Welcome to the state of Rodney Tom

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SEATTLE — Maybe he is a turncoat. A self-serving manipulator. Or, as the head of his own political party called him, “a lonely man who feels this need to be important.”

But in the end, Rodney Tom won.

A previously little-known state senator from Medina (adjacent to Bellevue), Tom is without doubt the big winner of the year so far in state politics.

It won’t be easy for Democrats to admit. Or for people like me who think Tom has some bizarre ideas. But this is Rodney Tom’s state now. As much as it is anyone’s in politics.

Tom, last winter, took a career risk, essentially defecting from the Democrats to put minority-party Republicans in charge of the state Senate.

Adding to that affront to the usual way of doing things, he anointed himself Senate majority leader. Not for personal power, he insisted, but to block his own party from raising taxes. Which he has now apparently done.

He beat the governor. He out-negotiated Democrats. Probably sometime this week or next, the state is likely to pass a budget that looks very much like Rodney Tom’s and not much like Gov. Jay Inslee’s.

Tom has long been a reptilian figure in Olympia — a Republican turned Democrat turned partisan triangulation device, supposedly trusted by no one. So it was widely expected he wouldn’t be able to keep his coup together.

I felt he would fail at what he said was his main goal: to write a truly pro-education budget without raising taxes.

The reason I thought this is because he had tried a similar coup a year earlier, giving control of the Senate to Republicans.

That time, they used their newfound power to slash education, rather than boost it as they said they would. I expected some repeat of that debacle.

But credit to Tom: It’s not what we got.

The budget from his group puts about $1.5 billion more into education, without much in the way of tax increases.

It cuts social services, though now that an improving economy has boosted revenues by a couple hundred million, there’s no reason for most of those cuts.

Tom was aided by Democratic floundering. There’s a strong case to be made that the state needs still more investment in its schools and infrastructure, but Democrats did not make it.

Instead the governor rolled out some ludicrous proposals, such as quadrupling the beer tax and trying to tie that to education. Then Democrats passed a budget that was about the same on schools as the Republicans, despite more than a billion in higher taxes. It’s been a backpedaling convention ever since.

Tom had less success with his reforms, as some of them were simply bad ideas. Example: He wanted to cancel the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program, even though doing so would have put the state $600 million in the red. He didn’t get his way, fortunately, and the popular program is recovering from the recession nicely on its own.

But on taxes and the budget — the way we set official priorities around here — it’s mostly Rodney Tom’s vision for the state that will be adopted.

Fluke? Maybe.

But as someone who has firsthand experience in underestimating Tom, I would note this is another word people have called him for years. It hasn’t turned out to be right yet.

Danny Westneat can be reached at dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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