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Thursday, November 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

New big contributions smash record for outside spending on Spokane elections

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 16, 2019

The race for Spokane mayor has been infused with significant cash since the beginning of the month, as outside political committees ramped up their spending power with three weeks to go before Election Day.

The Spokane Good Government Alliance, a conservative political action committee created this year to stump on behalf of candidate Nadine Woodward, brought in $75,000 in the last week alone – leaving it with more than $200,000 to spend before Nov. 5.

And Citizens for Liberty and Labor raised about $80,000 since Oct. 1, money it’s spent to defeat Woodward. It has almost no money left over, according to information from the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Considered alongside the money raised by the statewide Washington Realtors PAC, which has spent about $174,000 on Woodward’s behalf, this year has far surpassed every other year on record for money spent by outside political organizations on city elections, with more than $580,000 doled out so far, including $400,000 on the mayor’s race alone.

This money is separate from the funds raised by the mayoral campaigns of Woodward and Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart.

Woodward, a former TV news anchor running her first political campaign, did not return calls seeking comment. Her campaign manager, Allison Walther, wouldn’t comment on the amount of outside money pouring into this year’s mayor’s race because “it’s all independent spending.”

“We don’t know what’s coming, to be very honest,” Walther said, noting that she didn’t know why the SGGA supported Woodward. “I think you’d have to go to them and ask them.”

Stuckart said the funds raised by SGGA represented “old money” and people who “think Spokane needs to be run behind closed doors.”

“These are the same people we’ve been beating the last three election cycles,” Stuckart said of the committee’s main financial backers. “They lost in the ’13 elections, they lost in the ’15 elections and they lost in the ’17 elections. They’ve lost every race they entered into. This is their last gasp, this election cycle. They’re still thinking that Spokane is run by old money. That’s why they’re backing an inexperienced candidate who will do and say anything to get elected.”

All told, outside groups have spent more than $234,000 promoting Woodward. SGGA has more than $200,000 left to spend, and the Washington Realtors, a statewide group focused on other races as well, has nearly $1 million left in its account.

In 2019, outside groups have so far spent nearly $588,000 on city races, which include races beyond the mayor’s race. That surpassed 2013, when $176,000 was spent, and 2017, when the number was $140,000. In 2011, when outgoing Mayor David Condon was first elected, independent groups spent $48,000. The remaining elections between 2007 and 2015 didn’t top $20,000 in independent spending.

Labor vs. business

Walther, with Woodward’s campaign, said voters should be less concerned with SGGA, and more worried about the actions of Citizens for Liberty and Labor, noting that the liberal political committee is backed by the state’s largest labor unions that have “contracts that come across Ben’s desk.”

“He’s proven that he’s transactional. Plain and simple,” Walther said. “He’ll be a transactional mayor.”

Attempts to reach Citizens for Liberty and Labor were unsuccessful.

Unlike that committee – which has received substantial backing since Oct. 1 from the Spokane Firefighters Union, the Washington State Council of County and City Employees PAC and the Washington State Council of Firefighters – the SGGA is largely funded by local business owners.

Jon Seaton, spokesman for SGGA, would not discuss what the group would do with its remaining $200,000.

“We’re not going to tip off our strategy,” he said. “We’re not going to talk specifically about our strategy. Our plan is to educate voters and make sure they’re informed.”

Seaton, who is based in Washington, D.C., but said he’s been to Spokane “many, many times,” said Woodward appealed to the committee because she “has a vision and a commitment to keep Spokane moving forward and to prevent it from, frankly, turning into Seattle.”

Stuckart, he said, has failed.

“If you look at both how he’s governed and some of his public statements, he just doesn’t seem to take these challenges seriously,” he said. “In eight years, he really hasn’t done anything to combat the growing concerns that I know voters have of homelessness, drug addiction and crime in Spokane.”

The new fundraising report by SGGA, an outgrowth of the Better Spokane conservative political committee, shows how its growing war chest is substantially funded by one man: Fritz Wolff, the third-generation owner of the Wolff Co., a multibillion-dollar empire of apartment building ownership and development.

Wolff and his wife, Katie, have contributed a combined $80,000 to the group, $25,000 of which was reported Friday. Wolff has also given the maximum allowable donation, $2,000, to Woodward’s campaign. Attempts to reach Wolff were unsuccessful.

Wolff isn’t alone in going big for Woodward. The R.A. Pearson Co. gave $25,000 to SGGA, matching its previous contribution to the committee. Pearson, which also goes by the name Pearson Packaging Co., is run by Michael Senske. Senske, too, donated $2,000 to Woodward’s campaign. A message left with Senske’s assistant was not returned.

The Cowles Co., which owns and publishes The Spokesman-Review, gave $10,000 to SGGA. It marks the first time the Cowles have waded into a mayoral race, according to records kept by the PDC going back to 2007. The company has given nearly $145,000 to other independent political groups in that time, including to groups supporting the Riverfront Park bond and street levy in 2014 and promoting a measure in 2018 that would have made negotiations between public employers and employee unions open to the public, which failed to gather the required number of voter signatures to make the ballot.

Jim Cowles of the Inland Empire Paper Co., which is also owned by the Cowles Co., gave $1,250 directly to Woodward’s campaign.

An email to Betsy Cowles, the company’s chairman, and Stacey Cowles, the company’s president and newspaper’s publisher, was not returned.

It’s unclear what SGGA will do with its growing bank account, but if the past is any indication it will spend a lot of it in little time. The committee spent $73,288 on digital ads, flyers and peer-to-peer texting promoting Woodward over 12 days this summer when primary ballots were mailed to and in voters’ hands, according to information from the PDC.

Kip Hill contributed reporting.

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