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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

GOP legislator switches to Dems

Seattle Times chief political reporter

OLYMPIA — Two-term Republican Rep. Rodney Tom of Medina said Tuesday he's quitting the Republican Party to run for the state Senate as a Democrat.

Tom will challenge incumbent Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue.

"I realized the far right has complete control of the party and for me to be effective for my constituents I need to be a Democrat," Tom said.

He said being a Democrat is not only a better fit for the political demographic of the Eastside's 48th Legislative District but a more comfortable fit for his ideology, which includes support for legal abortion, gay rights and higher taxes for transportation.

He made the announcement Tuesday after talks with Democratic Senate leaders and a few Republicans.

"A couple said they were surprised I didn't do it sooner," Tom said.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, is one of Tom's closest Republican friends.

"He's been a real asset to the caucus and I think he'd be an asset to the Senate, but I'd rather see him on the correct side of the aisle," Jarrett said.

Tom will run against Esser, who served two terms in the House before moving up to the Senate. Esser is up for re-election this November to a four-year term.

Democrats hold 26 of 49 seats in the Senate.

Esser said he disagrees with Tom's assessment of the Republican Party.

"I think he's doing a bit of rationalizing," Esser said. "If he wants to be a Democrat, fine. But he's the one who has changed."

He said Tom was a "self-pronounced Republican when it was very clear what the Republican Party was about."

Jarrett, though, says the Republican Party needs to do more to keep moderates like Tom.

"I think the party has erroneously chosen for some years to give up the middle," he said. "I think the party suffers from the standpoint that we don't recruit and elect people who can win in the suburbs as well as we used to."

State Republican Party Chairwoman Diane Tebelius said Tom should resign his House seat in light of his decision.

"Two years ago, voters elected Tom for the second time as a Republican," Tebelius said. "His calculating change of mind as to what party he belongs to demonstrates a lack of credibility and sincerity."

Dem is already running

Tom's announcement also caused much consternation in Democratic ranks, because there's already a Democrat in the race against Esser. Debi Golden of Bellevue, who narrowly lost a race against Tom in 2004, announced her candidacy in January.

She said she will stay in the race, despite the warm welcome Tom is getting from Democratic leaders.

"While I find that he is a very nice guy and we have a lot of similar beliefs, I don't think he would represent the district quite as well as I would," Golden said. Golden works at Bellevue Community College in business planning and court interpretation.

The Progressive Majority, a group recruiting liberal candidates in five states, has endorsed Golden. "We will stand by her," said Dean Nielsen, the group's Washington state director.

He said with a primary race where voters have to choose either a Democratic or Republican ballot, the people voting in the race will be loyal Democrats.

"The question is, do the voters prefer a Democrat or a warmed-over Republican?" Nielsen said.

The 48th Legislative District covers some of the state's most upscale suburbs, including Bellevue, Redmond and Medina. It was once solidly Republican but in recent years voters have shifted.

Tom's seatmate in the House is Democrat Ross Hunter. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray each got about 56 percent of the vote in the district in the 2004 election.

Tebelius said other Republicans have done well there, though, including Attorney General Rob McKenna and 2004 gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, who won the district by a slim margin over Gov. Christine Gregoire.

"I'm not concerned about Luke fitting that district," she said.

Member of caucus

Tom said he now considers himself a Democrat and expects that his final six months in the House will be spent as a member of the ruling Democratic caucus.

"We welcome him into the Democratic Party," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. "We've enjoyed working with him."

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said that she began talking with Tom in the final days of the legislative session that adjourned last week.

"I think he felt frustrated in the House Republican caucus and he didn't see much of a future for himself there given the issues he was interested in," Brown said.

Tom, a real-estate agent, said that when he first decided to run for the Legislature, he saw himself as a fiscal conservative who would fit best in the Republican Party.

"In the old days, if you were a businessman you were a Republican," he said. But as his district changed, he said, the Republican Party has gotten more conservative.

Staff reporters Andrew Garber and Ralph Thomas contributed to this report.

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published March 14, 2006, was corrected March 15, 2006. Rep. Rodney Tom lives in Medina. A previous version of this story incorrectly said he's from Bellevue.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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