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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Tim Benn’s candidacy ran counter to deluge of special-interest spending

Tim Benn stood out like a sore thumb in this election.

Or maybe that’s backward. Maybe what Tim Benn stood out like was a healthy thumb on an aching, palsied hand.

Whichever way he stood out, Benn was an outlier in this year’s city elections. In a season marked chiefly by a gross deluge of special-interest spending, Benn – who was trailing Michael Cathcart for a City Council seat in District1 in Tuesday’s initial returns – represented something almost naively simple and old-fashioned: a candidate who raised modest amounts of money from local individuals, running on a concrete record of local connection and expertise, without the backing of national business groups or wealthy individuals with an extra 50 grand to throw around.

If only that stuff mattered more, and the fire hose of cash mattered less.

Benn was trailing Cathcart by about 700 votes Tuesday night, and he said he was still hoping that he might catch up in further ballot counting.

“Of course, we were hoping to see a race where the voters (supported) the local boy against the big machine,” Benn said. “It’s a big machine to battle against when you’re outspent five or 10 times.”

So much was so distasteful about this campaign. The gargantuan spending by the state Realtors association PAC – which gets a tiny fraction of its cash from actual Spokane Realtors – topped an orgy of independent expenditures, the large majority in support of business-class conservatives who, for whatever their virtues, had little or no experience in city government.

Unions spent big, too, of course, but were swamped by the Realtors and literally a handful of wealthy individuals who went to record lengths to elect a four-candidate slate led by Nadine Woodward, who claimed victory in the mayor’s race.

If you are of the view that our politics is too controlled by big money, and that democracy is disfigured by the influence of the money-is-speech brigade, you weren’t disabused of that notion this year.

Benn’s candidacy ran counter to all of that. He was an actual grassroots candidate who was born in Spokane, who has lived in and around District 1 his whole life, who has experience in the unglamorous nitty-gritty of local government and who offers a lifelong expertise in the part of Spokane he wanted to represent.

This is not an argument one way or the other for the substance of Benn’s campaign – or of Cathcart’s. Cathcart is hard-working, intelligent and engaged. He also had a fundraising edge of $56,000 to $20,000 over Benn, in addition to being the beneficiary of almost $38,000 in independent spending, almost all of which came from the Realtors.

Benn received no independent spending.

The nature of his candidacy – local, independent, experienced, modest – is surely worth consideration as we wake up from the hangover of this campaign.

He grew up in Spokane, the son of a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a welder. As a kid, he worked and attended the schools in the district and graduated from Rogers High. He owns a business in the neighborhood he is running to represent. He’s worked to get traffic lights installed near Cooper Elementary. He’s pushed legislation in Olympia. He’s president of his neighborhood council.

He’s run for office several times unsuccessfully – losing in races for the City Council and the state Legislature.

He’s conservative, but not establishment conservative, hailing from further right than that in exactly the same way as his political fellow-traveler Mike Fagan, with whom he co-hosts a radio show.

He financed his $20,000 campaign with modest contributions from individuals. He didn’t have a single donor who gave the maximum $2,000. In city races, only Tony Kiepe raised and spent less money. Andy Rathbun, between his earlier bid for mayor and eventual campaign for City Council, spent more than twice what Benn raised out of his own pocket.

The Realtors spent more just to hire canvassers for their gang.

“I think we’re losing our government to special interests of all kinds,” Benn said. “Unions are doing it. Corporations are doing it. Big developers are doing it, and Realtors. City government is supposed to serve the people. It shouldn’t be ideological.”

Benn’s not conceding yet. Votes are still being counted. When it’s all over, he’s got one big question beyond whether he wins or loses:

“How much money was spent per vote?”

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