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Envision Spokane says ‘smear campaign’ already in works

The Spokane City Council has a hearing Monday night on putting the Community Bill of Rights on the November ballot. No one who fancies him- or herself an astute political observer would wager against the proposition making the ballot.

The bet that is almost as safe is that the campaign between now and Nov. 3 will be a full-out affair. The question is: Will both sides live by the “Chicago Way” maxim “If they bring a knife, you bring a gun”?

Last week, Envision Spokane, the prime mover of the charter change, cried foul in a letter to council members and Rich Hadley, the head of Greater Spokane Inc., over opposition tactics thus far. Instead of a full and frank discussion, opponents seemed ready to launch a “smear campaign,” wrote Kai Huschke, campaign director.

The tactics cited include filing a public records request with Spokane Public Schools for any e-mails sent by Brad Read, a district employee who is Envision Spokane president; filing a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission in July, which Huschke described as “an attempt to resuscitate a complaint” originally filed in March; and hiring Naomi Nims, who claims to be a journalist writing an exposé on Envision Spokane board members.

“We don’t believe that these actions are in keeping with the spirit of debate on the substantive merits of the Community Bill of Rights,” Huschke wrote.

There’s no doubt that the first two points are correct. Edie Streicher of the Spokane Home Builders Association said that group asked for Read’s e-mails. “Why not?” she said. “We have the right to see them” because Read is a public employee.

The school district is processing the request and asking for some clarification, spokeswoman Terren Roloff said. District policy allows “incidental and infrequent personal use,” which is how Read characterizes his e-mail use. It does not allow using a district account for commercial activities or political lobbying, unless the lobbying has the approval of the superintendent.

As previously reported, the Home Builders did file a complaint with the PDC that is not yet resolved. But Streicher counters – and Huschke agrees – that it’s really the first complaint. In March, they made an inquiry about whether the group was following campaign laws but didn’t file a formal complaint.

Streicher insists both tactics are standard in any serious campaign. Hadley, who is on vacation and hadn’t seen the letter until forwarded a copy to get comments for this column, agreed: “To call that a smear is a little overstated,” he said. “This is fairly normal.”

Voters are usually the best arbiter of normal. It would be hardball in the school board race but standard operating procedure in a congressional campaign.

Streicher and Hadley said they knew nothing of a person posing as a journalist to write an exposé or gather what sounds like opposition research. “That’s not ethical at all. That’s not a tactic we would use,” Streicher said. Nor does she know a person named Naomi Nims.

But that doesn’t mean Huschke is wrong about it. Someone identifying herself as Naomi Nims contacted people who have worked with Envision Spokane board members; she claimed to be working for unnamed opponents of the proposal and was trying to dig up dirt, said a source not connected with either side.

That tactic, if it surfaces, could blow up on anyone using it. Even with a tangential connection to the opposition campaign, the fallout could be pretty widespread and the whole campaign could spiral down in a local political version of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Not that political reporters would complain, of course. But it doesn’t hurt to remember the line after “you bring a gun” when Jimmy Malone describes “the Chicago Way” to Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables.”

Spin Control is a weekly political column that also appears as a Web log with daily posts, reader comments and videos at blogs/spincontrol. Can’t remember the next line to the Chicago Way? It’s on the blog.