Spokane will be in the political limelight Tuesday as Washington’s first gubernatorial debate of the season takes the stage at the Bing Crosby Theater.
The Association of Washington Business and Greater Spokane Incorporated are co-hosting the premier head-to-head between Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee at 3:30 p.m., the second debate on a two-event card. Two guys who want McKenna’s current job of state attorney general, Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson, are the warm-up debate at 2 p.m.
Usually the AWB waits until the field is winnowed to two by the primary, but this year they wanted a draw for their quarterly meeting in Spokane. Of the seven other gubernatorial hopefuls, the only person who has a semi-legitimate complaint of being shut out is Shahram Hadian, a Republican from Mill Creek who has a full-fledged if underfunded campaign but the misfortune not to be the person his party thinks can put them back in the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1984.
The debate has been an ongoing source of political fodder for months. Last week the Inslee campaign said it was suspicious of a big donation Tesoro gave AWB, seeing as how the oil company already gave $1,600 to McKenna. It’s almost a given that AWB will endorse McKenna, and the Inslee folks were worried some Tesoro money would find its way to their opponent.
“This raises serious concerns for us, and we imagine it will raise concerns for many viewers and voters as well,” campaign manager Joby Shimomura wrote. To make sure the public considers everything is fair in next Tuesday’s debate, AWB should give the money back, Shimomura said.
Not going to happen, replied AWB. The money from Tesoro isn’t going to candidates. It was just passing through on its way to the campaign for Initiative 1185, which would maintain the supermajority requirement for tax increases in the Legislature.
“None of these funds were allocated toward any candidates. Our PDC filings indicate as much,” Don Brunell, president of AWB, wrote back. “Moreover, we are not in a position to dictate where our members choose to donate their own political funds. We only control those funds given to us, and in this case, they were received and then transmitted to the I-1185 campaign for the purposes of signature gathering.”
Inslee’s trying to back out of the debate, McKenna campaign manager Randy Pepple charged. But while the Inslee campaign initially balked at the debate’s scheduling – one wonders if McKenna would jump at an invitation for a debate sponsored by the Labor Council – it never threatened a pullout over the Tesoro money.
A check of the PDC records, some of which were filed by AWB the same day the Inslee campaign sent its letter, aren’t crystal clear on some details. That donation was part of $185,000 from four companies, reported to the PDC on May 15 as earmarked for I-1185. But nothing was said about signature gathering on that report.
And Shimomura has a point: No such amount shows up on the I-1185 campaign reports, and AWB’s Tuesday filing doesn’t mention the initiative. It says it paid the money to Citizen Solutions, a signature gathering firm, but doesn’t say for what.
But Tim Eyman, chief sponsor of I-1185, said the campaign uses Citizen Solutions and that the donations were mentioned in a May newsletter.“Apparently, no one from the Inslee campaign is on our mailing list,” Eyman said in an email, which included a sideways frowny-face made with punctuation marks.
But Brunell has a bigger point: AWB can’t spend that kind of money on McKenna, or any other candidate. The only place where somebody can dump six figures is an initiative campaign.
Gary Chandler, the group’s vice president of public affairs, said some members are just more comfortable with AWB giving the money directly to the signature gatherers rather than funneling it through Eyman’s campaign machine, which has had past financial challenges.
Brunell said the business group is “pleased to know that Mr. Inslee remains committed to our debate … and look forward to hearing him articulate his ideas about the key issues facing our state.” Maybe that was him taking the tiniest dig at the earlier controversy over scheduling that almost led to the organization giving the stage to McKenna, solo. But maybe it was just a heartfelt “see you in Spokane.”
The two business groups have given away all their tickets for the debates, but the four campaigns each got 100 tickets and might have some left, AWB spokeswoman Jocelyn McCabe said.
The Inslee campaign scheduled a debate watch party at the Saranac Public House, 21 W. Main Ave., and Republicans will likely have one, too, although at press time they hadn’t picked a venue. Check with them early this week at (509) 838-6162.
Or watch from home or other favorite location on TVW, which will carry both forums live, with several political reporters offering insightful comments before and after the debates – and me trying not to say anything too embarrassing.