Budget writer thrives in legislative hothouse

OLYMPIA — For many legislators, the state's massive budget shortfall is like a political rogue wave, threatening to smash their re-election hopes.

But for Sen. Dino Rossi, it seems, surf's up. In his rookie year as the Senate's chief budget writer, the Republican real-estate salesman from Sammamish has surged to prominence — at least in Olympia.

Lawmakers, who meet in special session starting today, know whatever they do to plug the state's $2.65 billion budget hole — raise taxes, cut spending, or both — voters are going to be angry. But for Rossi, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the budget crisis has brought more opportunity than peril.

Once viewed by some as a country-club dilettante, Rossi is gaining a new reputation as a hard-working pragmatist who is willing to listen and work across the political aisle.

That said, the budget he produced promotes a conservative agenda. He includes no raises for state workers but calls for tax breaks for business. He restores funds for some social-service programs Democratic Gov. Gary Locke wanted cut but has shocked social-service advocates and Democrats with some of his health-care cuts — including one to stop prenatal coverage for illegal immigrants.

Republicans and Democrats have been struck by Rossi's knack for finding the right sound-bite message and sticking to it.

"He's really been impressive," said Marty Brown, Locke's budget director.

Suddenly, Republican Party leaders are eyeing Rossi as a possible candidate for governor. And he's thinking about it. "A lot of us have known about Dino for a long time," said state GOP Chairman Chris Vance. "He just hasn't gotten noticed because the Republicans were in the minority."

Of course, it's too soon to declare any winners in this year's budget battle. After failing to agree on a budget during their regular 105-day session ending April 27, lawmakers are returning today for a special session.

Rossi had little trouble getting a handful of Democrats to help him push a no-new-taxes budget through the Republican-controlled Senate. But it's unknown how well he will do with the House, where Democratic leaders are pushing a bigger budget that includes new taxes.

No matter what happens, Rossi will have plenty of critics. He's a politician who considers it his mission to look out for "the people who sign the paychecks." For some, that means he's too eager to help business and is not concerned enough about the little guy.

"He's still very conservative," said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. "His voting record is still very anti-labor, anti-worker."

But Rossi's performance this year has mollified some of his critics. Sen. Darlene Fairley of Lake Forest Park, the ranking Democrat on Rossi's budget committee, said she had viewed Rossi as "one of those rich white guys who's never known a minute of stress in his life and who wouldn't know a poor person if he saw one."

"Now I know him," said Fairley, who has spent many hours talking budgets with Rossi. "It's very different."

A born salesman

Rossi, 43, does not come from wealth, nor from Republican roots, for that matter. In the mid-1950s, before he was born, his mother fled a troubled marriage in Alaska. With five children in tow, she moved into the Holly Park housing project in Seattle. She worked nights, went to beauty school during the day and eventually opened her own business, Rossi said.

She later married John Rossi, a widower and elementary schoolteacher. Dino was the last of seven kids. Though the family didn't have much money, Rossi said he didn't think of himself as poor. "I thought everyone drank powdered milk."

Rossi took to business at an early age — first retrieving lost golf balls and selling them back to golfers, later selling homemade candles through his mother's beauty shop.

Still, Rossi said his plan as a teenager was to become a teacher. But his father persuaded him to pursue a career in business.

"He said, 'Son, you've been a businessman since you were 7,' " Rossi said. "He knew what was best for me."

Rossi graduated from Seattle University in 1982 with a degree in business management. After a year abroad, he returned to Seattle and almost immediately took up a career in commercial real estate.

He bought his first apartment building at age 25 and says that by the time he was 30 he owned $1 million worth of real estate. He still owns rental properties in King and Snohomish counties and is vice president for Scott Real Estate Investment in Seattle.

Though his parents were both blue-collar Democrats, Rossi signed on as a Republican during the 1980 presidential election. But it was nearly another decade before he really dived into politics.

In 1989, he met Jerry Miller, then chairman of the King County Republican Party. Miller persuaded him to run the campaign of former legislator Mike Ross against then-King County Councilman Ron Sims.

Ross lost, but Rossi was quickly making a name for himself as a GOP recruiter and fund-raiser. In 1990, he won the county party's "Republican of the Year" award.

A year later, Rossi and his wife, Terry, and their newborn daughter moved from Magnolia to the Sammamish Plateau. They figured the Eastside would be a better place to raise children (they now have four).

It also proved to be a better place for Rossi to launch a political career. He made his first bid for the Senate in 1992 but lost to Democrat Kathleen Drew, who argued Rossi's conservative, anti-abortion views did not fit well in the 5th Legislative District, which stretches from Issaquah to Snoqualmie Pass.

Four years later, Rossi challenged Drew again. This time the campaign focused on taxes and the economy. Rossi hammered Drew for joining with other Democrats in 1993 to pass one of the biggest tax increases in state history.

Rossi beat Drew and has been honing his fiscal-conservative message ever since.

Going on the road

After spending the past four years in the minority, Republicans reclaimed control of the Senate last November.

A few weeks after the election, Rossi hopped into his Volvo and spent a week crisscrossing the state to meet individually with fellow senators. He focused mainly on moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats — lawmakers he knew might go either way on the budget.

He said he aimed to find out how to win their vote and to make the case "this is just too big of a problem for one party to handle."

But Rossi and the Republicans got perhaps their biggest boost in mid-December, when Democrat Locke proposed closing the deficit almost entirely with spending cuts. Locke also said he would not support any general tax increases.

Invoking Locke regularly, Rossi went to work trying to pick off as many Democrats' votes as possible. In early April, he unveiled a no-new-taxes budget.

Like Locke's budget, Rossi's plan was widely praised by business leaders but drew howls from education lobbyists and many human-services groups. The loudest cries were over Rossi's proposals to eliminate Medicaid coverage for more than 40,000 children and halt state-funded prenatal care for illegal immigrants.

Nevertheless, four Democrats — including three Rossi had visited during his December road trip — crossed party lines to vote for his budget.

Turmoil in House

Meantime, House Speaker Frank Chopp's Democratic caucus was in turmoil over taxes and other issues.

Though several Democrats publicly proclaimed they would not vote for a general tax increase, House leaders moved ahead with a plan that called for $650 million in new revenue, including $350 million from an increase in the state sales tax.

Unlike the budgets proposed by Rossi and Locke, the House plan also included nearly $300 million in pay raises for all teachers, state employees and the state's newly unionized 26,000 home health-care workers.

But House leaders were quickly forced to revamp their plan amid rumors some Democrats were preparing to team up with House Republicans to pass a variation of the Rossi-Locke no-taxes budget.

To make matters worse for Chopp, some Democrats began repeating one of Rossi's budget mantras: We shouldn't raise taxes on people who are unemployed to give raises to people who still have jobs.

"It's amazing," said Fairley, the top Democrat on Ways and Means. "He always has a way of putting things so a regular person can hear the message."

At one point, House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers was overheard complaining, "We're getting creamed by Rossi."

House leaders spent the final week of the session scrambling to find a scaled-down tax package. On the next-to-last day of the session, the House passed a budget that includes less money for pay raises than Democratic leaders originally had favored and $320 million in new revenue, including new taxes on candy, gum, cigarettes and liquor.

By then it was too late to negotiate a compromise with the Senate. Locke sent lawmakers home but urged the budget leaders to strike a deal by today, the start of the special session.

In recent days, there have been indications House Democrats might bend on their demands to give pay raises to teachers and state workers — and that Rossi might agree to some new revenue, although not new taxes.

A star beyond Olympia?

When the Legislature convened in January, some wondered how effective Rossi would be. As the ranking minority Republican on Ways and Means the previous two years, it was Rossi's job to take pot shots at Democrats' budget plans.

And while he cranked out a lot of his own cost-cutting ideas, he never had to worry about whether they would really work, let alone get enough votes to pass.

When he was in the minority, for instance, Rossi loved to talk about privatizing government services. But when in charge this year, he held one hearing on privatization and moved on.

"Reality told me that wasn't going to get through the House," Rossi said. "You have to look at what's doable."

That's the sign of a skilled politician, said Brown, the governor's budget chief.

"When you're in the minority, you bitch, bitch, bitch and then you vote no," Brown said. "When you're in the majority, you have to take responsibility and you have to govern. The really good legislators move from one side to the other really effortlessly, and I think Dino did that."

Vance, the state GOP chairman, said it remains to be seen how well Rossi would make the next transition — from legislator to candidate for higher office.

"There are people who are huge stars in Olympia, but nobody knows them outside of Olympia," Vance said.

Rossi said he's flattered that people are mentioning him as a possible candidate for governor. If not that, his eyes light up at the thought of someday replacing Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn in Congress.

In the meantime, he's happy to be in Olympia, budget crisis and all.

"I know I'm not supposed to be enjoying this," Rossi said. "But this has been by far the most interesting and enjoyable year for me so far."

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Special session starts today

Length: Up to 30 days, although lawmakers hope to wrap up by Memorial Day.

Cost: Estimated total daily cost is about $17,000.

Hot topics: Budget; prescription drugs; home-care worker contract; charter schools and other education bills; changes in unemployment and workers-compensation programs.

Keeping track: www.seattletimes.com; TVW coverage on cable TV or www.tvw.org; www.leg.wa.gov and www.governor.wa.gov