Dino Rossi strives to be comeback kid in Senate race
September 14, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Former Issaquah legislator returns after dual losses
The story is classic Dino Rossi: a daunting policy issue framed as a kitchen table discussion.
Not long before the Sammamish resident and GOP standard-bearer decided to run for the U.S. Senate, son Jake had a question about the national debt.
“My 16-year-old asked me, ‘How much do I owe?’ Sixteen-year-olds shouldn’t be asking questions like that,” Dino Rossi recalled. “They should be asking, ‘Can I have the car keys? And get out the money while you’re giving me the car keys.’”
Rossi — father of four, self-made millionaire, former state senator and erstwhile candidate for governor — drops anecdotes about family life into stump speeches and interviews to remind people he has not been part of partisan squabbles in Olympia or the other Washington for years.
Before he entered the U.S. Senate race in late May, he spent the 18 months since the 2008 election on “suburban dad stuff” — shuttling children to school and basketball games.
The electorate remembers Rossi from the bruising races for the Governor’s Mansion, the achingly close margin in the 2004 contest — recounts, court challenges and, separated by a mere 133 ballots, the closest gubernatorial election in U.S. history — and the failed 2008 rematch against Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Republicans hope Rossi, 50, can be a political Lazarus in the latest election battle. Supporters tout his up-by-the-bootstraps biography as a conservative counterpoint to “mom in tennis shoes” Patty Murray, the incumbent Democrat.
Polls promised a competitive race, and national Republicans engaged in a high-profile courtship, but Rossi said he had concerns about how the tough election might impact life at home.
“My 13-year-old, Joseph, he would have filed me 10 months ago if he could have figured out how to forge my signature,” Rossi said.
Wife Terry, no stranger to the frenetic pace required for a statewide campaign, urged her husband to run.
“Dino is so called to this, and it would have been selfish of me to keep him at home,” she said.
Issaquah has served as a springboard in the 18 years since Rossi ran — and lost — to represent the community in Olympia.
The novice candidate lost a state Senate race to Democrat Kathleen Drew in 1992. In a turnaround, Rossi unseated Drew four years later.
In the state Senate, Rossi attracted attention as the architect of the state budget in 2003. The state faced a $2.3 billion shortfall, and Rossi reached out to Democrats in order to enact deep spending cuts.
“I found when it really was crucial, that it was really important to try to bring people together, then they knew I’d always been honest with them,” he said. “They knew where I came from, where I was going to go with legislation. So, there were no surprises for anybody.”
Through the statewide campaigns since, Rossi has deployed the message countless times at fundraisers, Rotary Club meetings, parades, Labor Day picnics, inside American Legion halls and to newspaper editorial boards.
“The secret to my success in Olympia — which is the way that I look at all of these things — is, I never cared if I got re-elected,” he said. “I was happy before I got into politics. I figured I’d be happy after. It’s very freeing. So, you can figure out what you think is right and go do it.”
Slade Gorton, the last Republican elected to the Senate from the Evergreen State, said the affable Rossi has the personality and the résumé to appeal to independent-minded voters.
“He isn’t harsh or hot or intolerant,” Gorton said. “He seems like the kind of person who would listen.”
The always-on-message Rossi talks a lot about the American dream.
The future state senator had a blue-collar upbringing in Mountlake Terrace by parents he described as “‘Scoop’ Jackson Democrats” in the mold of the late Washington senator.
Rossi earned tuition money as a Seattle University student through odd jobs, including stints in construction and as a janitor at the Space Needle.
The business student turned to the Republican Party in 1980, attracted in part by the cheerful conservatism of Ronald Reagan.
Politics beckoned not long after Rossi, Terry and infant daughter Juliauna relocated from Magnolia to Klahanie. The family later settled in Sammamish.
Then came the statehouse campaigns. Rossi launched both gubernatorial bids from Village Theatre in downtown Issaquah.
Dino and Terry Rossi learned during the 1992 state Senate race just how difficult a campaign schedule could be for a family.
“We are the type of family that likes to have dinner together every night at 6:30,” Terry Rossi said.
But dinner together seldom fits into the 12- to 14-hour days Rossi logs crisscrossing Washington from Port Angeles to Pullman. So, the candidate tries to sit down for breakfast with the family, or some of the children join Rossi on the trail.
“Politics stuff, this all comes and goes,” he said. “You have to maintain your family.”
Rossi also sprinkles kids-say-the-darnedest-things observations into campaign discussions. Take the exchange he and son Joseph had before dad entered the Senate bout:
“I said, ‘Well, Joseph, they’re going to tell the same lies about dad on TV again if I do this,’” the elder Rossi recalled. “He says, ‘Yeah, dad, it’s just like junior high.’ I almost drove off the road when he said that.”
Luke Esser, a former state senator and current state GOP chairman, said Rossi has a compelling biography — a strong selling point in the neck-and-neck race against Murray.
“Sometimes, I think Dino is shy or maybe a bit too humble about talking about his background,” Esser said. “He has a great story to tell.”
On the stump, Rossi repeats a handful of the stories, some timeworn, and others fresh.
Perhaps the relative the candidate discusses the most on the campaign trail is grandfather Silvino Rossi, a turn-of-the-20th-century Black Diamond coal miner and immigrant from Taranta Peligna, Italy.
Grandparents Silvino and Concetta Rossi “came here because they thought it could be a better place for themselves, their children and their grandchildren — the idea that you could rise to whatever level your talent or work ethic would take you, that their grandson could work his way through college as a janitor and become successful in the commercial real estate business and become a state senator,” Dino Rossi said. “That’s all part of the American dream narrative that I think a lot of people sense is slipping away.”
Rossi — immaculately dressed in a navy blazer and wingtips at his threadbare campaign headquarters in a Bellevue office park — telegraphs success, despite the outcomes in both gubernatorial races.
Rich Thrasher, a Sammamish businessman and Rossi family friend for a decade, said the losses to Gregoire had a longer-lasting effect on supporters than on Rossi.
“I think we were all more mad than he was,” Thrasher said. “I believe he just kind of went about his business.”
Rossi could rise from the political graveyard yet. The current race is different, he said, due to “huge headwinds” in a GOP-friendly election cycle and volatile electorate. If not, then the suburban dad could settle into the old routine.
“What’s the worst case scenario? More time with my wonderful wife and my beautiful children?” Rossi said. “Well, that works.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.