Rodney Tom is an unlikely political leader.
That’s because unlike the caricature that was created by opponents as the man who would be king, Tom isn’t all that political — at least not in a partisan political sense.
Tom, who announced this week that he won’t seek re-election, just might be Olympia’s most nonpartisan player. Not bipartisan, as much, despite the constant talking point of the Majority Coalition Caucus he leads in which everything is bipartisan. Instead, Tom seems mostly unimpressed with political parties.
He’s certainly proved that with his actions. After first winning a House seat in 2002 as a Republican, he tired of the GOP’s conservative social agenda and ran for the 48th District’s Senate seat in 2006 as a Democrat. And as is pretty well known, Tom voted with Republicans on key procedural motions to help them control the Senate in 2012. Then, while retaining his Democratic affiliation, he joined with then-minority Republicans to form the MCC at the start of the 2013 session.
In politics, switching parties is akin to changing religion or disowning your children. To essentially do so twice makes you a pariah, which is why Tom’s motives are so easily questioned and why he is demonized by Democrats.
But Tom may be closer to the average voter than the average elected official or partisan staffer is. Most voters don’t view the world through a strictly partisan lens and Rodney Tom seems not to do so either.
That’s not to say he isn’t passionate about issues. He came to Olympia as an education reformer who believed that the key to upward mobility is quality schools and access to college. He also believes that the government can spend less and spend what it does spend more efficiently and effectively. He went into whichever caucus room that would further those policy goals.
Because he doesn’t live and breathe party politics, Tom was always going to be an outsider. Being hyper-analytical and rarely concerned with hurt feelings didn’t help his interpersonal relations. But oddly that made him the one person who could keep the always-ready-to-splinter MCC together for as long as he did.
He knew and the Senate Republicans knew that he was on a short timetable. And both decided they could use each other until something better came along. To that end, Tom assured them that only if they stayed focused on the issues they agreed on — which just happened to be the issues Tom was most focused on — could they keep control. Veering off into conservative social issues would put it all at risk.
The reaction from the political class to Tom’s announcement this week was less about the issues he espoused than about the effect it would have on — you guessed it — partisan politics. Without Tom on the ballot, will Democrats be able to win the seat? Wait, I mean, a Democrat who will caucus with the Democrats.
And does it portend that those Democrats might regain control of the Senate — something they thought they had won at the 2012 election until Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch decided to bunk with the Republicans?
But Democrat-Democrats would not only have to win Tom’s seat but also defend the Federal Way-centered seat being vacated by Sen. Tracey Eide and then pick up two more Republican seats.
No problem? Most state legislative districts are either safely Republican or safely Democratic. And those that are called swing qualify only because they’re not as safe as every other district.
One thing is sure. Even if Republicans win enough votes to retain control, they will likely be forced by their conservatives to take on — and perhaps be labeled by — social issues that do not resonate with the state’s general electorate. And that can’t be good news for whichever Republican emerges to challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in 2016.
It is too soon to write political obituaries for Rodney Tom. At age 50 he has lots of time to get back into politics. If he does, he might be the ideal statewide candidate for the next time state voters are looking for a post-political iconoclast, for the next time they want to throw all the bums out regardless of party.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter