th District voters looked at the election as being more about Rossi and Schrier than a referendum on President Trump. “I think most people saw it as candidate-level stuff,” Bell said. “Local taxes, health care, immigration, trade -- those are issues that hit home.”
Rossi is a commercial real estate broker who co-founded a community bank and at one time owned a Minor League Baseball team. Schrier is a physician and a first-time candidate for public office whose platform included affordable healthcare, clean air and water, and improving public education.
Rossi was elected to the Washington State Senate in 1996 and 2000, lost bids for governor in 2004 and 2008, and ran unsuccessfully in 2010 for U.S. Senate. He was appointed to vacancies in the state Senate in 2012 and 2016.
In each campaign, he 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, 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.
In his bid for Congress, he talked 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 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.”)
The Seattle Times endorsed Rossi as “a pragmatic lawmaker with a demonstrated record of working across the aisle with Democrats for solutions that work for the greater good … 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-9/11 budget shortfall. TV ads promoting Schrier claimed 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. (Rossi’s campaign ads, on the other hand, painted Schrier as “Dr. Tax” for her support for Medicare for All, which he claims would lead to higher taxes, as well as supposed increases in energy and fuel taxes.)
Doumit said the cuts Schrier’s ads cited 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.
Rossi worked with Democrats to find solutions to funding cuts and tax increases. “He tried to find common ground,” Doumit said. “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 budget that went to the governor’s office was bipartisan. I voted yes, as did Sen. Rossi.”
In the Legislature, Rossi was viewed as “an affable, likable guy” by his colleagues, Doumit said.
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 sales tax revenue.
A week before the election, Sonntag said he believed 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.”
Richard Walker is an Indian Country Today correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington.