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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Million-dollar mayor’s race: Spending reaches benchmark Tuesday, expected to grow

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 23, 2019

Candidates for mayor Ben Stuckart and Nadine Woodward speak to the issues facing Spokane during the Pints and Politics: The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages Forum and KHQ Tues., Oct. 15, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Candidates for mayor Ben Stuckart and Nadine Woodward speak to the issues facing Spokane during the Pints and Politics: The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages Forum and KHQ Tues., Oct. 15, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Spending on the race for Spokane mayor breached the $1 million mark Tuesday, after an independent conservative political group spent $50,000 on ads attacking Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart.

With ballots delivered to voters and two weeks until Election Day, spending on the race between Stuckart and Nadine Woodward is expected to increase. Since Oct. 1, conservative and liberal groups have spent more than $285,000 on the race, according to information filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The spending has largely been in favor of Woodward, a former TV news anchor running her first campaign who has described herself as center-right. As of Tuesday, groups not affiliated with her campaign have spent $309,000 on her behalf, whereas $186,000 has been spent for Stuckart, an outspoken member of the Democratic Party.

The two candidates for the nonpartisan office also have raised funds directly to their campaigns, Stuckart with $285,000, and Woodward $271,000.

Altogether, independent political groups have spent $763,000 on city races, including for mayor, council president and council member seats – more than four times the previous record of $176,000 in 2013.

The money pouring into Spokane’s municipal elections isn’t just breaking city records, but is outpacing outside election spending in similarly sized cities in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2017, Tacoma had a mayor’s race that drew three candidates, Evelyn Lopez, James Merritt and Victoria Woodards. In that race, independent groups spent $129,000. For this year’s election in Tacoma, which doesn’t include a mayoral race, $40,000 has so far been spent.

In Boise this year, $161,000 has been spent by independent political committees, according to pre-general election documents required to be filed by Oct. 10. The biggest spenders there include the Building Contractors Association of Southwest Idaho, which spent $40,000, and the Conservation Voters for Idaho Action Fund, with $32,000.

Compared to some of the largest U.S. cities, Spokane’s PAC spending seems inconsequential.

For instance, last week the Seattle Times reported that Amazon contributed $1.05 million to a pro-business PAC associated with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. In all, the $900 billion tech giant has spent an unprecedented $1.45 million on this year’s city elections.

In 2013, the mayor’s race in L.A. generated $33 million in spending. In 2009, $109 million was spent on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election.

The increase in outside dollars being spent in Spokane and elsewhere is a consequence of the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which said the First Amendment prohibited limits on independent expenditures by corporations, labor unions and other groups.

“The Supreme Court, in the last decade, has really made it easier for money to get into the system,” said Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University who studies campaign financing. “And we’re not just seeing more spending at the federal level, but at the state and local level.”

Federal elections tend to draw more dollars, making one person or group’s spending less influential, said Ridout. Local elections, however, are much easier to influence with a much smaller outlay of money. Beyond that, he said, local elections draw large sums when they’re competitive, like the race between Stuckart and Woodward, and if they’re “the training ground for future congressional races.”

Ridout warned against drawing conclusions from what the spending earns a contributor.

“Maybe it buys you better access. It doesn’t necessarily,” he said. “Maybe a politician is more likely to listen to you, or trust you. … On the other hand, it’s not the beneficiaries of social services who are spending the money. Not everyone gets an equal voice in the process.”

Michael Senske, president and CEO of Pearson Packaging Systems, is one of the biggest spenders in this year’s Spokane mayoral race. His company has contributed $50,000 to the Spokane Good Government Alliance. That makes Senske the second largest funder of the conservative PAC behind Fritz Wolff, a third-generation leader of a multibillion dollar real estate company who, with his wife Katie, has contributed at least $211,000 in the last two years toward conservative groups and politicians.

The SGGA purchased this week’s attack ads against Stuckart, but its spending falls short of the pro-Woodward Washington Realtors PAC, which has spent $198,000 on her behalf, as well as the anti-Woodward Citizens for Liberty and Labor, which has spent $176,000 against her.

The SGGA has spent about half of the more than $300,000 it has raised.

In addition to the $50,000 to SGGA, Senske’s company has contributed $35,000 to local candidates and political committees since 2011.

His goal is to make Spokane government more business friendly and politically moderate, Senske said.

“There needs to be a focus on the local level on the priorities of government,” Senske said, including improving infrastructure and public safety and creating a “more business friendly” environment. “Ultimately, the goal is increase the GDP per capita.”

Senske said he’s not driven by a “they’re bad and the other side is good” mentality, but he slammed Stuckart and the liberal-majority council for “wasting time” on issues like the unanimous resolution to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the banning of elephant hooks, as well as its focus on environmental discussions surrounding the coal and oil trains that run through the center of the city.

“Things like that, that don’t immediately affect us, seem like they are hot button national issues and should be dealt with at the state and federal level,” he said. “We could avoid some of the rhetoric that has been exhibited by the existing council and specifically by Ben.”

Senske was most focused on Stuckart, whom he said he has met a “couple of times” and has communicated with by email and phone. He said Stuckart’s “false and ill-informed” message is “business isn’t trusted, business isn’t respected.”

Still, Senske criticized nearly every elected city official, saying the politics of current Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney and former council members Mike Allen and Steve Salvatori most aligned with his. He added that he has “a lot of respect” for Mayor David Condon.

“I think that the current veto-proof City Council we have now, there’s not a diversity of opinion,” he said “The Condon administration is tempestuous, and that could be improved. There’s a lot of divisiveness.”

Condon has endorsed Woodward, but Allen and Salvatori are backing Stuckart.

Despite his significant spending, Senske said he had concerns about the amount of money in local elections.

“Yeah, I do, ironically. I hate to say it, but it’s a little bit like an arms race,” he said.

The labor union PAC, Citizens for Liberty and Labor, has spent $176,000 against Woodward, compared to the $309,525 spent in her favor by business groups.

“The intent wasn’t to outspend the other side,” Senske said. “We just wanted to tell the other story.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Oct. 23, 2019 to remove reference to $19,000 contributed to candidates by Michael Senske’s parents. The article incorrectly attributed the contributions to Michael Senske and his wife.

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