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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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October 26, 2007 11:58 AM

Rossi's hint at a more populist campaign

Posted by David Postman

There are two words in particular that jumped out at me in Dino Rossi's announcement speech: "biggest businesses." Those words may signal a very different sort of campaign in the Republican's second try for the governor's mansion.

It's a hint at a sort of economic populism that Washington hasn't seen from Republican gubernatorial candidates. Instead, the GOP has sold itself as the party that would be best for businesses of all sizes and stripes; the party that would have made Boeing headquarters safe in Washington, let Microsoft thrive and give all big business the sort of stability it craves in government.

That's the path Rossi followed in 2004 when he first ran against Christine Gregoire.

Rossi is only dipping his (well-shod) toe into the waters of anti-corporate populism. Yet Thursday in Issaquah, Rossi described big business as part of the Gregoire Establishment.

"The big unions, the big trial lawyers and the biggest businesses — they like things just the way they are. Their money is pouring into her campaign.

"They are going to come after us hard.

"The crowd that has controlled state government for a generation does not intend to give up power without a fight."

There are a couple of obvious reasons why Rossi is distancing himself from big business. The first is that big business does pretty well under Gregoire, as it did under previous Democratic governors, as well. And big businesses are part of the establishment. There's no debate about that. And they want to keep it that way. And that means those businesses are likely to back Gregoire over Rossi rather than covering their bets with both sides, as many did in 2004.

Rossi got plenty of big-business money in his first run, including from Boeing and Weyerhaeuser. Neither made a corporate donation to Gregoire in 2004. Now, though, Weyerhaeuser has already given $1,000 to Gregoire's re-election. Boeing hasn't yet, but employees of the company have given her more than $6,000.

If you're not going to get the big business money, why not run against it? That could appeal to blue collar Democrats and voters who have yet to feel the full effects of a strong state economy. That's in addition, obviously, to galvanizing the Republican base with a message that would sound different than the party's standard — and more often that not, losing — strategy of being businesses' best friend forever.

Already Rossi has put himself at odds with corporate Washington on one of this year's major issues. Rossi says he plans to vote against the roads and transit ballot measure that has gotten major funding from Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser and large employers in the area.

I question, though, the resolve. Republicans have flirted with this before. But it doesn't stick. The most obvious incursion into separating Wall Street from Main Street businesses came in 1999 when then-state GOP Chairman Dale Foreman compared Boeing to Al Capone and his gangsters. Foreman said the company threatened to cut off funding the party if it backed Tim Eyman's Initiative 695.

Less than two weeks after Foreman stepped down, his replacement, Don Benton, was on his way to Boeing to make sure there weren't any hard feelings. He met with other business lobbyists, too, where he said in a post-populism luncheon:

"Lay out your fears. Lay out your concerns. What can the party do for you?"

And already this year, some of the businesses that might think Rossi's barb is aimed at them have given to the state Republican Party. How far can he go without risking what is still a lucrative vein for the party?

Rossi will have at least one strong advocate in his corner if he decides to triangulate off Gregoire and big business. Tom McCabe, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, has long argued that the Boeings of the world are too comfortable having Democrats in charge. (McCabe is also one of Rossi's strongest supporters and an ardent opponent of all things Gregoire.) He wrote in a 2002 edition of his association's newsletter:

"Boeing has no allegiance to Republican principles of free enterprise, entrepreneurship and personal responsibility. Instead, the company's only motivation is to selfishly win special favors and tax breaks from the big government it helped create.

"If there's any fight Boeing ever fought on principle, what is it?"

Will we hear anything like that from Rossi? That would make for an interesting race.

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