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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Guess who’s not coming to dinner

As different as Spokane County’s two major political parties are, they have one thing in common: They always need more money.

Because of that, until just a few years ago they had something else in common: Once a year, they’d rent a hotel ballroom, throw a big fund-raising soiree named for historical figures, invite a “name” speaker, charge several times what the rubber chicken dinner cost to be put on the plate and try to raise some operating scratch.

Republicans in Spokane, like GOP members almost everywhere, have a Lincoln Day Dinner, sometime close to Feb. 12.

Spokane Democrats used to have the rough equivalent, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, named for two presidents traditionally identified with the genesis of their party. Republicans try to reclaim Thomas Jefferson from time to time, pointing out that his party was the Democratic-Republicans, but never get anywhere with it.

A few years ago, in a fit of what some members called out-reach and others called political correctness run amok, Spokane Democrats changed the name to the Legacy Dinner. Whatever their party-founding credentials, some Democratic leaders felt it inappropriate to hold a dinner named for a couple of white guys who owned slaves, or, in Jackson’s case, wreaked havoc on Native Americans. (Any native Brits upset that Jackson kicked the crap out of their ancestors in New Orleans in 1814 apparently kept quiet.)

So it was until 2009. Recently, the Legacy Dinner also was scrapped.

Washington Democrats arguably have more to celebrate than any year in a while. They control Congress, the White House, the governor’s mansion and both houses of Legislature, after all. But there will be no coughing up $50 per plate, dressing up in fancy duds, running a tab at the cash bar, and high-fiving November victories this spring. Instead, there will be a decidedly more modest – some of less diplomatic persuasion might say “low rent” – event called the Thrift Asset Reallocation Party, or TARP. Not at a hotel ballroom, but at the Democrats’ favorite playground Toad Hall, a former parochial school turned into a photo studio and sometime party venue on West Dean. Tickets $15 for adults, children under 10 free. (Exposing children under 10 to extensive politicking is something Child Protective Services might consider investigating.)

The official reason is that times are tough, so a barbecue for $15 is much more affordable and agreeable than a stuffy hotel dinner for $50.

“It’s based on what’s going on with the economy,” Spokane County Democratic Chairman Ed King said. “We want to be fiscally responsible.”

But the real reason, other sources say, is that unions, who traditionally purchase a significant number of $50 tickets, sent word they weren’t coming. Nothing against the local party, they said. But if Spokane Democrats were inviting some of the party’s bright lights, such as Gov. Chris Gregoire or Spokane’s own Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, they weren’t shelling out 50 clams or even 50 cents.

“We do not have any complaints with the local Democratic Party,” Beth Thew of the Spokane Regional Labor Council said. “We’re trying to send a message to the Democratic elected leadership on how disappointed we are with some of the things that have been done, or not been done, for working families.”

The unions aren’t talking about budget cuts, she said, because everyone knew the budget would be bleak this year. But on policy issues, such as the failure to pass a workers’ rights bill, or the approval of permanent tax breaks for business but nothing comparable for unemployed workers, the unions are having trouble understanding why they worked so hard for Democrats to beat Republicans last year.

“If elected officials aren’t listening to us, maybe they’ll listen to their own party members,” Thew said.

While there’s nothing coming down from the state offices of the various labor groups, union locals around Washington have similar responses to invites to local Democratic fundraisers, Dave Groves of the state Labor Council said. How long this will continue is anyone’s guess.

It’s possible that time will heal these wounds, and, as Thew said: “Maybe people will kiss and make up.”

There’s some talk of a Third Party, which may be more palatable to some unions than supporting – shudder!– Republicans. But Third Party talk has a tendency to be louder in a non-election year.

There is another possibility, beyond voting Republican or splintering off to a protest party, Grove said.

After the 1992 elections, Democrats controlled as much as they now control. Labor watched Congress and President Clinton push through NAFTA, and the Legislature and Gov. Mike Lowry failed to deliver on key policy issues like collective bargaining for state employees. They were unhappy, but then, as now, some Democrats said “Where’s labor going to go?” The answer, Grove said, was nowhere – including to the polls.

They stayed home in 1994, he said, and low turnout among voters from labor households helped Republicans in 1994 take over the state House of Representatives and both houses of Congress.

If that happens again next year, it won’t much matter what the local Democrats’ 2011 fundraising dinner is called. But the venue might be a phone booth.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.