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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Will charter campaign go The Chicago Way?

The Spokane City Council holds a hearing Monday night on putting a major charter change known as the Community Bill of Rights on the November ballot. No one who fancies him or herself both an astute political observer and a sane betting person 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 maxim “if they bring a knife, you bring a gun”?

 Last week, Envision Spokane, the prime mover of the charter change, was crying 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,” Kai Huschke, campaign director, wrote.

The tactics cited include filing a public records request with the Spokane School District for any e-mails sent by Brad Read, a district employee who is also 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 someone calling herself “Naomi Nims”, who claims to be a journalist writing an expose 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,” he wrote.

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

The school district, which has a policy that defines the acceptable use for a district e-mail account, is processing the request and asking for some clarification, spokeswoman Terren Roloff said. The policy allows “incidental and infrequent personal use,” which Read said is what he used his e-mail account for. 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 this month that is also 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 for either side in any serious campaign. Hadley, who is on vacation and hadn’t seen the letter until the newspaper forwarded him a copy to get comments for this column, agreed: “To call that a smear is a little overstated,” he said. “This is fairly normal.”

Normal is one of those subjective terms. This would be hardball in the school board race; it would be standard operating procedure in a congressional campaign.

Greater Spokane, it should be noted, opposes the charter change but did not file the PDC complaint or the request for e-mails. Both Streicher and Hadley said they knew nothing of a person posing as a journalist to either write an expose 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 fabricating the claim. Someone identifying herself as Naomi Nims has contacted people who have worked with Envision Spokane board members, claiming to be working for unnamed opponents of the proposal and trying to dig up dirt, said a political source who isn’t connected to either side of this fight.

That tactic, if it surfaces, could blow up on anyone using it. Even if there’s just 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 Mutual 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”.

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