Since announcing on Monday that he has decided to join with Tim Sheldon in engineering a new Republican majority in the Washington State Senate, Medina’s Rodney Tom has been fielding phone calls and emails from unhappy Democratic constituents in the 48th District who have told him in no uncertain terms that they regard his actions as a betrayal of their trust.
Washington State Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz spoke for the party’s grassroots base when he declared, “The truth here is that Senator Tom has instigated this unprecedented coup and joined with Republicans to install himself as Majority Leader out of a desire to further his own personal ambitions, not out of what is in the best interests of his constituents or the public at large. What he announced today is a prescription for instability and division.”
Tom, of course, doesn’t see it that way.
Judging by how Tom has chosen to respond to the Democratic and progressive activists who have written in to him, it appears he has convinced himself that he can continue to belong to the Democratic Party in the 48th District while simultaneously belonging to the Republican Party on the Capitol Campus in Olympia.
Those who decided to express their displeasure with Tom by email have been getting a form letter in response. Tom does not discuss the ramifications of Republicans controlling the state Senate in the letter (which is what Democratic activists have said they are most upset about), but rather reels off his own goals for the budget and what he considers to be his “rock solid” Democratic credentials.
We know this because several NPI supporters have been kind enough to forward on the replies they got from Tom, and we were able to compare them.
With the exception of a few minor word changes in a couple of places, the responses are identical, and demonstrate that Tom thinks he has more important things to do at the moment than reply individually to his constituents (like script his next moves in a back room with Republicans).
Since Tom has chosen to reply to his constituents in this manner, we might as well publish and discuss the form letter, for the benefit of everyone who has not had the time to send Tom a note but shares the sentiments of those who have.
I’ll take Tom’s response paragraph by paragraph, and offer thoughts in between.
Let’s start with Tom’s opening line:
Thank you for writing to me regarding your [dismay]/[outrage] that I joined in forming a bipartisan majority in the Senate.
There is nothing bipartisan about the majority that Tom and Sheldon have helped engineer. By joining the Republicans, they have left the Democrats.
Tom subconsciously admitted as much when he referred to his Democratic colleagues as “them” during his press conference with top Republicans like Mark Schoesler last Monday. Of course, Tom wants the Republican majority he has engineered to be referred to and thought of as a bipartisan majority, but that’s a fiction. Tom is a former Republican and Tim Sheldon has always been a Republican at heart (Sheldon was a supporter of George W. Bush during the Bush error).
Nevertheless, Tom – perhaps sensing that a second self-declared party switch in six years would make him look the opportunist he is – wants to be considered a Democrat, not a born-again Republican.
I understand your sincere concern, and I want to be clear: I am a Democrat and I will remain a Democrat. I believe my credentials as a Democrat are rock solid. If you look at my stances throughout the years, I am a socially progressive, fiscally prudent Democrat. I’ll compare my positions on social issues with any member of the Democratic Party. I’ve always been 100 percent pro-choice; I have supported the marriage equality effort my entire ten years in the Legislature; I have been one of the strongest supporters in the Legislature for family planning funding; I was the prime sponsor on the gun show loophole closure legislation. At the federal level I believe in the Buffet rule; that we need a more progressive tax structure and a much higher federal estate tax, and that we’re spending way too much on defense. I don’t know of anyone who would say those positions come from the Republican platform.
Senator Tom does not appear to understand what it means to be a Democrat. The Democratic platform is not some laundry list of issue positions or stances; it is a statement of values and principles, with policy directions derived from the logic of those values and principles. The party does not demand that its candidates and elected leaders rigidly adhere to the platform.
However, Democratic candidates are absolutely expected to govern as Democrats once elected. A Democratic legislator is expected to work with other Democratic legislators to advance Democratic values and principles.
Rodney Tom is doing the opposite.
Actions speak louder than words. An elected official’s record matters more than his or her rhetoric. Rodney Tom can say he’s socially progressive, but his power grab jeopardizes the prospects of socially progressive legislation like the Reproductive Parity Act – which might well have passed last session were it not for Tom, Sheldon, and the departing Jim Kastama, who conspired with Republicans to give them the Senate floor right before a crucial cutoff.
Had Tom chosen to stay in the Democratic caucus and work with his Democratic colleagues, Ed Murray would be the incoming majority leader, and Democrats would control the Senate’s committees. But Tom wanted power, and he got it by hammering out a backroom deal to engineer a Republican majority with fellow renegade Tim Sheldon. Whatever his credentials as a Democrat were before, they’re not relevant now. What is relevant is what he has done.
I also believe we need to be fiscally responsible, which means we can’t spend money we don’t have. George W. Bush was the most fiscally irresponsible president in our nation’s history, but that doesn’t give Democrats a license to follow his stupidity. As a country, we are broke. The Simpson-Bowles proposal at the federal level is just a start; to pretend we’re not in a huge fiscal hole is to be blind to reality. I believe we have a moral obligation not to burden future generations with our excessive spending. George Washington said it best, “We should avoid ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burdens that we ourselves ought to bear.” The American Dream is to leave a legacy where the next generation is better off, not starved by our debts.
Speaking for myself, I am unaware of any Democrats who want to follow the bad example that George W. Bush set. With the help of Republicans in Congress, Bush slashed taxes for the wealthy, invaded other countries without paying for it, and awarded plenty of lucrative no-bid contracts to the military-industrial complex. We are still living with the excesses of the Bush error.
But we are not broke. It is a mistake to think of the United States as analogous to a household or even a corporation (which can go broke or bankrupt). Tom’s choice of words makes me think he does not understand macroeconomics. As a country, we certainly have debt; however, we also have the ability to pay off our debt without gutting the public services we want and need.
Fiscal responsibility is a policy direction the Democratic Party strongly supports. But fiscal responsibility does not mean austerity. Austerity measures at all levels of government are actually irresponsible because they result in degraded or destroyed public services and fewer jobs. We have an infrastructure deficit in addition to a financial deficit, and we simply cannot ignore that.
At the federal level, we need to both invest in our future and get more control over our debt, which spiraled out of control during the Bush error.
If Tom is so concerned about solving our nation’s manufactured fiscal crisis, perhaps he should resign from his position and go to the Other Washington to lobby for what he thinks is right. Here in this Washington, we have a different set of fiscal problems. We have a regressive, loophole-ridden tax structure that is completely broken. We are sorely in need of tax reform to ensure that we can fairly and amply fund the public services our state’s economy depends on.
Unfortunately, the Legislature, which Rodney Tom has been a part of for nearly a decade, has resorted to backfilling and gimmicks to balance the budget, instead of addressing the root causes of our fiscal problems.
For example, in November of 2007, Tom voted with Democrats and fellow Republicans in a one-day special session to reinstate Tim Eyman’s Initiative 747 at the request of Governor Chris Gregoire. When the Supreme Court tossed I-747 out as unconstitutional, they gave the Legislature an opportunity to get to work on tax reform. But instead of making the most of that opportunity, the Legislature simply reenacted Eyman’s regressive initiative.
Back to Tom’s reply:
By focusing on empowering middle-class families, our coalition’s priorities are:
- Providing a vibrant economy, so we have a stronger job market.
- Providing a world-class education system, so our students will have the skills and knowledge to compete in a global, high-tech world.
- Making sure we have a sustainable budget that lives within our means by prioritizing core government functions.
This is meaningless boilerplate. I’d wager that everyone elected to the statehouse in 2012 wants “a vibrant economy” and “a world-class education system” and “a sustainable budget”. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes. And this is where Democrats and Republicans diverge. Democratic candidates and Republicans may say similar things on the campaign trail, but the logic of Democratic/progressive and Republican/conservative values is very different. To elaborate a bit:
- Democrats believe that broad prosperity stems from public investment. Washington is a great place to live, work, and do business because of its parks, schools, universities, first responders, hospitals, and other public services. The public infrastructure paid for by the taxpayers of this state and of the United States is what makes our vibrant economy possible. Republicans believe that government is the problem, that it already takes too much of our money, and that it should be drowned in a bathtub, to paraphrase Grover Norquist (Tim Eyman’s role model). Republicans want to wreck government by eliminating or crippling vital public services.
- Democrats believe that budgets are moral documents, and that our state’s budget, when there is a shortfall, should be balanced by raising revenue in addition to finding savings wherever possible. Republicans see budget shortfalls as opportunities to slash vital public services. Republicans also oppose raising revenue or repealing outdated, unnecessary tax loopholes in virtually all circumstances. Many Republican state legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s absolutist no new taxes pledge.
- Democrats have called for I-960/I-1053/I-1185 to be struck down because it violates our state Constitution and undemocratically prevents the Legislature from operating the way our founders intended it to. Democrats want government that works and a Legislature run by the many, not the few. The Republican Party of Washington has supported all of the aforementioned initiatives and is now preparing to support Tim Eyman and Janea Holmquist Newbry in a push to put the two-thirds scheme for raising revenue into the Constitution by amendment. Ironically, that will take a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature to do, and Republicans do not have the votes.
By striking a deal to become Majority Leader in name only and put Republicans in control of the Washington State Senate, Rodney Tom has embraced the Republican agenda and the conservative values system that underpins that agenda.
That is his choice. He should not be surprised that Democrats see his power grab as act of betrayal. Because that is precisely what it is.
I am very much focused on the end goal of what gets to the governor’s desk, knowing that we have a solidly Democratic House that hasn’t always been fiscally prudent. I believe it’s imperative that the Senate lead the charge in coming out with a fiscally responsible budget, so that when we compromise between the House and Senate, we don’t have the summation of two fiscally irresponsible budgets, taking us off the fiscal cliff.
Speaker Frank Chopp and members of his caucus would, I am sure, dispute Tom’s contention that “we have a solidly Democratic House that hasn’t always been fiscally prudent.” Speaker Chopp has fought hard to save many vital public services from being eviscerated and eliminated. His efforts in that regard have been heroic and noble, and deserve commendation, not condemnation.
Speaker Chopp and his caucus recognize that Washington must invest in its future. That is why Chopp and House Democrats have worked to comply with the McCleary decision and save services like Apple Health or Disability Lifeline.
Rodney Tom, meanwhile, has been obsessed with conservative schemes like liquor privatization, which don’t save money or improve Washington’s quality of life.
I would remind you that there was a lot of concern about my actions last session when we went to the Ninth Order in the Senate to develop an alternative budget to the budget proposed by the Democratic majority. In the end, the final budget vote was 44-2, unprecedented bipartisan support that showed we really did move to middle ground; that we could all agree to a better budget for taxpayers and make sure that our most vulnerable were protected. And we fully funded core government services.
The Senate did not go to the Ninth Order to develop an alternative budget, it went to the Ninth Order to pass an alternative budget that had been put together in a back room by Republicans without public input. That alternative budget got a frosty reception in the state House.
In the end, contrary to what Tom implies, the Legislature went home after passing a final budget that more closely resembled the budget originally proposed by Ed Murray and the Democratic majority than the Republicans’ midnight budget.
Senate Republican budget chief Joe Zarelli’s $44 million of cuts from K-12 and $30 million from higher education? Didn’t happen. Disability Lifeline, the Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Treatment and Support Act, Housing and Essential Needs, State Food Assistance, and other social programs Zarelli sought to eliminate? All funded in the final budget at levels similar to what Murray had proposed.
The Dems’ proposed one-day delay in making a payment to public school districts, well, that particular accounting maneuver was squashed, but then so was the Republicans’ proposal to skip a payment to state pension funds. Instead, much of the half billion dollar revenue shortfall is made up with a different accounting trick, one which which keeps $238 million in local sales taxes on the state’s books for 30 days, but without delaying the redistribution back to local jurisdictions.
Tom would like us all to think that the late night session he helped engineer back in March led to a better budget. In reality, all it did was generate mistrust and prolong the legislative session, wasting time and money.
Tom’s form letter ended with the following:
Thank you again for your note and your concern. I hope you have the patience to judge my efforts by what ends up on Governor Inslee’s desk.
And what about the legislation that doesn’t end up on Governor Inslee’s desk? Thanks to Rodney Tom, Republicans will be in a position to kill a lot of bills that would advance Democratic/progressive values in the 2013 legislative session. Extreme Republicans like Pam Roach and Mike Padden are already slated to receive committee chairmanships. That is what matters more than anything else.
By teaming up with Republicans to seize power in the Washington State Senate, Rodney Tom has turned his back on the donors, volunteers, and voters who elected him in 2006 and 2010 and expected him to govern as a Democrat. By behaving like an opportunist, he is inviting Washingtonians not to trust him.