Realtors are pouring an unprecedented amount of money into Spokane primary campaigns.
The Washington Association of Realtors has thrown substantial support behind mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward and three fresh faces vying for seats on the City Council.
The impetus behind the spike in campaign activity is addressing “a crisis with housing availability and affordability,” according to Tom Hormel, chair of the WA Realtors PAC and a member of the Spokane Association of Realtors’ government affairs committee.
“That’s why we’re playing big this year,” Hormel said. “We took an opportunity to change the face of the City Council to help get us out of this crisis.”
Though the fundraising race between mayoral candidates Woodward and Ben Stuckart is neck-and-neck, Woodward has received a substantial outside boost from Realtors. The three other candidates for mayor – Jonathan Bingle, Kelly Cruz and Shawn Poole – lag far behind in fundraising.
As of the most recent campaign finance disclosures, Stuckart has a small lead over Woodward in cash contributions, accruing $130,563 to Woodward’s $127,894. Meanwhile, Bingle, Cruz and Poole have raised $11,526, $2,050 and $18,095, respectively.
But unlike Stuckart, Woodward has benefited from $93,632.35 spent on her behalf by the Washington Association of Realtors. The association’s independent expenditures in support of Woodward include $40,900 for online ads on July 10 and $21,732.12 on campaign mailers on July 12, with more marketing yet to come.
The Federal Election Commission defines an “independent expenditure” as one that pays for advertising that “expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate and which is not made in coordination with any candidate or his or her campaign or political party.”
Stuckart has not reported any independent expenditures on his behalf.
The Washington Association of Realtors and its political action committee, WA Realtors PAC, rely on local associations to interview candidates and determine which candidates to support.
Woodward earned the Realtors’ support because she “seemed to favor looking at policies and working with the council to help make some of these changes so that we can fix this housing crisis,” Hormel said.
The Spokane Association of Realtors interviewed each candidate and asked them the same overarching questions, but did not dive into “the minutiae,” Hormel said.
“We just need policies that are more friendly toward property rights, building and getting more homes available,” Hormel said.
Woodward said she would be in favor of considering rezoning some areas of the city to encourage development of more housing. She is also in favor of more infill and density in the city’s downtown.
“I love the idea of more people living downtown, I just think that makes our downtown even more vibrant,” Woodward said.
Woodward suggested she might use city resources to encourage new developments outside the city’s borders.
“If the city can play a role as far as offering services and infrastructure – but it has to be a win-win for both sides – I’d be open to that as well,” Woodward said. “We need to start getting a little bit more creative.”
Stuckart said he felt he did well in his interview with the Realtors and the failure to win their support “came as a bit of a surprise.” His approach to housing development aligns with the views of the National Association of Realtors, he added.
“I’ve taken the housing shortage on as my issue I talk about no matter where I am,” Stuckart said.
The current City Council has been too restrictive, Hormel argued. He pointed to Stuckart’s recent opposition to plans for a 94-home development near the intersection of U.S. Highway 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road proposed by John Pilcher.
Stuckart expressed concerns in June about the Pilcher development, which the city approved. Stuckart said the development could affect nearby trails and traffic on Highway 195. He suggested the city exercise its first right of refusal and purchase the land from Pilcher before the end of 2019.
“You have to balance all the housing things I am actively working on with one development,” Stuckart said. “Not every single space in our city needs to be housing, and that’s a backwards view of looking at it.”
Stuckart’s approach is similar to what the city did to take control of the the old YMCA building in Riverfront Park in 2010. In that case, the city would buy the land and rely on the county to take on the debt with Conservation Futures program funds.
But Hormel thinks this strategy could harm the kind of development his group believes is key to solving Spokane’s housing issues.
“That’s not the right answer. In order to fix this crisis, you have to build more homes. You have to either build up or you have to build out,” Hormel said. “It was a glaring example of, after all the work that the private property owner put in, you have someone stepping forward and trying to kill it.”
Woodward isn’t the only candidate the Washington Association of Realtors has put its money behind.
The association has also thrown substantial support behind City Council president candidate Cindy Wendle, reporting independent expenditures totaling $60,351.34. One of five candidates seeking to become the next City Council president, Wendle is the commercial real estate manager of Northtown Square, a shopping center she co-owns.
It also has supported council candidate Michael Cathcart with $9,615.78 and council candidate Andrew Rathbun with $11,444.73 in marketing materials.
The Realtors association is the only organization to report making independent expenditures in support of candidates for office in the Spokane mayor’s race.
WA Realtors PAC has raised $810,435.15 in 2019.
The Realtors’ PAC also donated $2,000 each to Woodward’s and Rathbun’s campaigns, as well as $1,000 each to the campaigns of Wendle and Cathcart.
All told, the association has poured $175,044.20 into independent expenditures on behalf of Spokane candidates in the days leading up to primary ballots dropping into voters’ mailboxes.
Though Realtors regularly support candidates in various elections, Hormel acknowledged “we have never done anything at this level” in a local primary election before.
The Realtors association has increased its activity in the primary because the housing crisis has “reached a head,” Hormel said. But this election also offers a number of opportunities for change, he added.
The Realtors association has “learned the importance of primary elections,” Hormel said.
Stuckart has made addressing the housing crisis – which he views as central to the city’s homelessness issue – a centerpiece of his campaign.
The two-term City Council president has suggested rezoning the areas along the city’s business centers and corridors to allow for more housing density. Stuckart has also suggested the creation of a local housing trust fund to spur development of low-income housing.
Stuckart noted he is also working to expand the multifamily tax exemption program to spur the development of more housing, as well as the development of Beacon Hill on the city’s northeast side.
Many of Stuckart’s top contributors include labor unions or political action committees representing their interests. The Spokane Firefighters Union, the Washington Education Association and the Washington State Council of County and City Employees political action committees each donated $2,000 to Stuckart’s campaign, the maximum allowed under state law.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439 also chipped in $2,000, as did Avista.
Woodward criticized Stuckart’s donations from out-of-state unions, but Stuckart said he is proud to be supported by “the working men and women of Spokane,” and that some unions make donations through their state or national affiliates.