Why Murray chose the Democrats and Rossi the Republicans

  • Mon Sep 20th, 2010 1:43pm
  • News

By Jerry Cornfield, Herald Writer

OLYMPIA — By all accounts, Patty Murray had the makings of a good Republican and Dino Rossi a fine Democrat.

Yet they wound up just the opposite.

Murray chose the Democratic Party for its embrace of the idea that government must be there for families when they need it most as it was for hers.

Rossi picked the Republican Party for its view that less is more when it comes to governing and hands-off is the best approach toward business his chosen vocation.

Now, their political values are coming into focus for voters whose choice in November in this marquee match-up may decide which party rules the U.S. Senate.

Patty Murray, 59, and Dino Rossi, 50, are not party ideologues and neither engaged fully in partisan politics until comfortably in adulthood.

Both come from large, middle-class families. Each has six siblings; Patty and her identical twin, Peggy, are the second and third eldest while Dino is the youngest.

Both grew up in small suburban cities Murray in Bothell and Rossi in Mountlake Terrace. Their fathers are World War II veterans and their families each hit by hardship that tested their will.

While there are parallels in their lives as youngsters, by the time each reached college, their life’s journey was driven by very different political values.

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Murray seemed potential GOP material. Her family’s primary source of income came from the store her fathered managed on Bothell’s Main Street called Meredith’s 5 &10. He was a Goldwater Republican from Kennewick, her mom a Kennedy Democrat from Butte, Mont., and their politics all blue collar.

Murray is today one of the most reliable Democratic votes in the Senate. Ask her why and she’ll say its because the party “reflects the values that I was raised with of community and supporting each other so that were all stronger as a result of it.”

Seeds of those values were planted in her childhood when she and her brothers and sisters grew up in a small house with one bathroom.

Each of their first jobs was at the store, where they’d earn a few quarters from their father for sweeping floors and other chores. When their dad, Dave Johns, wasn’t looking, they’d snatch a piece of candy out of one of the bulk containers, or in Patty’s case, a few cashews. And each year, the entire family came together to inventory every item inside the general store.

Patty was a teenager when multiple sclerosis struck her father, eventually forcing him to stop working. The family found itself on welfare until her mother found work as a bookkeeper. Then they survived on her paycheck and government-issued food stamps.

Lack of money didn’t prevent Patty from attending college. She used Pell grants, student loans and scholarships coupled with earnings from a job to pay her way at Washington State University.

“I grew up in a family that didn’t have much and, as I have said many times, it was because my country was there for us that I was even able to go to college,” she said. “The federal grant and loan programs were supported by Democrats and talked about by Democrats, so I guess I leaned in that direction.”

She attended college in the late 1960s, a politically volatile era with student demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for civil, gay and women’s rights.

“I frankly wasn’t all that involved in it,” she said. “I was extremely poor. I was trying to get to classes and worked quite a few hours to pay for my schooling, so I was not involved in much of the activities.”

She did win her first election — as president of Streit Perham Hall, a dormitory where she lived.

“Back then we had to wear dresses to the dining hall. When we had snow, it was darn cold. We would go to class and then come back and get dressed to go to dinner, which I felt inherently was not fair because the guys didn’t have to do that,” she said.

She launched a petition drive that led the administration to repeal the rule, making Murray a popular figure.

Her true realization that “I am a Democrat; I am going to work on Democratic campaigns,” came after she married, hit her 30s and became a mother.

It was 1983 and state lawmakers were swinging their budget ax to and fro to deal with a deficit. They had sliced funding for preschool programs run by community colleges, including one in Shoreline where Murray’s two children were enrolled.

She got involved organizing parents to go to Olympia to try and get funding restored.

“I think that is where I first got into my head that I am more a Democrat than a Republican,” she said. “There were Republicans who were helpful to me, but I realized that as a whole the members of the Legislature that I was lobbying who were most supportive of reinstating the program were Democrats because they understood my argument that this was a valuable thing for our state to be providing.”

During this effort is when a legislator — whom Murray still declines to name — told her she had a good story but shouldnt expect success because she was only a mom in tennis shoes. But lawmakers did restore the money and the verbal slight that struck a nerve soon became the theme of her career.

Murray entered the world of elections as a volunteer on campaigns of a state senator and school board candidates. In 1984, she ran for a seat on the board of the Shoreline School District and lost.

A year later, she was appointed to a position and then elected to a full term. In 1988, she won a seat in the state Senate, where she focused on education and family issues.

Four years later, she made history by becoming the states first female U.S. senator. In 18 years, a trait for which she is well known — delivering funding for local programs — reflects her belief that part of why she works in the nations capital is to find ways to help people in Washington who sent her there.

When Murray first told her family in 1991 of her plans to run, she got ribbed by her father about her political allegiance, recalled her uncle, Earl Johns.

“I still remember Dave (Johns) saying, ‘Y’know you’re in the wrong party, don’t you?’ and she said, ‘I know, Dad,’ he recalled. “I also remember her dad saying, ‘If she’s not careful, she’s going to get herself elected.”

* * *

Rossi could easily have been a Democrat. His father taught in a public school in Seattle and his mother, an Alaskan native, was a homemaker-turned-beautician. Their personal politics aligned with those of conservative Democrat, and Snohomish County native son, Sen. Henry M. Scoop Jackson.

Ask Rossi why hes a Republican and he’ll say part of the reason is he wanted be a businessman and found many in his parents’ party openly hostile to the business world.

He also will say he was lured by Republicans’ belief “that you can start with nothing, because I had nothing, and do whatever you want to do in America. That was the piece.”

Like Murray, Rossi’s family was not wealthy and dealt with major challenges. His mother had five children from a first marriage. When it went bad, she divorced her husband, left Alaska and brought her children to Seattle, where they lived in a public housing project. She was an alcoholic and didn’t gain control of her disease until Dino was in elementary school.

Dino is the only child of the marriage of Eve and John Rossi. Dino’s dad, a popular teacher, nearly died after suffering a heart attack at 51, an experience that is a milepost in Rossi’s life.

He spent a lot of time with his father, who drilled into him a resolve to be self-reliant, industrious and hopeful in the face of challenges.

“The reality was, he said, you’re not going to get something for nothing,” he said. “’ You work hard, you play by the rules and things should work out for you.’ And that was it.”

Rossi, a self-made millionaire, showed a knack for making money at an early age. When he was 7 he said he made as much $30 a weekend digging golf balls from the brush at Ballinger Park Golf Course in Snohomish County, taking them back to the tee and selling them to golfers. At 14, he was selling candles.

While attending Seattle University, he landed a job as a janitor to help pay the costs. Among the sites he cleaned was the Space Needle.

In his mind, he made a lasting connection with the Republican Party in 1980 when he cast his first vote in a presidential election.

“Basically I looked at Jimmy Carter and I looked at Ronald Reagan, and I said, ‘Man, I was really raised more with the optimism and the values Ronald Reagan espoused,’ ” he said. “Well, OK, I voted for Ronald Reagan.”

It would be another nine years before Rossi embarked on the path that would put his name on a ballot and him in public office.

After college, he spent nine months traveling overseas, then returned to launch a successful career in buying, selling and owning real estate.

In 1989, a tenant in an apartment building he owned set up a meeting for him with a King County Republican Party leader.

“I went down there and had lunch and I came home and I told my wife, ‘Oh man, I think I messed up.’ She goes, ‘What did you do?’ I went down there to learn how to tap in yard signs and stuff envelopes and he made me a campaign manager for a King County Council race,” Rossi recounted.

He managed the campaign of former state lawmaker Mike Ross — the only African-American Republican to ever serve in the state Legislature — against the heavily favored Democrat Ron Sims. While Ross didn’t win, Rossi established himself as a rising force in Republican circles.

In 1992, he ran for the state Senate and lost. Four years later, he tried again and won, and then got re-elected.

In 2003, he made his name. That year, with the economy in recession, state spending needed to be cut to balance the budget. Democrats controlled the House and Republicans the Senate, with Gary Locke, a Democrat, as governor.

Rossi led the budget-writing committee and crafted a plan that passed with the support of all the Republicans and a handful of Democrats. He ultimately got the governor on his side to push it through the House.

On the campaign trail, he talks about how he held true to his principles to balance the budget without raising taxes — a point Democrats contest — while protecting the most vulnerable residents who for one reason or another needed government’s help.

Coincidentally, 2003 is also the year the state Legislature and governor approved the largest tax break in state history for the Boeing Co. and the rest of the aerospace industry.

Soon after the signing of the budget, Rossi quit to launch a bid for governor. He came up 133 votes short in that historic 2004 battle with Democrat Chris Gregoire and lost again to her in their 2008 rematch.

Rossi’s beliefs trend conservative and his politics pragmatic. As a candidate, he tends to be practical more than principled.

To the chagrin of some Republicans, he carefully steers around politically combustible planks in the party’s platform. “The thing is party platforms come and go, and I stay the same. I don’t change,” he said.

“As long as the Republican Party is for free enterprise, self-reliance, liberty, those things that made America great, I’ll be a Republican. When they aren’t anymore, I wont be.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com