Democrats across Washington who have been longing for an end to the Rodney Tom error in Evergreen State politics got their wish fulfilled today with the unexpected news that Tom is dropping his reelection bid to care for his injured father and spend more time with his family.
Tom, fifty, is the Majority Leader in Name Only of the Washington State Senate. He began his career in the Legislature over ten years ago, winning election to the state House twice as a Republican. In early 2006, Tom abandoned the Republicans and became a Democrat, announcing that he would run for Senate against then-incumbent Senator Luke Esser, also a Republican.
The Democratic Party establishment embraced Tom and withdrew its support for its own candidate, Debi Golden, believing Tom’s chances of winning to be better than Golden’s. It was a decision the party establishment would come to regret.
Tom easily defeated Esser and moved from the House Democratic Caucus to the Senate Democratic Caucus. In 2010, Tom was challenged by wealthy Republican Gregg Bennett for reelection, but with the help of the state, county, and 48th District Democratic organizations, he won reelection for a second consecutive term.
Two years ago, in the spring of 2012, Tom and his colleagues Jim Kastama and Tim Sheldon abandoned the Senate Democratic caucus and helped Republicans seize control of the floor of the Washington State Senate using a parliamentary maneuver known as the Ninth Order. The trio provided Republicans with the votes to adopt an irresponsible supplemental budget and prevent several Democratic policy priorities, including the Reproductive Parity Act, from receiving a vote.
Kastama, the only one of the trio up for election that year, chose to leave the state Senate to run for Secretary of State. He came in fourth in the winnowing election, well behind Republican frontrunner Kim Wyman, Democratic frontrunner Kathleen Drew, and former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. The Republicans captured his Senate seat later that year in the general election.
Following the election, Tom and Sheldon brokered a deal with the Republicans to seize control of the state Senate for the 2013 and 2014 sessions. Tom became the Majority Leader and Sheldon became the President Pro Tempore.
The Republicans, meanwhile, took over nearly all of the committee chairmanships and restructured the Senate’s committees to their liking.
Tom and Sheldon continued to call themselves Democrats, but the party disavowed them and began working for their defeat. The Washington State Democratic Party launched a Retire Rodney Tom Project, and the 48th District Democrats passed a resolution making Tom ineligible for their support in 2014.
In January, former Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride declared against Tom, and the following month, Democrats found a candidate to run against Tim Sheldon… Irene Bowling, who announced her candidacy at the Washington State Democratic Party’s annual Crab Feed in Lacey, which is held every Presidents Day.
McBride has been raising money at a fast clip, the most of any challenger in the state. The contest between her and Tom was shaping up to be an epic fight.
But now it will not take place.
In retiring, Tom has dealt the Republican Party a major blow and bolstered Democrats’ hopes of retaking the state Senate. The 48th LD is perhaps the most Democratic of the state’s suburban legislative districts. And since the redistricting of 2011, it has become bluer still, voting almost exclusively for Democrats.
In 2012, this became very evident when Ross Hunter and Cyrus Habib won their state House races by double-digit spreads. Habib, a first time candidate, dispatched Republican Hank Myers – a Redmond City Councilmember! – with astonishing ease. His massive blowout victory shows that the 48th is now a solidly Democratic district.
With Tom gone, the way is now clear for either Hunter or Habib to run. One of them likely will declare for state Senate, and Joan McBride will then be well positioned to run for whichever House seat then opens up. The Washington Senate Democratic Campaign (WSDC) would undoubtedly prefer to have a proven winner as its candidate, so it can direct money and resources into other districts.
Last month, Republicans shook up the electoral landscape by recruiting Mark Miloscia to run for Senate in the 30th as a Republican. Miloscia’s entry into the race prompted incumbent Democrat Tracey Eide to announce her retirement, leaving Democrats scrambling. (The party establishment ultimately recruited Shari Song, who unsuccessfully challenged Reagan Dunn last year, to run against Miloscia).
Now Republicans are the ones left scrambling. They have no candidate in the 48th and will need to find one in a hurry. But regardless of who they find, they are likely going to be going up against a Democrat who has won in the district before and has plenty of name recognition. The Democratic Party will be heavily favored to win in the 48th with either Habib or Hunter as the standard bearer for Senate.
That means that even if the party loses Eide’s seat, it only has to win in two other districts to regain the majority. And the party has stellar candidates running against incumbent Republicans Andy Hill (45th LD: Redmond/Kirkland/Woodinville) and Steve O’Ban (28th LD: Suburban Pierce County)… Matt Isenhower and Tami Green. Democrats are also challenging Michael Baumgartner in the 5th (Spokane area) with Rich Cowan and Jan Angel in the 26th (Kitsap Peninsula) with Judy Arbogast.
Tom chose to break the news of his retirement by email to his colleagues. Here is the text of what he sent to other members of the Senate Republican caucus:
I wanted to let you know I will not be running for re-election to the state senate this year. A sequence of events just make this the right decision for me. I’m still working through some health issue related to my kidney stones adventure that I had at the end of session. The final straw was on this past Thursday, my 85 year old father was hit by a car while walking in the grocery store parking lot (in a crosswalk with his cane). It broke his femur, as well as damaging his hip. He’s going to require a lot of physical therapy over the next several months, and I’m his only son that lives in the area. I have always said that health and family are my number one values, and instead of that being merely a campaign slogan, I really do try to live by them.
It has been an incredible honor to serve in the Legislature these past 12 years, especially these last two years working with the Majority Coalition Caucus (MCC). It has been a thrill of a lifetime working with all of you (well, most of you!). I really do believe we did an amazing job for the citizens of Washington state these past two years in focusing on jobs and the economy, creating a great education system for all of Washington from pre-K to our colleges and universities, all while maintaining a sustainable budget that empowers our economy.
I wish you all the best of luck in the future, you’re an amazingly talented group of individuals. I hope you stay true to the core principles of the MCC, and leave the social and other divisive issues aside. If you stay focused on what really matters in driving our economy forward, the citizens of this state will be well served.
Emphasis is mine. Tom’s flowery language is unlikely to endear him to his Republican pals. They had counted on Tom being able to at least keep the 48th in play.
But now that district is very likely to be in the Democratic win column this November. The money that was going to be spent against Tom will now be freed up for campaigns elsewhere, particularly in the 45th and the 28th.
In a statement released this afternoon, Joan McBride indicated she’s ready for whatever may happen in the wake of Tom’s announcement.
The announcement this morning from Rodney Tom came as a surprise, and I wish him, and his ailing father, only the best.
But his departure only underscores what I have heard for weeks on the campaign trail: voters in the 48th ready for new leadership, consistent with our Eastside priorities, and reflecting our progressive social values.
I’m proud of the campaign we have run so far, knocking on thousands of doors and raising nearly $100,000. I’ll continue to work hard to build the confidence of the voters in the 48th, and look forward to the next stage of the campaign.
The fallout from this retirement cannot be understated. The electoral landscape has just shifted in a big way. Republicans thought they had improved their chances by putting Tracey Eide’s seat in play with Mark Miloscia (who really is an odd recruit; he has progressive views on many economic issues). But Rodney Tom, the man they thought they had a deal with, has just gone and reset the map. Now Democrats just need to pick up two seats to get the majority… or one, if they hold the 30th.
Over the course of his political career, Rodney Tom has shown that he’s not a team player. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have any reason to trust Tom, who has proved himself to be an arrogant opportunist. He scored a big corner office and a nice title when he and Tim Sheldon made a deal with Republicans to seize power in 2012. But he got more than he bargained for when he rejoined his former party that year… as even he admits in his own retirement announcement. He nominally presides over a caucus that can’t agree with itself on issue after issue.
It’s fitting that Tom’s career is ending this way. He is the only man to have been a part of all four of the state Legislature’s caucuses… and now, with his retirement, he has jilted three of them (the House Republicans, the Senate Democrats, and the Senate Republicans). Tom may be retiring for very good reasons (family should come first) but that’s not going to make Senate Republicans feel any better. He had hired a campaign manager – former Republican communications director Keith Schipper – and he was planning to seek reelection. But now he’s out.
It’s a good day for Washington State.