BOISE – Avista Corp. is spending thousands of dollars trying to unseat two longtime North Idaho legislators, throwing its support behind tea party-backed challengers in next week’s Republican primary.
Being targeted is state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who supported unsuccessful efforts to establish a consumer advocate to review utility rate requests, and state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who advocates greater diversity in Idaho’s energy supply. Avista opposed both proposals.
Campaign finance reports filed with the Idaho Secretary of State show Avista has given each incumbent’s challenger $1,000 and has given $15,000 to three political action committees that are funneling money back to the challengers, Danielle Ahrens and Pam Stout. The PACS are also sponsoring independent mailers and advertisements critical of Keough and Eskridge.
Neil Colwell, Idaho lobbyist for Avista, acknowledged that while the utility has supported Keough and Eskridge in the past, it now would like to see them replaced. But Colwell cautioned against assuming all of the PAC contributions are being used exclusively to try to unseat them.
“We don’t totally control those PACs or anything,” Colwell said.
But one of the three, the Greater Education Movement, reported spending money to support only one candidate since Jan. 1: Ahrens.
“We support candidates that are aligned with the interests of our customers and our company goals,” Colwell said. “And we just think we’re more in alignment with these challengers than the incumbents.”
The three PACs are run by Lou Esposito, a highly connected GOP political consultant in Boise who was House Speaker Lawerence Denney’s pick to serve on Idaho’s legislative redistricting commission last year.
Ahrens and Stout also reported in-kind donations of $1,000 apiece from Esposito’s consulting firm, Spartac Inc., for management services and broadcast advertising.
“I’m not managing their campaigns per se, but I helped them out, gave them some advice, helped get them some mailing lists, those kinds of issues,” Esposito said. “Building their websites, I gave them some help with all of that.”
The three PACs, which also include the Idaho Land PAC and the Free Enterprise PAC, sent $2,500 directly to Ahrens’ campaign and $500 to Stout’s. They also sponsored various ads and mailers bashing the two incumbents.
Eskridge, the co-chair of the Legislature’s interim energy committee, was at the center of a battle between utilities and others two years ago over tax incentives for renewable energy, and he clashed with Colwell in the process. “As a constituent, we go to him and explain our position, and request that he support our request,” Colwell said. “And instead, he tells us why we should think something different, even though this is our business, and why we’re wrong.”
Eskridge, a sixth-term lawmaker who retired after 25 years with the Bonneville Power Administration, including stints as an economist, marketer and district manager in several districts, said, “If we’re going to keep our energy prices low, we’ve got to have a diversified energy supply. We can’t just depend on one supply, like utilities would like to do.”
Stout, Eskridge’s challenger, has made her opposition to wind power and other renewables a top campaign issue. “He’s an advocate of the alternate power, I definitely am not,” she told The Spokesman-Review in an earlier interview.
Eskridge counters, “I’m supportive of renewable energy only when it’s cheaper than the other alternatives.”
Avista’s beef with Keough is less clear-cut; Colwell cited her support for a consumer advocate in Idaho’s public utility rate-setting process. But Keough said, “That bill that I sponsored was over 10 years ago.” The measure didn’t pass, but the concept has now been raised again by others; Idaho is one of eight states with no independent utility consumer advocate, and the only one in the West.
Colwell said, “There was talk of introducing that again this year. … I believe she said she wouldn’t sponsor that, but we weren’t at all clear on where she was going to come down.”
Keough said she found Avista’s move “very surprising.” She said, “We’ve had a great working relationship” and have worked together for years on issues involving Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake.
Idaho limits contributions to candidates to $1,000 per election, whether they come from an individual, a PAC or a business. But there’s nothing to stop the same contributor from donating to the candidate and also to PACs that then funnel money to the candidate, said Deputy Idaho Secretary of State Tim Hurst.
“A lot of the PACs are doing independent expenditures, and they can do that,” Hurst said. However, there’s been confusion about reporting requirements; the PACs have to report specific candidates they’re targeting or backing, with amounts, and many this year haven’t. Hurst said the Secretary of State’s office plans to send letters out today to all PACs clarifying those requirements.
“There’s provisions for fining people, but our goal has never been to balance the budget – we’re trying to get disclosure,” Hurst said.
The campaign finance reports filed this week are Idaho voters’ only chance to see who’s funding the various campaigns before Tuesday’s primary election. Here are highlights of what North Idaho legislative candidates’ reports showed in contested races in District 1. Coming tomorrow: Districts 2, 3 and 4.
Keough has raised $34,338 for her campaign since Jan. 1, on top of the $15,396 she carried over from before, and spent $23,789. She received 21 donations from named individuals in her district and received 17 maximum $1,000 donations, including contributions from Idaho Power, the Idaho Loggers PAC, the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, and $1,000 each from Jack and Mary Jo Ambrosiani of Sandpoint.
Ahrens has raised $13,175 for her campaign since Jan. 1 and spent $6,345. She received seven donations from named individuals in her district and loaned her campaign $2,000. The $5,000 she raised from Avista and the three PACs made up almost 40 percent of her campaign funds. She also received a $250 contribution from state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, and $1,000 from Rep. Bob Nonini’s PAC, the Idaho Association for Good Government.
House Seat A
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, has raised $25,033 since Jan. 1, had $13,067 in the bank before that, spent $17,339 and has $20,762 in remaining campaign funds. He received donations from 37 named individuals in his district and received 13 $1,000 contributions, including from Potlatch Corp., the Idaho Consumer-Owned Utility Association and House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke.
GOP challenger Donna Capurso raised $5,878, spent $5,384 and had $494 left at the close of the reporting period. She received donations from 18 individuals in the district and got $1,000 donations from both Richard Braun of Moyie Springs and the Charles L. Fox Trust.
GOP challenger Louis Kins raised $500, mostly from three individuals in his district – Janet Conlin, Marjorie Kinne and Anita Perry – and spent $852, leaving him $352 in debt.
House Seat B
Eskridge has raised $25,218, on top of the $8,368 he carried over; he spent $11,314. He received 14 contributions from named individuals in his district and got 14 $1,000 contributions, including from James Livingston of Sandpoint, the Idaho Forest Group, Idaho Realtors PAC and the Sandpoint law firm of Elsaesser Jarzabek.
GOP challenger Pam Stout raised $13,125 and spent $8,847. She’s loaned her campaign $6,380, received donations from five named individuals in the district and pulled in $1,000 donations from Avista and Idaho Power and a $400 contribution from Pacificorp. She also reported $2,000 in in-kind contributions from Lorna Finman of Rathdrum and Finman’s business, LCF Enterprises.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.