Avista Corp. is spending heavily in the Spokane County commissioner races by dropping nearly $200,000 on re-election television advertisements for commissioners Mary Kuney and Al French.
In Avista Corp.’s largest independent campaign expenditure to date, the company in August contributed more than $99,500 per commissioner in “independent expenditures” for television ads and production costs, according to Washington State Public Disclosure Commission filings.
That spending drew sharp criticism from Kuney challenger Rob Chase.
“A lot of people agree with me there’s too much special interest money in politics. Mary did pretty well in the primary, so why would they need to make a $100,000 investment?” Chase asked. “Why don’t they just supply electricity to customers and stay out of politics? It’s crony capitalism at the local level.”
Independent expenditures – or outside spending – is done by groups or individuals that can’t, by law, coordinate with a candidate, or the candidate’s committee.
The campaign ads began running in Spokane this month.
Collins Sprague, who is Senior Director of Government Relations for Avista Corp., said the independent expenditures – which are funded by company shareholders and not included in utility rates – were made pursuant to state law in support of each candidate.
“It’s not something they have accepted. They are not allowed to even know about it,” he said. “We had no conversation and no coordination whatsoever with the candidates. This is something we did on our own volition.”
Sprague said there’s a great deal of attention placed on national races and issues with television and radio ads – some of which are negative in nature and can discourage voter turnout.
The ads for Kuney and French are intended to be positive and highlight their accomplishments, he said.
“At the county level, we saw two very exceptional commissioners running for re-election, who just aren’t getting any attention,” Sprague said. “These people deserve some attention too and the public would be well served to learn what their county commissioners are doing.”
Sprague said while the company contributed independent expenditures in the past towards candidate campaigns in Western Washington, this is the first time they’ve done so in Spokane County.
When asked why Avista spent close to $200,000 on ads, Sprague cited both media and television time as a large expense.
“We wanted the ads to be high quality, unique and positive, and what we’ve learned is it’s not necessarily a cheap thing,” he said.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he was surprised by the television ads, which he found out about last week.
“Avista bought the TV ad campaign without me knowing about it. I was shocked,” he said. “I’m glad it was a positive campaign ad talking about me and some of the things I’ve done. I’m very humbled.”
French said Avista has been supportive of his campaigns going back to 1999 and has been a great community partner.
“When you look at the track record for Avista, in terms of its philanthropic investments, investment in economic development and the University District – all these investments help grow a prosperous community,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they want to see leaders in the office that help grow this community much like they do?”
Kuney also said she had no prior knowledge of Avista’s television ads, but appreciates support from the company.
Chase, the current county treasurer, is now challenging Kuney for a seat on the board of commissioners. He is attempting to block the $5.3 billion sale of Avista to Hydro One, Ltd of Toronto.
Earlier this year, Chase sent a letter to the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, requesting the state coordinate with the county on regulatory review of the sale.
Chase said Avista’s financial support of his opponent could be a reaction to his efforts to block the sale to Hydro One.
Chase added his campaign funds are all from individuals.
“One reason why I don’t get special interest money is they can’t control me,” he said. “I try to represent the people.”
Chase accused public officials – including Kuney – of accepting campaign donations from Avista and being unwilling to challenge the sale to Hydro One during a Spokesman Review podcast last month.
“My vote is not bought and never will be bought,” Kuney said during the podcast.
Kuney said the Avista sale to Hydro One doesn’t pertain to county commissioners.
“There’s not a vote, especially on this Hydro One/Avista merger, that comes before the Board of County Commissioners,” she said.
Robbi Katherine Anthony, who is running against French for the District 3 commissioner seat, said Avista’s large financial contribution for a county race is troubling.
“It provokes the question of why they seem very interested in helping Mr. French win his race. He’s already raised $90,000. I can’t figure it out. It seems like there is some sort of incentive to drop that kind of cash, especially in a late stage like this,” she said. “If they are willing to drop $200,000 collectively, it tells me that they have something on the line that they are concerned about losing.”
French pointed out Avista donated to election campaigns for state Reps. Matt Shea, Bob McCaslin and Jeff Holy, as well as 6th District House candidate Jenny Graham.
French said the assumption that Avista is acquiring favors through election funding is not supported by his track record, or the track record of other candidates.
“The assertion that all of these individuals are bought and paid for by Avista is ludicrous, and to say that any of us somehow are persuaded to support Avista is just not supported by the facts and not supported by the evidence,” he said.
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