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Spin Control

Sat., March 27, 2010, 8:18 p.m.

Turning down the money spigot on local elections

OLYMPIA – With little fanfare last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill that could force a big change in Spokane politics.
Senate Bill 6344 could cut the tendons of groups that have flexed the most muscle in recent city council and mayoral campaigns, the city employees’ unions and the builders, and keep anyone from trying to throw weight around in a county race for sheriff, prosecutor, clerk – although, truth be told, clerk races rarely draw the big bucks.
Starting June 10, no person, committee, business or union will be allowed to give a candidate more than $800 per election. In Washington state, that really means $1,600 in a campaign year if the candidate gets his or her hand out early, because the primary and the general count separately.
For most donors in most races, that’s more than they’re going to give, anyway. Give someone a grand and a half to run for city council? Isn’t that like a month’s pay for that job?
But a few people or groups have a tendency to give more -- way more...

...For example, in last year’s Spokane City Council races, the homebuilders’ political action committee, Community Builders Trust, popped for about $3,500 for incumbent councilman Mike Allen. The same group weighed in heavily, albeit unsuccessfully, in the 2007 mayoral race, giving $2,500 to Al French in the primary, then $5,000 to Dennis Hession in the general.
The Inland Northwest Leadership PAC, a group of mostly progressive Democrats, gave his opponent Jon Snyder $4,015, and the same amount to Amber Waldref. The city firefighters union, IAFF Local 29, gave $5,000 to Waldref, and $2,500 to Snyder.
Avista gave a couple grand each to Allen, Waldref and Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin. The utility, under its current name or the old Washington Water Power label, was a “playa” in local politics most folks currently in office were born. They gave $4,000 to Mayor Dennis Hession in 2007, $3,000 to Councilman Al French in 2005, $11,000 to Mayor Jim West in 2003.
Avista spokespeople always like to point out that contributions don’t come from rate payers money, but out of the shareholders’ pockets. But don’t expect dividends to go up much, because the new law doesn’t limit a person, union or business from spreading around boatloads to various other PACs, which can then give to their favorite candidates, or from dropping five- or six-figure sums to pass or defeat ballot measures.
Some of the spendiest council elections happened in 1999, when Metropolitan Mortgage honcho Paul Sandifur and some of his allies formed a coalition demanding change and squared off against Avista and some of the traditional business interests. They kicked in thousands to selected candidates and special PACs that funneled money into the campaigns.
Members of the family that own this newspaper also give money to local candidates, but usually give more to ballot measures or political parties. The amounts they give candidates have generally been below the new limits, although in 2007, James P. Cowles gave $2,500 to Hession’s mayoral run. He’d have to find a different use for $900 under the new law.
People who give money like to say – and big donors like to say it loudest of all – that contributions don’t buy votes or candidates. They just show support for like-minded people, and promote access to the officeholder when the donor has an issue in the public arena.
So now, those like-minded people may have a bit less money to buy their yard signs, fliers and negative ads. But when Avista calls John Q. Officeholder about an ordinance or a resolution, I’m betting he will still pick up the phone.

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.