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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Council President Ben Stuckart takes a shot at slowing dark-money politics

FILE – Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, questions leaders of charities groups about what the city can do to make progress with the citys homeless problem Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 at Spokane City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When it comes to city politics, Spokane is a $50 town.

That’s the size of the most frequent donation to city candidates in the past several elections. But the average donation has gotten larger, driven upward by more big donations from out of town. And more money is flowing in from organizations who use alphabet-soup PAC shuffling to obscure their donors.

That means the $50 check – and the kind of local, knock-on-the-door, face-to-face politics it represents – is being swamped by the most corrosive elements of post-Citizens United moneyball politics: Dark money, gray money, PAC shell games, special interests, and cash rescues by political parties.

And that changes who candidates pay attention to. These days, candidates are “just over-relying on those big donors,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart.

Stuckart is proposing legislation that aims to rein in those trends in city elections. His legislation, which will be considered by the council on Dec. 18, would set new, lower limits on campaign contributions in city races; require political groups that make unlimited “independent expenditures” identify their top donors; prohibit contributions from contractors doing business with the city or seeking to at the time of the election; shorten the fund-raising cycle; call for unions to disclose contributions on contracts before they are approved; and make other changes.

It’s modeled on similar legislation that Sen. Andy Billig has repeatedly introduced – and will introduce again in the coming session, with a new Democratic majority behind him this time.

In this case, however, the city proposal would require additional public campaign reporting to the city, with city oversight and penalty authority – a move that gives pause to critics who feel the council has repeatedly strayed out of its lane and into political issues above its pay grade.

“My concern is that it creates a new bureaucracy in City Hall that really is a duplication of what the state already does,” said Michael Cathcart, the executive director of Better Spokane, a pro-business nonprofit that used its PAC to campaign heavily against incumbent Councilman Breean Beggs in the past election.

Cathcart said he also fears the legislation might actually drive more money into the dark by capping individual contributions at $500 per election, which is half the current level. Someone who wanted to contribute more might instead direct that toward independent expenditures – the realm of unlimited spending and less accountability.

But Stuckart said that, after taking an unsuccessful run at campaign finance reform as a leader of the Initiative 1464 campaign last year, and after a discouraging dip of the toe into congressional politics, he feels committed to trying to change the system at the level where he can.

He said the cost to the city would be relatively minor – perhaps half a clerk’s time – and that setting lower contribution limits than the statewide caps makes sense given Spokane economy.

Cut the cap

A review of the campaign donations to city candidates in the five elections between 2007 and 2015, compiled from PDC reports by Stuckart’s legislative assistant, Adam McDaniel, paints a picture of shrinking influence for the ordinary local citizen and rising influence for big donors, whether they’re individuals or organizations such as contractors, business groups or labor unions.

The proposed legislation would limit campaign contributions to $500 per election, down from $1,000. It would be tied to 50 percent of the state limit going forward.

To see who would be affected, McDaniel looked at all donors to city elections between 2001 and 2015 and found that 422 gave more than $500. The most common donors at that level were political action committees, city contractors and public employee unions.

Of that group, 71 percent came from individuals or organizations outside Spokane (though some of those were organizations with local chapters or branches, but a headquarters or main office elsewhere.)

And yet when he calculated the most frequently donated amount in races from 2007 to 2015, it was $50 almost every time, even as the average donation in a City Council race rose from $113.61 to $221.41.

My own look at the contributions in this year’s city races showed that among the 27 donors who “maxed out” at $2,000 for any candidate – $1,000 in the primary and general – just 15 reported a Spokane address. Again, though, the out-of-town contributions mostly came from unions or trade associations, which have members or chapters here.

However, it’s clear that, at the top of city elections, it’s organizations with a vested interest who give the most – labor, trade association, political committees. The $50 donor is nowhere in sight.

It may be wishful thinking to believe this is a reversible phenomena. In American politics, money finds a way in, no matter which hole in the dyke you block. Since the Citizens United ruling in 2012, the money has flown hard toward “independent expenditures” – money spent by corporations, unions, PACs and, especially, groups that have formed as “social welfare” or “educational” organizations for tax purposes.

Those groups – which are allowed to engage in politics as long as it isn’t their chief activity – can spend as much as they like, without reporting their donors. They are the garden where dark money flourishes.

In the 2013 election, with a pair of closely contested council races, 77 percent of campaign spending came from such groups. (That plummeted to just 2 percent in 2015, though; perhaps that had something to do with the fact that the key races that year, for mayor and council president, were not close.)

One such group that made a big splash in the 2017 election was Better Spokane, a group formed by some local business owners that identifies itself as a “non-profit civic engagement organization, designed to educate the community on the need to shift local government priorities in a business-friendly direction.”

Better Spokane also has a political action committee; the donors to that committee are reported to the state. Walt and Karen Worthy contributed $25,000; the Wolff Co., a private equity firm, contributed $20,000; Irv Zakheim, chairman and CEO of Zak Designs, gave $10,000. The committee goes on to list big donations from several other pro-business associations.

All told, the Better Spokane PAC raised more than $100,000, spending a lot of it on negative ads aimed at challenger Andy Dunau’s opponent, incumbent Breean Beggs. About a fifth of the Better Spokane PAC’s money came from Better Spokane – the nonprofit, not the PAC – and donors to that group do not have to be publicly reported.

The proposed ordinance would require the Better Spokane nonprofit to report its top 10 donors.

Cathcart said that one concern for groups like his is that some donors may want to contribute to Better Spokane’s general purpose – pro-business “education” – and not its politics. That distinction may not seem so sharp, but even it is, supporters of the reforms argue, groups like Better Spokane can just separate the fund-raising and spending of the two functions.

Cathcart said he’s concerned the legislation would help incumbents, PACs and unions, while hurting challengers.

‘Let me know’

Stuckart has had his eyes on trying to do something about the corrosive influence of money on politics since before he even took office. When he was first running for council president in 2011, he said, a lobbyist called him the night before the primary. The lobbyist said he had five entities ready to “max out” donations to Stuckart’s campaign – which would have been $800 each for both the primary and general.

Eight thousand bucks total. There was a catch, though. The donors wanted Stuckart to change his support for the Spokane Tribe’s casino project. Stuckart said he couldn’t do it.

The lobbyist said, “If you change your mind, let me know.”

Last year, Stuckart was statewide co-chairman of the campaign reform Initiative 1464, which failed at the ballot box. Some of that campaign overlapped with another experience that informed Stuckart’s views on campaign money: His brief time as a candidate for Congress.

“It’s only about the money,” he said of that experience. “Some of the conversations you have with people nationally, nobody wants to even talk about issues. … To me, that’s seriously disappointing.”

For conservatives, there is a glaring disconnect in Stuckart’s proposal: It prohibits contractors from giving when they have a direct conflict of interest, but does not do so for the unions representing city workers.

This gets to one of the most common dynamics in politics: the sense that the other side’s big money is a bigger problem than your own. Right now, with the liberal supermajority on the council, donations from labor unions – and labor union PACs and PACS funded by labor union PACs – are where the questions of influence loom largest.

Stuckart said he initially proposed prohibiting union donations when contract negotiations were open, much the same as the contractor rules. But he said after consulting with city attorneys, he was told it would be a legal obstacle.

“I listened to my attorneys,” he said.

It’s true that contractors, in election law, have been treated differently than public sector unions. In a system where it’s considered constitutional for everyone to give as much as they want, contractors doing business with the government have tended to be the exception where limits have been upheld.

Cathcart and other critics say that if one potential quid-pro-quo is a problem, both should be.

“To me, that seems like a double standard,” he said.

Stuckart said he did not try to target only the money problems on the conservative side of the fence, and recognizes there are problems on both sides.

“This is not a protect Ben issue,” he said. “This is something I believe in.”

Stuckart said he hopes that the legislation would reorient local candidates away from the practice of seeking big donors, de-escalate the money race, and put the focus back on local citizens and citizens.

It’s a daunting goal, perhaps even a quixotic one; the cynical view of politics is that it’s a spending free-for-all, and the Supreme Court has closed to door to significant reforms.

But if your view is that big money and hidden sources of it are corrosive to a citizen-oriented government – rather than just a form of free speech – than it’s worth noting that in the city of Spokane, as campaigns have gotten more expensive year after year, fewer people have voted.

“I don’t know if it’s causal, but I do believe participation rates have gone down as trust has gone down in general,” Stuckart said. “If we’re able to increase that trust level, I’m all for it.”

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