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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Realtors dump more than $620,000 to influence Spokane elections, but not all agents like the group’s new spending

This photo from April 24, 2017, shows construction crews building a new home near the corner of 32nd Lane and Dearborn Lane in Spokane. Construction crews were allowed last Friday to return to work as part of an agreement between industry officials and Gov. Jay Inslee. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Washington Realtors Political Action Committee has led the charge in breaking Spokane election-spending records this year, dumping more than $620,000 in favor of four candidates and accounting for more than half of spending done by political groups acting independently of campaigns.

The PAC’s decision to support this group of conservative candidates, which includes mayoral hopeful Nadine Woodward and council president contender Cindy Wendle, began with the Spokane Association of Realtors.

But not all local Realtors are pleased that their industry is taking center stage in this year’s heated contest for power at City Hall.

Tom Hormel, a local real estate agent, takes credit for the flood of money being spent to sway this week’s elections. As the head of a four-person committee of the local association that interviewed and endorsed candidates, as well as chairman of the state PAC, he has played an integral part in directing the unprecedented sums of money toward Spokane’s races.

“If you’re going to get involved, you got to get involved to win,” he said. “If you’re going to spend $300,000 and lose, that’s insanity.”

Other Realtors, like Gene Brake, disagree. Brake said he was “offended” and “disgusted” by the role Realtors have played in this year’s elections, calling the professional association’s involvement an “ethical lapse.”

“I think it’s inappropriate to influence a city election in this way,” said Brake, who is also president of the Corbin Park Homeowners Association. “It’s the principle. The amount of money being put in by Realtors is unprecedented. They’ve never spent this much money in Eastern Washington.”

As the city races toward Tuesday’s vote, the battle lines have long been drawn. Woodward and Wendle claim the city has failed to combat the growing crises in homelessness and housing, while their opponents, City Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilman Breean Beggs, point to progress made in the city on various fronts and say their work has appropriately dealt with complex problems surrounding homelessness though more needs to be done.

It’s these issues – the state of the homeless community and the growing cost of housing in Spokane – that are at the fore of the race, and they justify Realtor involvement, Hormel said.

“We are singularly focused. We are 100% a property rights and housing group. We need more housing, in all pricing levels and all types – rental all the way, in all honesty, to what is deemed McMansions,” he said. “The longer we don’t have inventory, the more prices will increase.”

But Britney Inglis, another member of the four-person interview group that chose which candidates to endorse and independently fund, said there was more to it.

“Business-wise, as a Realtor, we do want to see more affordable housing. We want to see vibrant communities. We believe home ownership leads to happier, healthier lives,” said Inglis, who is based in Deer Park and Nine Mile Falls. “Personally, I haven’t been able to walk my children through Riverfront Park in five years,” saying that whenever she walks through the park she sees people urinating or defacating or “doing God knows what.”

From Paris to Spokane

The Spokane Association of Realtors has 2,300 members, and each pays annual dues amounting to $550. Of that, $35 goes to the state PAC to be spent on political campaigns. Realtor officials say members can opt out of political funding, but Wendi Helmick, a real estate broker in Spokane Valley, said the process appears to be designed to be difficult, saying the path to find it on the website led her to a “black hole.”

Hormel, who has unsuccessfully run three times to lead the local Realtor association, said the money is used to promote apolitical policies and candidates wholly focused on property rights and housing. Those two issues are all the interview committee – Hormel, Inglis, Marilyn Amato and Cynthia Gustafson – asked this year’s candidates in Spokane.

“What kind of policies do you think the city can change to make the city more affordable?” Hormel said, offering an example of a question they asked. “If they talk about the Paris Climate Accord, are they out of their realm? Because that’s what the City Council talks about.”

Inglis agreed that the committee was focused on homeownership and housing affordability, but said other issues came up as well, like the state Growth Management Act, which requires cities to develop plans to manage growth and sprawl.

“It definitely could use some changes,” Inglis said of the act. “It hasn’t been readdressed since it was formed 30 years ago.”

Amato, a Spokane-based agent with Windermere Real Estate, said the committee asked each candidate “the same exact questions” and has been surprised by the amount of money the state PAC has put into Spokane races.

“I’ve never seen that before,” she said. “It’s amazing, but personally, if it it’s going to get our candidates that we selected elected, then I’m very pleased.”

Hormel said “a lot of people are freaked out about” the heavy spending, but said he was reserving judgment on whether such spending is good or bad.

“I don’t know. We’ll see,” he said. “If you spend that kind of money and lose, that’s not a good thing. But 10 years from now, if we’re sitting on a wonderful economy and our housing is very strong, I will tell you this was an amazing investment in Spokane.”

The decision to make that investment lies in large part with him.

Besides his central role on the interview committee and chairing the PAC, Hormel is on the board of directors of the National Association of Realtors and is a member of the Spokane Association of Realtors’ government affairs committee, which monitors and promotes legislation and encourages Realtors to get involved in politics.

More simply put, he helped choose the candidates to endorse and he leads the group spending the money on those candidates.

“Honestly, we have never spent very much on our side of the state. We pay the dues, and now the time has come,” he said. “This is my city. This is an important time in my city.”

The only seat at the table

Not everyone is as sure about the wisdom of spending big in local elections as Hormel.

The backers of the other large PACs in this election have said they don’t like how much money is pouring into Spokane’s race, which has far surpassed the previous record of $175,000 in 2013. Michael Senske, who is helping to fund the conservative Spokane Good Government Alliance, called it an “arms race,” and Tim Archer, president of Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29, said it was a “standoff.”

Hormel, on the other hand, described the Realtor spending as “in the positive” with no “nasty smear campaigns.”

According to information from the state Public Disclosure Commission, the Realtors PAC has only spent money “for” candidates and none “against.”

The PAC has spent $264,750 on behalf of Woodward, a former TV news anchor who has railed against the way the city has dealt with homelessness and housing. It has spent $252,300 on Wendle, who owns the Northtown Square shopping plaza with her husband, Chud Wendle, executive director of the Hutton Settlement, former president of Wendle Motors and former district director for Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Council candidates Andy Rathbun and Michael Cathcart have had $66,000 and $37,100 spent in their favor, respectively. Liberal Councilwoman Lori Kinnear was also endorsed by the local Realtors, but the PAC has spent no money in her race.

It’s the slate of conservative candidates backed by big dollars that has some Realtors concerned about the political leaning of the organization that purports to represent them all.

While some in the association agreed to speak for this article, about a dozen Realtors said they disagreed with the spending and chosen candidates, but didn’t want their names in the newspaper because they feared retribution or didn’t want to share their personal politics.

Brake, the Corbin resident and Realtor, is not among them.

He said some of the Realtors who made the decision to spend so much on Spokane’s elections don’t live in Spokane, which he said was wrong. To make matters worse, he said, he asked to be part of the government affairs committee and was declined.

“If I were on that committee, I would abstain from voting to determine who’s going to be endorsed in Spokane Valley,” he said. “I don’t live there. It’s not my thing.”

Jake Turley, who owns Tamarack Realty in Spokane, said none of his Realtor friends are in favor of the spending done in their name.

“As far as I know, nobody’s really happy about it,” he said. “I’ve had three clients ask me about it. ‘I hear you guys are donating this amount of money to Nadine.’ It’s not me. It’s the association.”

Helmick, the real estate broker in Spokane Valley, said she supported previous political and lobbying efforts by the Realtors, which she described as seeking a “small seat at the table,” but the broad involvement of the association this year “reflects poorly on us.”

“We were just trying to be one small seat at the table, but in this particular instance it appears that we’re trying to be the only seat at the table,” Helmick said. “I don’t think that’s healthy. I don’t think it’s a good use of of the members’ money.”

It’s not just some Realtors who are concerned about the spending. Candidates are as well, and not just the liberal opponents of the Realtors’ chosen contenders.

Tim Benn has conservative credentials beyond reproach. He’s endorsed by the lone conservative on the City Council, Mike Fagan, who can’t run again due to term limits. Benn and Fagan co-host “The Right Spokane Perspective” radio program. Benn, too, worries about the amount of spending this year.

At the Oct. 3 Pints and Politics debate held by The Spokesman-Review, Benn and his opponent, Cathcart, were asked by an audience member whether they were concerned about “developers and development interests spending a record amount trying to buy these elections.”

Cathcart is a member of the Spokane Association of Realtors’ government affairs committee, and has received $1,000 contributions from the local Realtors and the Spokane Home Builders Association, where he was the director of government affairs from 2012 to 2016. He said he was not concerned.

“I’m proud of the support that they’re giving me. These are the folks that build our homes, that sell our homes. These are the folks that help dreams come true,” he said. “When you suggest that somebody’s buying an election, you’re really saying that voters don’t have the intelligence to make decisions for themselves.”

Benn said he had “a little different view” and brought up George Washington’s farewell address in 1796.

“He warned people about factions, about parties and about special interests buying your representation,” he said. “I am currently the only candidate who will be on the ballot in the city of Spokane that has not sought out special interest money. I just want to represent the people of my district. I think developers can do well when people are represented. I think workers can do well when people are represented. I think elections need to be free and fair. That’s what we should be working towards, as a nation, taking some of the money out of it.”

Influence on steroids

Hormel said the Realtors support was positive, but he did offer criticism of Stuckart.

“We have an example of one of our candidates trying to stop a development off 195,” he said, referring to Stuckart’s 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 argued the development could affect nearby trails and traffic and suggested the city exercise its first right of refusal and purchase the land from Pilcher before the end of 2019.

“He steps in at the last minute and tries to kill it,” Hormel said. “It’s a good example of a leader being above the rules.”

Hormel denied that it was this particular case that led to Realtor opposition to Stuckart. It wasn’t even the last straw.

“This is a truck full of hay,” he said. “There was not just one straw.”

He said he expects Woodward to be more understanding of the real estate business if she wins.

Woodward speaks in terms similar to the Realtors. There’s no one single, simple solution to fix the city’s housing issues, she said. Everything’s on the table. In July, she 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.”

It’s that type of thinking that appeals to Realtors, Hormel said.

“None of us want sprawl. But we do want people to have choice. Not everybody is going to live downtown and not own a car,” he said, adding that elected city leaders “control” things that affect Realtors. “They’ve got control of the zoning. They’ve got control of the process. They’ve got control of the cost of fees that add to the cost of building.”

Dennis Hession, a former mayor and City Council president, said the role of the mayor is “really fairly narrow,” but he said whoever fills that role has unmatched influence because they have “the power to promote, and the power to convene.”

“There is a great ability to influence people and policy. You can convene a group of any people in your city or in your region and people will come,” he said. “The mayor is speaking for the city because the mayor can.”

However, many of the ways a mayor can impact the real estate business have to be approved by the City Council, he said. Changes to transportation impact fees, the city’s budget, annexation, tax exemptions and regulations for building and development are city policy under the purview of City Council.

The mayor can tinker around the edges, he said, and there are “internal procedures that don’t go before council that can be friendly, or unfriendly, toward the Realtors.”

On top of all that, he said, the mayor has the advantage of being one person, while the council is seven.

“The City Council can only act together,” he said. “You have to have a majority.”

Hession, who has not endorsed any candidate for mayor or council president, said he was alarmed at the amount of money being spent on the race.

“Outside money has always come in, but not even close to this extent,” he said. “It’s really unheard of, which takes what would otherwise be an idea of outside influence and puts it on steroids. You’ve got to ask the question: Why are they spending so much? What do they want? How do we as a community react?”

Hormel, for one, has his answer.

“We want to make sure that we win the race because we need Spokane to move forward,” he said. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”