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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Flyer targeting Spokane City Council candidate Matthew Howes was a cheap shot

Oct. 24, 2017 Updated Tue., Oct. 24, 2017 at 11:29 a.m.

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE) Buy this photo

It’s the silliest attempt at a Spokane political sliming in many a year.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not also a lousy, underhanded cheap shot.

A political action committee that gets most of its cash from the local firefighters union put out a flyer blasting City Council candidate Matthew Howes – and indirectly supporting incumbent Candace Mumm – for health code violations at his restaurant.

“We expect our City Council members to pay attention to the basics … ” the flyer reads. “But Matthew Howes has FAILED to pay attention to the basics in his OWN restaurants.”

Oh my sweet Lord. Hold tight to your pearls.

The flyer tries to build a mountain out of molehills, drawing on every cliche of our inane mode of attack politics: Hype, scare language, all-caps and red typography, and claims stretched to the breaking point. It employs the health district logo, and notes the number of code violations Howes has supposedly “amassed” at his restaurant: 24 in nine years.

It practically plays Halloween music.

It also misspells Howes’ first name, and misstates the number of restaurants he owns, which is one. The Spokane Regional Health District – whose logo was used without permission – said in a statement Monday that the information on the flyer was “inconsistent” with its records.

It’s the trifecta: Sloppy, petty and reckless with Howes’ livelihood.

The nature of the inconsistency was not clear Monday, and the health district would not be more specific. Howes’ restaurant, Adelo’s Pizza, has indeed had some health code violations. You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that hasn’t.

The most recent report on Adelo’s, from 2015, dings the restaurant for not having “adequate handwashing facilities,” chemical storage and the right “cold-holding” temperature. In 2013, it was cited for storing eggs above lettuce and storing the ice scoop on a shelf, instead of in an easy-to-clean container. It was cited once because an employee turned off a faucet with bare hands instead of using a paper towel, and once because a spray bottle was unlabeled, and once because a container of croutons was in the cooler without a lid.

These are definitely things a diner wants a restaurant to get right. But they also seem to be just what Howes claims they are: minor problems that the restaurant addressed immediately.

Howes did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday, but he posted a vigorous defense on Facebook over the weekend.

“Here are the facts,” he wrote, in part. “I have owned one restaurant, Adelo’s, since 2008. In the past 9 years, routine inspections have pointed out a handful of minor infractions. These are things like a garbage can too close to a wash sink, or a faulty pipe causing a sink to drain too slowly. These issues were immediately corrected on the spot once they were brought to my attention. I have never been shut down, and no one has ever claimed to get sick from eating at my restaurant.”

The political action committee that produced and paid for the flyer calls itself Spokane for Honest Government. It represents several labor organizations and is a regular force in city elections, spending on behalf of candidates or against their opponents.

The Howes flyer represents one of the worst, but most common, bits of sleight-of-hand in politics today: a political attack carried out by an independent group, while the candidate who’s meant to benefit is allowed to stay above the fray.

But nobody stays above the fray. The fray sucks in everybody, and especially citizens who might be inclined to view politics and government in the most cynical light. This flyer reinforces their worst assumptions of politics as a dirty game played by those who don’t even pretend to engage on the issues, and who hide behind organizational and bureaucratic beards.

So, one big problem is the shoddy character of ads such as this one, part of the drip-drip-drip of campaign skullduggery. Contributing to that is the tortured system of “accountability” in campaign finance reporting, which lets political actors hide behind inane and innocuous-seeming organizational fronts.

See if you can follow the alphabet soup in this case, as it appears in state Public Disclosure Commission records: Spokane For Honest Government is the political action committee that paid for the Howes flyer.

Spokane for Honest Government draws about three-quarters of its most recently reported money from another PAC: Safest City Spokane PAC.

Safest City Spokane is a PAC for the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 29.

Which also has its own separate PAC. Which regularly maxes out contributions to the liberals running for office, as it has done for Mumm, Breean Beggs and Kate Burke this year.

Mumm said she had no involvement and didn’t know about the flyer.

The firefighters union has been perhaps the most active of public employee labor organizations in local politics. It has not shied away from conflict, to put it mildly, and it has made bitter enemies among conservatives as a result.

The head of Spokane For Honest Government is Randy Marler, the president of the firefighters local. Marler didn’t return a message seeking comment. I would have loved to hear his rationale for the flyer and the “argument” that it makes: That a series of health code violations, which have seemingly been addressed, make Howes an unfit candidate for office.

I would have loved to hear what the head of Spokane for Honest Government thinks is honest about that.

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