Around 10 o’clock last night, as Dino Rossi was leaving Blaine, Washington, a rural town 20-minutes north of Bellingham on the border with Canada—where he and Governor Chris Gregoire had just sparred in their second debate—the GOP hopeful stopped at the Yorky’s Grocery, a convenience store attached to an Exxon gas station.
Garner Palomata, the 36-year-old Filipino working behind the counter, recognized Rossi from the candidate’s TV ads. “Hey, you’re the Rossi guys,” Palomata said—a little awed that “someone famous,” with two other guys in suits and ties in tow, had just strolled into his brightly-lit gas station grocery. Thursday night mostly stars a stream of regulars from the fishing town buying beer and cigarettes.
Rossi told Palomata he had just debated Governor Gregoire, and he had won. “We’re in good shape,” Rossi said. Then he bought a king-size package of King Henry Boston baked beans, wintergreen Certs, and a Red Bull for $20 in cash (one of his entourage paid, actually) and headed out of town.
Later that night at Yorky’s—I was on a junk food run— Palomata said he planned to vote for Rossi. “I’m a Republican. I like the Palin thing.” He was glad that Rossi thought the night had gone well.
I told Palomata about one of the main standoffs in that night’s debate, a point that seemed germane to the clerk. Both candidates were asked if they thought the minimum wage was supposed to be a “living wage” and would either one consider scaling it back.
“I don’t know of anybody getting rich on the minimum wage,” Gregoire told the hostile crowd (the debate was sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and the questions came from their membership). “The people of Washington are struggling. They go to the gas pumps and can’t afford to fill up the car, they go to the grocery and can’t afford to put food on the table…Washingtonians need to be able to provide for their families. Plenty of people are working minimum wage jobs that need to provide for their families, and I want to stand with Washingtonians.”
She said she supported the voter-approved minimum wage, $8.07 an hour. She also said she supported training programs for teen workers.
Rossi took the opposite point of view. Touting his Washington Restaurant Association endorsement (the most adamant opponents of the minimum wage), he said: ”The minimum wage was not meant to be a family wage. It’s meant to be an entry level wage.”
The news pissed off Palomata. ”If he lowers it,” he said, “I don’t want to vote for him. I’d be cutting my head off. I don’t want to demote myself.” Palomata and his girlfriend live in a rented cabin in Birch Bay, just south of Blaine, where the median family income is $44,000. (By way of comparison, the median family income in Seattle is $65,000.)
While Rossi’s line on the minimum wage didn’t play well with the Blaine convenience store clerk, it did play well with the crowd on the right side of the tracks in the 6,500-square-foot Semiahmoo Grand Ballroom at the Semiahmoo Resort Golf Spa, the classy hotel tucked away on the northern shoreline of the Puget Sound where AWB members drank red wine and nodded in approval at most of Rossi’s answers.
If you were to judge by the crowd reaction—the AWB gave Rossi an award earlier in the day and interrupted him several times during the debate with applause—Rossi was right when he boasted to Palomata about his successful night. He hit the themes he has hit before: Gregoire has increased spending 33 percent, created a $3.2 billion deficit, and raised taxes by $500 million. He also points out that Washington has one of the highest rates of small business failures in the U.S.
In contrast, Rossi says he will create an “entrepreneurial state,” balance the budget (”I’ve done it before and I will do it again”), and scrap all the requirements that he says are keeping insurance companies from coming to our state and creating a competitive health care climate.
Rossi’s most successful turn came when he accurately busted the governor for not being the deciderer on the Viaduct. “The big problem we have with transportation in this state is that we can’t make a decision until everybody is holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” he said. “Sometimes you just have to make a decision.”
While Gregoire wasn’t an audience favorite, she was authoritative and forceful and certainly landed some blows herself. She unraveled Rossi’s talk of deregulating health care by linking Rossi’s GOP philosophy to the Bush-era disaster on Wall Street saying: ”His other solution is deregulation, well, that worked great for the financial institutions of America.”
She also scored points (and even got a laugh from the otherwise unfriendly audience) when she answered a question posed by Rossi about her budget. Each candidate got to ask the other a question and Rossi asked if Gregoire had the chance, would she do her budget differently? The laugh came when she started by saying “unlike you” she would answer his question—Rossi had just dodged her question to him which asked what policies he disagreed with President Bush on.
Then she hit her main anti-Rossi theme (that his values are out of sync with the voters), saying she stood by her budget: “I balanced the budget and I will do it again…and not on the backs off children and seniors like he did, but by understanding the values of the people of Washington.” Rossi’s 2003 budget raised taxes on seniors in nursing homes, cut education funding by almost $1 billion, and threw 40,000 low-income kids off health care.
As they did in their first debate, the pair continued to fight over the projected $3.2 billion budget deficit. Gregoire maintains the state has a surplus and Rossi maintains Gregoire has spent the state into the red.
One final note that I found newsworthy in its own right beyond the debate: Governor Gregoire said the family leave act, a pet project of the liberal Senate, including Democratic Senate Majority leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane), was “suspended.” Gregoire noted this when she was asked to detail her plans to deal with the projected deficit. (Rossi’s only specific to the same question was that he would cut the governor’s office budget, which he said Gregoire had increased by bulking up her “entourage.”)