Spokane GOP leaders are in the midst of a nasty fight that could shape local elections for years to come.
The internal battle for control of the Spokane County Republican Party pits “mainstream” GOP members against surging “tea party” activists hoping to maintain and extend their influence in Eastern Washington’s political arena. At stake is the direction of regional Republican politics, everything from priorities to candidate recruiting and support.
On one side is Cindy Zapotocky, the current chairwoman who has been embraced by much of the grassroots and tea party wings of the party. On the other is former Airway Heights Mayor Matthew Pederson, who is backed by many Republicans in elected office.
The battle, which will be decided in an election of party officials on Saturday, is intense with each side accusing the other of dividing the party, breaking party rules and trampling on new voices that could broaden the party’s base.
“It’s getting very ugly,” said Beva Miles, chairwoman of the Republicans of Spokane County, which is backing Pederson.
Fighting within factions of political parties is nothing new. Locally, it intensified for the GOP in 2008 after supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul gained power. Some Republicans who backed John McCain soon formed the Republicans of Spokane County to compete with the main party. The official party has accused the new group of masquerading as the legitimate GOP.
Zapotocky, who was elected to lead the party in December 2008, agrees that the leadership race has been contentious.
“I feel like I’ve been a breath of fresh air,” Zapotocky said. “When new people come along and they have different ideas, some people don’t like it.”
Zapotocky, who supported Paul in the 2008 Republican primary, has taken a more visible approach to leadership. She has been willing to speak her mind even when she differs from the usual party position. (She believes troops should be pulled from Afghanistan, for instance.) She worked with a liberal Democrat in a campaign to keep the East Side Library open.
Her supporters point to the results from this year’s election. Republicans took back Legislative seats in the highly competitive 6th Legislative District. They won all but one seat in county government. Her opponents say GOP success in 2010 had little or nothing to do with Zapotocky and everything to do with individual candidates and the nationwide Republican landslide.
Pederson, an Airway Heights city councilman, said the county party “wasn’t visible” in the general election.
“It was very apparent that there was little coordination between candidates and the party,” he said. “The endorsements were where the party ended with its support. From there, it was up to individual campaigns.”
Spokane City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin praises Zapotocky’s work ethic, but said she’ll vote for change on Saturday.
“She has put all her passion and her soul into her job as being chair, but she has not been able to unite the larger group.”
Incoming Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase, in a letter endorsing Zapotocky, accused “local moderates” of taking “their orders from Bellevue” and “trying to shut down the grassroots of freedom in Spokane County.” He said Zapotocky played a big part in assisting his and many other GOP campaigns.
Leaders of the Republicans of Spokane County led an effort this summer to field precinct committee officer candidates to challenge the current leadership of the party. Those officers vote for the county party leadership. Whether that effort succeeded will be known Saturday.
Miles challenged Chase, who labels the Republicans of Spokane County as “moderate.”
“Some of these people are self-appointed zealots who find themselves to be so far above everyone else and sanctimonious in their efforts to destroy the party that they do it under the cover of liberty,” Miles said.
Many Republican candidates this year took issue with the county party’s decision to ask them to sign a promise to support the platform. The county platform has more than 100 positions – some controversial, like a call to return to the gold standard and an end to no-fault divorce.
Zapotocky said the platform created better candidates. She added that she didn’t expect signers to support each item.
“Our platform made them sit on the heat seat,” she said. “When you’re running for office and you’re going to be addressing public policy you have the responsibility to answer hard questions.”
Pederson said candidates shouldn’t have to sign the platform to earn an endorsement.
“That candidate’s performance and their history will tell you much more about what they can do than a simple signature on a pledge,” Pederson said.
State Sen.-elect Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said a vigorous debate about the direction of the party is healthy – as long as the party unites soon after a leader is picked. He isn’t endorsing either candidate.
“We can’t have Republicans stand in a circle and shoot each other,” Baumgartner said. “That will not benefit anybody.”