Senate prospects fit politically ambiguous 48th

Left: Gregg Bennett (Photo by Joshua Adam Hicks). Right: Sen. Rodney Tom (Courtesy photo). - Joshua Adam Hicks/Bellevue Reporter
Left: Gregg Bennett (Photo by Joshua Adam Hicks). Right: Sen. Rodney Tom (Courtesy photo).
— image credit: Joshua Adam Hicks/Bellevue Reporter

Gregg Bennett is a political newcomer, and one of many fiscal conservatives gunning for a legislative seat in one of Washington's swing districts this year.

The Bellevue Republican is off to a fast start in the 48th, ringing hundreds of doorbells, rounding up key GOP endorsements, and raising nearly $160,000 before Democratic incumbent Rodney Tom could make a real move.

Legislators are prohibited from raising campaign funds until after the legislative session has ended.

Tom, who holds a powerful position as vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, says he won't make a decision about whether to run until next week at the earliest.

He'll have a lot to think about in that time. The last session couldn't have ended better for Bennett, whose success hinges on whether voters want to punish the majority party for the state's financial woes.

Democratic lawmakers gave the Bennett campaign plenty of ammunition this week, with the Senate narrowly approving a series of tax increases and budget cuts aimed at reducing the state's $2.8 billion deficit.

Tom voted against both measures, but only after supporting a suspension of I-960 – the rule requiring a two-thirds legislative majority to approve tax increases – and playing a lead role in shaping the budget.

Those mixed messages could haunt him during a potential run in 2010.

"When you're an instrumental part of the budget process and you don't vote for your own product, I don't know what that shows," Bennett said.

Tom isn't hiding from his actions in the Senate this year.

"I influenced the budget massively," he said. "I think I was very successful in tamping down a plan that was too aggressive for raising new revenue."

Tom said he's especially proud of convincing Senate lawmakers to drop a proposed sales-tax increase, something he had stood firm against.

The legislature's final tax measure calls for $757 million in new revenue, whereas the previous talk was about $1 billion.

Democrats, referring to the tax hikes almost exclusively as "new revenue," say the approved increases were necessary to avoid deeper cuts to state programs.

Republicans contend that the new budget favors state government over private employers and working families.

Conservatives are also wondering what happened to the budget surplus Democrats promised two years ago, when Gov. Christine Gregoire touted her cuts and said the state would have $800 million in the bank by July 2009.

“We’re on our way to making sure we can handle whatever bad-case or good-case scenario may come along,” Gregoire said during an October 2008 interview with The Reporter.

Things didn't turn out that way, and Bennett isn't buying the notion that the recession alone is at fault. He claims Democrats blew the surplus.

"When times were good, we increased spending at a rate that couldn't be sustained," he said. "Now we're here and people are talking about all the cuts. There are no cuts. We're spending more than the year before."

Democrats point out that they trimmed $750 million from the budget this year.

Bennett claims all those reductions were cuts in "wanted spending" rather than an actual scaling down of state government.

Even Tom is critical of Democrats for not doing more to cut spending.

"That's one of the reasons I voted no on the budget," he said. "We weren't going far enough with the reform element."

Both Tom and Bennett claim to be moderates and budget hawks, which is generally the tune Eastsiders like to hear.

"I'm fiscally conservative and socially moderate," said Tom, a former Republican. "That's the 48th."

Bennett – who has endorsements from Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, the 48th District Republicans, and Senate Republican Caucus leader Mike Hewitt – says people are tired of deficits, overspending, and fringe politics.

"Voters believe Republicans in general have a better sense of taxes, jobs and spending," he said. "They believe Republicans, particularly moderates, get it."

Tom doesn't think so, which is why he changed his party allegiance in 2006.

Voters will decide whether the district pulls a switch of its own this fall.

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