Vol 13 No. 49, Aug 19 - Aug 25 2004
Nor do Democrats have the advantages of incumbency, not with Locke retiring after two uneventful terms. Instead, while Rossi runs in the Republican primary unopposed by any credible challenger, the Democrats are locked in a bruising battle pitting front-running Gregoire against a scrappy and left-leaning, albeit underfunded, bid by King County Executive Ron Sims. In other words, it's no sure thing, but Rossi could actually win.
So who is he?
Rossi, 44 years old, made his pile in commercial real estate. He picked up entrepreneurial habits early, and if there's one thing he knows, it's how to avoid the danger zones in getting to yes. Taking a page from George W. Bush's 2000 playbook, he bills himself as a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience." It's an effective tag line, encapsulating the right kind of conservative message for a state where, outside of Seattle and the sparsely populated areas of Eastern Washington, voters tend toward the center.
Rossi knows he has an uphill climb--there hasn't been a Republican governor in office in Washington State since 1984. But he also has that supreme salesman's confidence that he can move people in his direction. During an interview a few months back, Rossi said to me that 80 percent of politics is "selling ideas," but what he is really selling is himself; the ideas, particularly the more divisive social and cultural beliefs, are safely hidden away under the surface sheen of his obvious personal charisma. Ask him his stand on abortion and his stock reply is to say he's "not running for the Supreme Court." Ask him his stand on the war, and his first response is likely to be that as governor he will "have nothing to do with world peace."
Rossi's seven-year record as a state senator--he resigned late last year so he could campaign full-time (and so he could continue to fundraise during the legislative session while Gregoire, as a state official, was enjoined from doing so)--reveals the depths of his conservatism. He believes that abortion should be outlawed except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened. He opposed I-120, the initiative that codified Roe v. Wade into state law. He supported I-200, the successful anti-affirmative-action initiative championed by Carlson. He received a 100 percent rating from the Washington Conservative Union in 2003, one of only five state senators to do so. He voted the way the Association of Washington Business wanted 20 out of 21 times in 2003.
He slipped up at a private meet-and-greet organized by some prominent UW law professors last spring. He had them eating out of his hand until he mentioned that the last book he had read was Ann Coulter's Treason, according to a story that circulated widely in local Democratic circles (the Rossi camp did not deny it when I asked). He subscribes to the mainstream view of the post-Reagan Republican Party that government is the problem rather than part of the solution. Revealingly, in May he attacked Gregoire's job plan, which she says will create 250,000 jobs in the next four years, by asserting to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Government does not create jobs. All government can do is actually stifle growth and kill jobs."
Still, for the most part he's good at avoiding controversy, and he built a reputation as a consensus-builder and rising star in 2003 when, as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he pushed through (with a big assist from Governor Gary Locke) a tough no-new-taxes budget that eliminated a gaping $2.6 billion deficit, albeit at the expense of teachers, state employees, other union members, and the poor. And so far, at least, he's had great success on the campaign trail in cultivating a moderate image as the new, suburban-friendly face of Washington State Republicanism. Rossi isn't just wowing the locals: The Wall Street Journal profiled him alongside Barack Obama as a rising "state-level star" earlier this year.
He certainly doesn't understand much about the nuances of urban culture. During a conversation last spring, he mentioned to me reading a story in the Seattle Weekly that (rather stupidly) dubbed him a metrosexual. He said he had no idea what the term meant. "I told my wife he called me a metrosexual, and she explained it to me," he said. "I said to her, 'Isn't that illegal in about 40 states?'" And then he laughs that Rossi laugh.
CHARMING THE DEMOCRATS Rossi and his son