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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Independent-expenditure PACs threaten to sour mayoral race

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Here we go again.

As we move toward the arrival of primary ballots, political action committees are already laying in hefty, single-source contributions that will likely – if history is any guide – fuel the worst of the electioneering we will see in the next few months.

The Spokane Firefighters Union, among the deepest left pockets in city politics, has given $40,000 to an “independent-expenditures” PAC that is gearing up to support Ben Stuckart’s mayoral candidacy. It is that PAC’s only donor so far.

Meanwhile, a single donor has given $30,000 to an independent-expenditure wing of Better Spokane, the pro-business organization that has grown into a conservative counterweight in a time of liberal ascendancy in city politics. At least some of that money will likely be spent in support of Nadine Woodward’s candidacy.

It’s early, and both sides say their plans are still forming. Both committees exist in the shadowed reality of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows unlimited spending and money-raising by committees that are independent from candidates.

And it is that realm that usually gives rise to the ugliest attacks, the smeariest smears, the lousiest near-lies and barely technical truths – all the stuff that the public professes to hate, though it seems to work.

All the stuff no one wants to put their real name on.

You don’t have to be Carnac the Magnificent to foresee how this early stockpiling ends: a mayoral mudbath.

One reason to think so is the behavior of firefighters union-affiliated PACs in the most recent city election. In 2016, a PAC mostly funded by the union – ironically named Spokane for Honest Government – ran an irresponsible, outrageous smear of a candidate’s business and was fined for violating campaign reporting law.

The Spokane Regional Health District said the flyers attacking Matthew Howes were misleading and improperly used the district’s logo. The violations targeted by the flyer were incredibly minor, including a buildup in an ice machine, a lack of access to a sink that was blocked and produce that was not properly chilled.

The committee purchased mailers that took minor health code violations at Howes’ restaurant and tried to smear him with them – a low, lousy attack that aimed to do damage to Howes’ livelihood more than his candidacy.

The union later pretended to distance itself from Spokane for Honest Government, which was run by then-union president Randy Marler.

Marler is no longer the union president, but he’s running a new PAC, Citizens for Labor and Liberty. That PAC so far has one donor of any significance: the PAC for the union, IAFF Local 29.

Marler said it’s unfair to say Citizens for Labor and Liberty is a firefighters effort; he correctly points out that the PAC is not the only such independent-expenditure committee in politics and that people do it on both sides. He acknowledges that only the union has given money to the PAC so far, but he said it’s trying to gather other contributions.

“The (Citizens for Labor and Liberty) is not the firefighters PAC,” he said. “The firefighters made the first contribution, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the only contribution.”

He said the fact that he was both union president and head of the independent expenditure PAC last time around was bad “optics” that made people incorrectly assume the firefighters union ran the Spokane for Honest Government PAC.

Marler said the Citizens for Labor and Liberty will be supporting Stuckart – or supporting him via critiquing his opponent. We should hope it does so more cleanly and fairly than it went after Howes, but talking to Marler made it clear he doesn’t view the Howes flyers as a mistake.

“I think someone shouldn’t be engaged in running the city who is not running their own business properly,” Marler said. “We think if you’re not engaged in healthy practices in your own business, you maybe shouldn’t be running the city.”

This attitude does not bode well for the ethics of future advertising from this committee. Negative ads are not, in and of themselves, always bad, but the flyers targeting Howes were ugly, cheap, inaccurate and irrelevant.

Marler – sitting on a war chest of $40,000 for future flyers and the like – thinks it was fair.

Better Spokane, a pro-business campaign committee with its own history of aggressive ads undertaken on behalf of conservatives, has created an independent-expenditure committee starting with a single big donor as well. This spring, Better Spokane reported a $30,000 donation from The Standard Trust – the trust of the Wolff family, which is among the founders and chief funders of Better Spokane.

Michael Cathcart, executive director of Better Spokane and a City Council District 1 candidate, said his organization has not yet decided how it will spend that money. The organization is focused on the ballot measures, including one that would open collective bargaining at the city to the public, but is also considering spending in the mayoral race.

He said they’re still considering whether they’ll go positive or negative in the mayor’s race – “I do think there’s a lot to go after Ben on” – and that how things shape up after the primary will help determine that.

However it develops, Ben will be gone after and Nadine will be gone after. It would be silly to think otherwise.

Some of that will surely be fair, relevant, vigorous political combat.

And some of it will not. It will be bitter, rancid fruit from the orchards of independent expenditures.

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