Inland Northwest development interests spent heavily, but not always effectively, on candidates this year.
Construction companies, land developers and Realtors groups wrote checks from their associations, their corporate accounts and their own pocketbooks, contributing more than $100,000 to candidates in Spokane and Spokane Valley.
But the majority of that money went to candidates who lost in Tuesday’s election. As a group, development interests were far more likely to back Dennis Hession than Mary Verner for mayor of Spokane, Brad Stark than Richard Rush for Spokane City Council, and David Crosby than Rose Dempsey for Spokane Valley City Council.
They had some winners, supporting Spokane Council President Joe Shogan, who easily rolled over a perennial candidate, and Spokane Valley Councilman Steve Taylor, who beat back a write-in candidate.
“We usually do better than this,” Rob Higgins, of the Spokane Board of Realtors and a former city councilman, acknowledged last week when considering that organization’s campaign support.
Realtors’ political action committees weighed in heavily on Stark and Crosby, both with cash contributions from the state association’s account and large mailings of full-color ads coordinated between its PAC and the candidates’ campaigns. The mailings came late in the campaign, after Stark, an incumbent Spokane councilman, and Crosby, a Realtor and Valley planning commissioner, had finished second in their primaries and were facing tough competition from candidates aligned with neighborhood interests.
The support was based on issues rather than a calculation of whether they’d win, Higgins said.
“We felt that both Stark and Crosby understood the Growth Management Act and how it worked,” he said. But there was some hope the mailings would “turn the tide.”
The Spokesman-Review analyzed campaign reports from the candidates for contributions of more than $500 from known real estate, construction, homebuilding and land development interests, or for individual donors listed with those occupations by the campaign staffs. The calculations aren’t perfect, because different campaigns can list the same donors differently, and the focus of some companies isn’t always clear.
Using those parameters, however, it’s clear that development interests contributed at least $37,000 with Hession, compared to about $8,000 to Verner. They gave at least $28,000 to Stark compared with $2,500 to Rush. They gave at least $10,800 to Crosby; Dempsey, who was running a low budget campaign, promised not to spend more than $3,500 total or accept more than $300 from any single donor.
Builders and contractors split their support in the Spokane mayor’s race. Wayne Brokaw, who manages the Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors political action committee, said BUILD East gave $2,000 to Verner and $1,000 to Hession because its board thought both were strong candidates.
“I don’t look at it as we at the AGC put money on the losers,” Brokaw said. “There was a feeling that it was too bad they both had to run for election. They’re both very strong.”
Among individual construction companies, many of which are members of the organization, Hession was by far the favorite, pulling in $1,000 contributions from Garco, Goebel, Walker, Talisman and Panco construction companies.
Many of those contributions, however, reflect personal relationships between individual business owners and Hession, Brokaw said.
“They’ve been friends for a long time. Some candidates are just going to receive more money from independent contractors because of that,” he said. “When we talked to (Verner), she recognized that is something that happens.”
BUILD East also contributed $1,000 to Stark, based on his record during his four years on the council.
“We appreciated the fact that Brad always made the phone call. That deserves support,” Brokaw said. “We stick with someone that works with us to get the information.”
With Stark out of office, they hope Rush will be willing to listen to their concerns. “It’s the same thing as when Brad was first elected. We’ll try to tell (Rush) where we’re at, and why,” Brokaw said.
Reliable records of past totals from development interests or any specific industry don’t exist. But builders and Realtor sources said they believe more was spent in 2007 than in several previous campaign seasons.
In part, that’s a reflection that the cost of campaigning – from postage for mailers to television time for commercials – is going up. Steve Robinson of Spokane Rock Products, the vice chairman of the BUILD East board, said it may also be a reflection of some positive trends.
For one, the economy is getting better, so builders might be more able and willing to contribute. Another is that builders and developers, like the rest of the community, are getting interested in a stronger community.
Finally, there’s a belief that Spokane has gotten away from the “dysfunctional council” that had many potential donors sitting on the sidelines, Robinson said.
Brokaw anticipates that some contractors and developers may suggest staying out of future campaigns, given the track record in last week’s election. He’ll argue for staying involved with the candidates during the campaign, as well as government after the elections.
“My theory is, if you’re not on the table, you might be on the menu.”