Tlingit who almost became Washington gov. visits Juneau

Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Briefly, Dino Rossi was elected to one of the highest political offices ever for a Tlingit Native, when he won Washington's seat for governor in 2004.

But it didn't last long. In the closest election in the state's history, vote tallies after the polls closed showed the Republican ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by 261 votes. A statewide hand recount paid for by the Democratic Party showed Gregoire winning by 129 votes. She was sworn into office the following January, while Rossi challenged the count but ultimately gave up after a June 2005 Superior Court ruling.

He decided not to appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, saying the political makeup of the high court made it impossible to overturn the decision.

Moving on, Rossi has spent the past few months writing his book, "Dino Rossi: Lessons in Leadership, Business, Politics and Life." He arrived in Juneau for the first time last week to meet with Alaska lawmakers and Native organizations and deliver a speech to Alaska Republicans' Lincoln Day dinner Friday night at Centennial Hall.

"Most Natives in Alaska are Democrats and I think that is by choice," said Alaska Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon. But that difference hasn't stopped Alaska Natives from supporting Rossi, he added.

"I think he can help us open doors that we can't as Democrats," Kookesh said.

People describe Rossi as a moderate Republican, but when asked directly, he gives a different answer.

"I'm a part Tlingit, part Irish, half Italian Catholic Republican from a conservative Democrat family," Rossi said Friday.

He was born and raised in Washington, and over the years he has made a handful of visits to Alaska to see relatives. His mother is half Tlingit, hailing from Klawock and Ketchikan.

"What I found was that most Natives are ambitious and want to have their own business," Rossi said. The Republican Party in Washington is more business-friendly than is the Democratic Party, he said.

Being part Tlingit also makes him a Sealaska shareholder. Kookesh, who is also chairman of the Sealaska Board of Directors, said he would welcome the idea of having Rossi serve on the regional Native corporation's board if he is not busy with his political ambitions.

Rossi said he is not sure whether he will run for governor again, but he will decide next year.

For seven years until he resigned in 2004 to run for governor, Rossi served as a state senator in the Washington Legislature.

Washington has a different dynamic in Native culture because descendants live on reservations, he said. Some came to his legislative office expecting a blank check.

"I told them, 'You know, actually, you have to prove your case just like everyone else that walks through the door. But you're always welcome to walk through the door,'" he said.

Rossi played a role negotiating a 2003 budget that closed a shortfall without raising taxes or cutting most programs. His book explains this event in detail.

Rossi also is a commercial real estate salesman.

"I would say Dino Rossi is a role model for what Native people can accomplish. They can be very accomplished in business, or they can rise in high levels of office if they choose to," Alaska Lt. Gov. Loren Leman said.

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