OLYMPIA – If you’ve heard the recent radio ads attacking Gov. Chris Gregoire and wondered who’s paying for them, the answer may be closer to home than you think.
The Building Industry Association of Washington, a group whose members include thousands of home builders, contractors and related companies – including more than 1,200 in the Spokane area – has grown into one of the biggest players in state politics. Controversial and conservative, the BIAW has poured millions of dollars into races for governor, Supreme Court and other state offices. With the election still more than four months away, the group has already spent half a million dollars on radio ads painting Gregoire as a tax-hungry bureaucrat who’s soft on sex offenders and not doing enough to help foster kids or fix traffic congestion.
“I don’t know how she can sleep at night,” says one of the group’s ads. An editorial in the BIAW’s January newsletter said the governor has a reputation as a “heartless, power-hungry she-wolf who would eat her own young to get ahead.”
The ad blitz hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“We have hit rock bottom in this campaign and it is only June,” Gregoire said Wednesday, as law enforcement groups lined up to call the sex-offender ads, in particular, misleading and unfair. Gregoire called on her presumptive Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, to “denounce the BIAW and these ads.”
That seems unlikely. On Thursday morning, over a French-themed buffet at a Skamania County lodge, Rossi was busy giving a speech to the group.
The BIAW played a large role in the 2004 faceoff between Gregoire and Rossi, pouring money into the race and helping run a massive effort to track down illegitimate voters after two recounts showed that Rossi had barely lost. Both sides say they expect this year’s rematch to be more bruising.
In January, BIAW President Brad Spears called Rossi “the most viable pro-small-business gubernatorial candidate this state has seen for decades.” And in an unusual public slap at another prominent business group, he blasted the Association of Washington Business for what Spears characterized as a whisper campaign talking down Rossi’s chances.
“As on many other issues, BIAW will likely be the only business group actually doing something to elect a pro-small-business governor,” Spears, a Spokane builder, said at the time.
This year, Democrats are trying to blunt the group’s criticisms by painting the BIAW as rabid extremists. Kelly Steele, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, described the group Thursday as “the most powerful special interest lobbying group in Olympia,” with “a history of the dirtiest, sleaziest campaigning in Washington state history.”
Among their exhibits: a column by BIAW storm water field representative Mark Musser titled “Hitler’s Nazi party: They were eco extremists” and a column by Spears suggesting that mainstream environmentalists support arson attacks by radical groups such as the Earth Liberation Front. The Nazi column on Friday drew fire from the Anti-Defamation League, which called it outrageous to trivialize the Holocaust by comparing environmentalists and government regulators to the Third Reich.
The builders scoff at the criticism, saying they’re a critical political counterweight to large labor unions, Indian tribes and other deep-pocket groups backing Gregoire.
Democrats “are trying to make this campaign about BIAW instead of focusing on the issues,” said Erin Shannon, a spokeswoman for the builders. “I don’t blame them. I’d try to divert attention from Gregoire’s record, too.”
Democratic campaign tactics are also “edgy,” she said, but BIAW tends to draw the most scrutiny.
“I think we’re the only ones in the game on our side,” she said.
As for disavowing the group and its ads, Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait said that when the state teachers union ran ads blasting Rossi in February, the governor said nothing.
“It’s hypocritical for Gregoire to say she’s opposed to these ads when her own operatives have been attacking Dino all along,” Strait said.
In his speech to the group Thursday, Rossi criticized Democrats for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Indian tribes after Gregoire approved compacts allowing more slot-style machines at tribal casinos. Gregoire – who also vetoed a deal that would have allowed far more of the machines – bristled at the suggestion the agreement and donations are linked.
But Rossi also used the speech – which was open to reporters – to vow to be independent. What backers “will buy with their support is a fair hearing from a governor who wants good businesses to be successful here,” he said. “It is the same fair hearing I will give to everyone. Campaign support will not buy anything more.”
Democrats see that as mere posturing for the press. The BIAW, Steele said, “will do anything, say anything and spend anything to buy the governor’s mansion for Republican Dino Rossi.”
BIAW has also raised eyebrows in recent years by paying for political attack ads with a chain of political action committees. That’s why the radio ads airing now across the state say that they’re paid for by “It’s Time for a Change,” and “ChangePAC.” Campaign finance reports show that the groups have the same mailing address and phone number as BIAW.
The group’s critics say it’s an effort to hide who’s really buying the ads.
“They’re clearly trying to deceive voters,” said Gregoire campaign spokesman Aaron Toso.
The state Public Disclosure Commission says there’s nothing illegal about the multiple names.
“Of course, it makes it a little bit harder to follow the money,” said the campaign-finance watchdog’s Lori Anderson.
The BIAW’s Shannon says the group is just trying to squeeze the maximum time out of its radio spots. State law says the ads must list the top five contributors, a requirement that Shannon said can suck up a third of a 15-second radio spot. It’s much faster simply to say “ChangePAC.”
“For Pete’s sake, we send out a press release every year saying it’s the BIAW,” she said. “We have nothing to hide.”
But they do, Toso said. Most Washingtonians disagree with BIAW’s opposition to such things as the state’s efforts to combat global warming, better warranties for new-home buyers and efforts to clean up Puget Sound, he said.
“Their agenda is clearly out of step with the state of Washington,” he said.
Also controversial is the group’s funding. It helps its thousands of members handle worker’s compensation claims and safety training in exchange for a percentage of the state’s rebates for avoiding workplace injuries. This system – used by other groups as well – provides millions of dollars a year for the group.
“Just in terms of the amount of money they can direct at a race, they’re huge,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University.
Shannon says the group’s 13,500 members agree to pay the fee for BIAW’s services. She compared it to paying a tax-preparer to help you get an income-tax refund.
Democrats and their supporters also are amassing a large war chest under the name of a nondescript political action committee. The Democratic Governor’s Association, Service Employees International Union and the Washington Federation of State Employees have all poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a new group called “Evergreen Progress.” Unions representing carpenters, transit workers, construction workers, pipefitters and metal workers have all made contributions ranging from $2,500 to $25,000.
Even with its big treasury, Donovan said, it’s unclear why the BIAW is spending so much before the August primary election.
One theory, he said, is that a strong showing by Rossi in the primary will spur more contributions.
“If he can match (Gregoire) in the primary, that really helps you go to big contributors and other groups that might spend money,” Donovan said.