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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In Washington Senate 7th District race, mud and money fly

The battle between an appointed incumbent and a county commissioner for the state Senate seat in Northeast Washington has turned increasingly negative, generating charges of tax-dodging, union-coddling, trash-talking and even a possible death threat.

The usual issues have come up, like helping the economy, finding jobs for the next generation, protecting gun rights and reining in government. But there are unusual things, too, like a tanker full of human waste with a political message on the back, specifically adapted for this year’s special election race in the 7th District.

The intraparty fight features John Smith and Brian Dansel, two Republican officeholders in a district that hasn’t sent a Democrat to Olympia in 24 years. Supporters of each say they can’t remember a more negative campaign, and usually they blame the other candidate.

Bob Moran, of Usk, a current precinct officer and former Pend Oreille County GOP chairman who’s backing Smith, accuses Ferry County Commissioner Dansel and his supporters of “finding some new depths to dive into.”

Jeannie Thompson, a Kettle Falls accountant and Stevens County precinct officer who supported Smith for the appointment, said she switched in part because she learned he failed to pay business taxes several times in recent years and she thinks legislators should live by laws as well as make them. She’s been involved in GOP politics off and on for 40 years and can’t ever remember a 7th District race with “this kind of controversy and this kind of money.”

Smith, 40, was appointed in January to a seat that opened when longtime Sen. Bob Morton retired in the middle of his four-year term. Smith served for the regular session and the two special sessions the Legislature needed to pass a budget, and is among the most conservative members of the Republican caucus.

Outside of the Legislature, Smith is a business consultant who also operates the Colville Farmers Market, a weekly event held this summer and early fall at the Stevens County Fairgrounds. He also operated a cafe near the county courthouse in Colville until it went under about three years ago.

Between 2007 and 2009, the state Revenue Department filed a series of warrants for unpaid taxes against Smith and his company that operated the cafe, Capstone Food Services. In most cases, Smith satisfied the warrant – paid the full amount he owed for business taxes or workers’ compensation fees – in a matter of months. When the restaurant went under, however, he had some warrants that went unpaid for several years, including an October 2009 bill of $15,278, which court records show wasn’t satisfied until last April.

Last week Dansel, a 30-year-old county commissioner in his first term, sent out a campaign mailer listing some of the warrants filed against Smith’s company, asking why he doesn’t pay his taxes on time like other people.

Smith said the debts were a result of his efforts to pay off creditors over time. He said he tried to work out a payment schedule with the department but was unsuccessful. The state filed the warrants and he eventually got a loan to pay them off.

He believes all of the warrants have been paid, although the Revenue Department said Friday that Capstone still has five outstanding warrants that haven’t been satisfied. Spokeswoman Kim Schmanke said the department can’t say whether the entire amounts or just a small portion of each one remains.

It’s a scenario that many struggling businesses in the economically depressed 7th District can understand, he said. He calls the warrants “old news” but contends the mailer shows Dansel’s claims of never running a negative campaign are wrong.

Dansel countered the unpaid taxes are something voters have a right to know about a candidate, particularly one who touts his business experience. “This is a partnership between the voters and the person they elect.”

Each candidate accuses the other or his supporters of “mudslinging” in public settings and in the letters columns of local newspapers. A mailer from Smith this week paints Dansel as a tool of unions, saying he received endorsements from 35 labor organizations. Dansel said he picked up the support of the state teachers union because he’ll listen to anyone, whether they agree with him or not. He said he never met with the Spokane Labor Council, a coalition of nearly three dozen unions, nor sought their endorsement, although his campaign received a $500 contribution from the Spokane Committee on Political Education, the council’s PAC. He said Saturday he wasn’t even aware the committee was connected to the labor council, adding he didn’t believe a contribution was the same as an endorsement.

Smith’s $111,000 campaign fund is well-stocked by political action groups, said Thompson, who bought an ad last week in the Colville Statesman-Examiner to underscore that point.

“For a 7th District race to have this money coming in from outside the state, I think that’s alarming,” she said.

Smith said those groups support him because he did a good job in the past session. And while some money may come from national organizations with headquarters elsewhere, many are groups like the National Rifle Association that have members in the district.

It’s not unusual for incumbents in the 7th District to collect $100,000 or more in recent elections. But most of the time, they end the campaign with at least half of the money unspent and funnel it into surplus accounts or party committees.

As of mid-October, Smith had spent about $83,000 and was planning more ads to counter Dansel, who reported raising only $21,000 as of Oct. 10.

Smith canceled a recent fundraiser in Colville, a trap-shoot with him and state Sen. Mark Schoesler from the adjoining 9th Legislative District, after, he says, one of the invitations for the “shootout” came back with a scribbled message: “You deserve to be shot at, you and your family.” He reported the message to the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office and has told groups of receiving death threats.

Dansel said talk of death threats is “pretty bizarre” but he doesn’t believe it came from his supporters. Also bizarre, he said, was Smith’s charge that Dansel denigrated him at the Pend Oreille County Fair last summer. At a recent candidate event, Smith challenged Dansel to call his father, who is suffering from cancer, and apologize. Dansel said he’s never met Smith’s father.

But apparently he did get into a somewhat heated discussion with Moran, the longtime Republican activist who supports Smith and was manning the county GOP booth at the fair. Moran said Dansel questioned his support for Smith and accused the incumbent of flip-flopping on issues and supporting Obamacare. Those are fighting words in the 7th.

Dansel said Moran accused him first of flip-flopping at a previous debate on an issue involving hunters’ rights and that he tried to explain he changed his mind after learning more about the issue. Smith had changed his vote on the state budget, Dansel said, sometimes voting yes but eventually voting no. That budget expands Medicaid in the state under the Affordable Care Act. Smith has said he voted for the budget in the early phases to keep the process moving, but voted against it in the end, in part because of the Medicaid expansion.

Moran said Smith’s father was in the booth for the discussion, although he didn’t say anything. Dansel said he doesn’t even remember anyone else old enough to be Smith’s father being in the booth.

A sign of just how deep feelings run in this election can be seen in Northport, a town of about 300 not far from the Canadian border, where Mike Lamb has taken to showing his support for Dansel – or his opposition to Smith – in an unusual way.

Along with being Northport’s mayor, Lamb operates a trash-hauling and septic-tank pumping service called Sweet Pee. He said Smith owes him money for pumping the portable toilets at the farmers market. Smith said he had canceled Lamb’s services after poor service and demanded invoices for work; when Lamb didn’t submit them, Smith said, he calculated what he thought the market owed and paid that amount. Lamb said Smith still owes him money.

Although he is himself an elected official, the tank into which Lamb pumps the contents of septic tanks normally carries a warning: “Caution. Vehicle may be transporting political promises.”

This campaign season, however, Lamb has replaced “political promises” with Smith’s name.