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One (or Two or Three) Question(s) for Sen. Rodney Tom

Majority Leader Tom says he doesn't want to roll back Democratic victories like gay marriage. So why did he endorse a Republican senator who's trying to do just that?

By Josh Feit May 14, 2013


One Question

 A small news item out of Kennewick yesterday on state Sen. Sharon Brown's (R-8, Kennewick) bid for reelection [she's a freshman who was appointed and is up again next year] noted that Brown had been endorsed by all her Republican colleagues in the senate (no surprise there) and by Majority Coalition Caucus leader, Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina).

Tom has angered Democrats all session—first for abandoning the Democrats to side with the Republicans to form the 23 Republicans-plus-two-Democrats majority caucus, and second, by preventing Democratic priorities such as the DREAM Act and the Reproductive Parity Act from getting votes on the floor. (The DREAM legislation would allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for state financial aid to go to college and the RPA would guarantee that insurance companies that cover maternity care also cover abortion.)

While it's not totally surprising that Tom endorsed Brown (a member of his tenuous caucus as he heads in to tricky overtime budget negotiations needing every vote he can get), it directly contradicts his statements at the beginning of the legislative session when he joined with the GOP that he would not abide by rolling back the Democrats' social agenda, saying he would stick to budget issues. 

Brown is sponsoring the controversial bill to scale back both the 2006 gay rights bill and the 2012 gay marriage bill by allowing businesses, such as the flower shop in Brown's district (Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland), to opt out of providing service to gay marriages.

Our One Question for Sen. Tom (which turned into a bunch of questions): Doesn't your endorsement, as majority leader of the state senate, give a stamp of approval and lend credibility to this attempt to scale back gay rights?

 Sen. Tom: No. Absolutely not. There’s a lot of stuff that her and I disagree with [on]. But I will say that for her district, first, I think she’s a smart lady and second, I think that she is better than what some of the alternatives in that district might show up. Although you and I might disagree with her on this issue, I don’t think she’s a crazy Tea Party whack job. You could easily get that from that area. I can tell you—I’ve had enough conversations with Sharon—I think she made a mistake on this. But that’s her doing. I think overall, she’s a better legislator than what you might otherwise get over in that area.

I don’t think she’s a crazy Tea Party whack job.

PubliCola: Is she getting a challenge from the right? [She was the only candidate to file so far this week. Filing deadline is Friday.]

Sen. Tom: I think that there is a lot of talk of that. The politics over there get a little weird. If we’re measuring any of their politicians from a Seattle basis, they think Seattle’s crazy, and Seattle’s probably going to think they’re crazy. But overall, she’s an intelligent legislator that I think can serve her community well. I think she’s an intelligent lady that can work her way through some very complicated issues that we need more of in Olympia.

PubliCola: Are there specific policies or legislation she’s worked on that have impressed you? That you agree on?

Sen. Tom: She’s an attorney, and I can tell you—I think she screwed up on this bill, but besides that—usually she’s very thorough, and I think she has caught on to things very quick. And again, we see all different kinds here in Olympia, and from an IQ standpoint, the lady’s qualified. And that’s not always the case down here. Especially in some of these areas where you can get a Tea Partier that only knows four words, but he knows how to get the crowd excited, and that is not what we need in Olympia. And I don’t see her that way at all.

PubliCola: Did you talk to her specifically about this arch-conservative bill? [Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing the flower shop owner in Brown's district for violating the 2006 gay rights bill. Brown's legislation would make the discrimination aokay.]

Sen. Tom: We’ve said all along that members can drop whatever bills they want to drop, but for the most part, parental notification [conservatives in his caucus introduced a parental notification bill on abortion this year] didn't go anywhere, had a hearing, but didn’t go anywhere. This bill [Brown's bill] is not going anywhere. We’re not going to roll back Washington. Washington is where it’s at, and there’s a reason why it’s at where it’s at. Most of the people, that’s where they want it to be.

I don’t think what I’m doing is any different than what has happened in the past with some people that most would consider a lot more liberal than I am.

PubliCola: The house passed the DREAM Act and the Reproductive Parity Act. And a majority of senators, including you, signed on to the RPA. Aren't you responsible for stopping the will of the majority?

Sen. Tom: No because [former state Sen.] Lisa Brown was in the same seat I’m in, in the same office. [Brown, no relation, was the majority leader when the Democrats had control. She resigned after the session ended in 2012.] Last year we actually had the votes for RPA, and that didn’t go anywhere. We could have had the same discussion on guns. I don’t think what I’m doing is any different than what has happened in the past with some people that most would consider a lot more liberal than I am.

PubliCola: Weren’t you one of the key votes against Sen. Lisa Brown's procedural move that didn’t allow the RPA to make it to the floor last year?

Sen. Tom: Right, but procedurals have nothing to do with the issue. Let’s be real, Lisa knew that wasn’t going anywhere; she’s a smart lady. She knew it was  a procedural vote. But we could have brought up the RPA during the regular session. We had plenty of time before cut-off and it never happened. And we had the votes!

PubliCola: You have the votes this year too.

Sen. Tom: Vote-wise, that’s debatable.

PubliCola: You don’t think there are 25 votes for the RPA? 25 senators, including you, signed a letter in support. Meanwhile, the DREAM Act passed the house 77-20

Sen. Tom: I don’t know. If 25 and 50 are the magic thing to get anything past out of both the house and the senate, that’s a very different element in the way this place has been run. There’s a ton of votes over in the house that I can get 50 votes for that never see the light of day. If that’s going to be the measuring stick, let’s use it for both the house and the senate. [PubliCola, has, in fact, pointed out this Democratic double standard before.]

PubliCola: Can you give an example?

Sen. Tom: A lot of the workers' comp type issues. A lot of labor issues. Pension issues. There’s a lot of business-centric Democrats like myself over in the house that would be voting for these things that don’t stick in labor states—you know, they don’t love it—but our business communities and small businesses in particular need some of these reforms.

PubliCola: Is workers' comp reform [which passed out of the senate early on in the regular session, but never even got a hearing in the house] one of the tradeoffs for you that will get this budget deal done?

Sen. Tom: Yeah, obviously we have quite a few reforms that we're looking to move forward in jobs, education, and the budget.

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