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Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Family's struggles early in life forged Rossi's political identity

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

One of a series of profiles exploring the lives and careers of the candidates for governor.

The childhood pictures seem right out of Mayberry: There's Dino Rossi with his first wagon. Fishing with his brother. Posing for his 1971 Little League team picture.

As is often the case with family photos, however, the grainy images from Rossi's youth tell only part of the story.

They don't show his mother coming home drunk or, later, the Alcoholics Anonymous gatherings in their living room. They don't show the struggles his parents faced supporting a cobbled-together family of nine on low-wage jobs.

Rossi's life today has the appearance of someone born to the manor — a Volvo sedan, a $530,000 home in Sammamish, membership at The Plateau country club. But his childhood was hardly one of privilege.

Humble beginnings always play well in politics. On the campaign trail and in his commercials, Rossi talks a lot about growing up in a family where love was abundant if money was not.

But in a series of interviews, Rossi and two of his half siblings revealed some darker sides of a family nagged by poverty and torn by addiction and illness.

They provided a closer look that better explains the man and politician Rossi has become — from his personal prohibition against drinking to his hard-work-instead-of-handouts brand of conservatism.

Rossi, a former state senator and now the Republican Party's candidate for governor, calls himself a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience" — a philosophy he says stems partly from seeing the hardships his parents endured without a lot of help from the government.

"You really are made up of all the things that have happened to you and all the things you've seen," Rossi said.

A turbulent marriage

Rossi was born in Seattle in 1959. But this story begins earlier, with Rossi's mother, Eve, a half-Irish, half-Tlingit Indian who grew up in Klawock, a fishing and timber village in Southeast Alaska.

A striking woman, Eve got married early and had five children by the time she was 27. Her husband, the late William Cogo, had a "very bad" drinking problem, and their marriage grew increasingly turbulent, said Jessica Sutherland, their oldest daughter.

In the early 1950s, Eve left her husband and moved her five children to the Seattle area. But Cogo soon followed, and their rocky relationship resumed until Eve finally left him for good.

"We lived in some pretty horrible places," Sutherland said.

Eve and the children wound up in Seattle's Holly Park housing project. Sutherland said her father fell far behind on child-support payments, leaving her mother to scrape by on a variety of jobs. She worked at a cannery downtown and as a cocktail waitress, then put herself through the Mary Stone Beauty School in Seattle.

"We would have starved to death before she would have touched a penny of welfare," Sutherland said. "She believed if you had two good arms and two good legs and a sound mind and body, you better be able to take care of yourself and any children that you brought into this world."

In 1957, while living in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood, Eve met an elementary-school teacher named John Rossi. The son of an Italian immigrant, Rossi also had been through a troubled marriage and was living nearby with his adopted son.

"He was crazy about my mother," Sutherland recalled. They were married within a year.

Soon after their new stepfather moved in, he called Eve's children into the kitchen and got out the strap that their parents had often used to beat them.

"He took out his knife and cut it into pieces and said, 'I'll never have to use this,' " said Dick Cogo, one of Eve's three sons by her first husband. "He never once hit us."

John Rossi never adopted Eve's children, Sutherland said. "But when I talk about my dad, I'm talking about John. ... He was probably the kindest man I ever knew."

The children were immediately embraced by the Rossi extended family. "You couldn't ask to get into a better family," she said. "They treated us like we were their own."

Happy times, hard times

It was into this family Dino Rossi was born about a year later. With seven kids to support, money was still very tight.

John Rossi's teaching job at Viewlands Elementary in North Seattle paid less than $450 a month. Eve kept working as a beautician and sometimes took another job to help pay the bills. The older kids were expected to earn a little money.

Sutherland and Dick Cogo remember a lot of happy times. Instead of big vacations, the family went on weekend camping trips. Eve went all out to make the holidays special.

But soon after Dino was born, Eve began having her own battles with alcohol. Though Rossi was very young at the time, he remembers hearing his parents fight about her drinking.

"It was hard," Rossi recalled. "You're listening in your room and crying yourself to sleep."

Sutherland says her mother didn't drink much at home, but often came home drunk from local taverns.

"She either wanted to fight with everybody or she was overly gushy," said Sutherland, who by then was a teenager and recalls taking some harsh beatings from her mother. "It was just her demons."

Dick Cogo says he was too embarrassed to bring friends to the house.

Eventually, someone steered Eve to Alcoholics Anonymous. She gave up drinking and soon was holding regular AA meetings in their home or hosting dinners and card parties for fellow alcoholics. Eve started a special AA group for Native Americans, Sutherland said.

John got involved as well and was often the one brewing the coffee or cooking up a pot of spaghetti at AA gatherings.

"I tell you, the man loved that woman," Dino Rossi said. "He had to have — married her with five kids and then go through the alcoholism and be so supportive, rather than just leave her."

Dino, who was 7 when his mother quit drinking, said he remembers going out on AA "calls" with his mother and seeing grown men suffering withdrawal — "on their backs, kicking and screaming ... thinking they had spiders crawling through their veins."

More alcohol troubles

Rossi says once his mother started with AA, she never fell back to drinking. But alcohol remained a problem for the family.

Cogo, Rossi's half brother, says he became an alcoholic at a young age. But he gave up drinking for good nearly 30 years ago, after his mother became his AA sponsor. He has had a successful career as a business manager for Boeing.

Rossi also had some run-ins with alcohol. When he was 18, he and a friend got drunk on a bottle of vodka and then, with Rossi behind the wheel, crashed his Pontiac into a house and totaled the car. No one was injured, but Rossi was charged with drunken driving and underage drinking. The charge was later reduced and, instead of jail time, he had to go to a class and pay a fine.

"It's one of those things that happens when you're 18 and you know everything there is in the world to know," Rossi said.

Rossi, who as a state legislator pushed for tougher drunken-driving laws, says he hasn't had a drink in more than 20 years. He says he quit after waking up one morning with the "worst hangover ever."

"I realized that it can be hereditary," he said. "I thought, 'Why in the world would I play with dynamite?' "

Rossi's oldest half brother has had a particularly difficult time with addiction and has been in jail several times over the years. Rossi said he has not seen him since 1992 and won't allow him "anywhere near my family" until he gives up drugs and alcohol.

"I pray for him, and I hope he does turn his life around someday," Rossi said. "But we all make choices. ... It really gets down to personal responsibility and what are you going to do with your life."

"My childhood ended"

Throughout his mother's ordeal with alcohol, Rossi grew especially close to his father. Though the family had moved to Mountlake Terrace, Rossi attended school at Viewlands in North Seattle, where his father taught. He recalls spending the summers fishing, camping and golfing with his father.

"We went everywhere together," Rossi said.

In the spring of 1972, when Rossi was 12, his sister showed up at one of his baseball games in a panic. Their father, then 52, had suffered a serious heart attack.

"[Dino] was scared to death," Sutherland recalled. "Dad was his whole life."

Rossi recalls seeing his father in a hospital, unconscious and covered with tubes. With his father laid up for months, Rossi says, he and his siblings had to assume more responsibilities around the house.

"That was kind of where my childhood ended," he said.

John Rossi taught school for nearly another decade before retiring in 1981. Less than a year later, he suffered a second heart attack. This time, it was fatal.

Eve Rossi fell ill with breast cancer about five years later. After she thought she had beaten it, the cancer returned and she died in 1992, midway through Rossi's first political campaign.

Rossi lost that race but was elected four years later to the state Senate, where he established himself as a conservative who at nearly every turn argued for limiting the role of government.

Rossi said his upbringing helped shape his views. He said his mother proved to him that, by working hard, a single mother with five children could make her way out of poverty without too much help from the government.

"My mom needed that safety net at Holly Park," he said. "But she wasn't going to make that a way of life."

Rossi still likes to recite the life credos his father used to preach. Two of his favorites: "Nobody owes you anything" and "You get what you earn in this world, maybe a little less."

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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