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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tangled relationship between Spokane firefighters, Stuckart continues in mayor’s race

Local firefighters, union members and supporters protest the new Spokane Regional Emergency Center prior to an opening ceremony on Thursday, July 18, 2019, at 1620 N. Rebecca Street. The union has spent $118,000 on this year’s municipal campaigns. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

If $118,000 says anything, it’s that the firefighters of Spokane have a stake in this year’s municipal elections, particularly in the mayor’s race.

The Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29, one of City Hall’s most powerful forces, emptied that much money into this year’s municipal campaigns, going all in for City Council President Ben Stuckart in his race for mayor against Nadine Woodward, a former TV news anchor running her first campaign.

Stuckart is an outspoken ally of the city’s unionized personnel and was a driving force behind February’s voter-approved $5.8 million property tax increase that prevented 30 firefighters from losing their jobs and created more police officer jobs.

Woodward, meanwhile, has gathered the support of the city’s business class and calls Stuckart “transactional,” suggesting that he would sign lucrative employment contracts to unions supporting his campaign by noting that he would have “direct oversight over their union negotiations.”

Stuckart dismissed concerns that he would make decisions favorable to unions because they support his campaign. He said he received contributions from unions in 2011 and 2015, but never supported a contract that exceeded a 3% increase in compensation.

“I have a proven track record of holding expenses down and only approving contracts that are financially responsible,” he said.

He said he supports unions because there is a “nationwide correlation between the decrease in union membership and the collapse of the middle class.”

“I think we need more represented people and the workers should have more of a collective voice,” he said. “They represent the workers of the city and I think their voice needs to be heard.”

He said he was “proud” to have the fire union’s support because “it means the people out there saving lives support me.”

But looking back at the long history of unions and local politics, it’s not clear how effective that support will be. Considering Stuckart’s career in those local politics, his opponents question how impartial he will be when it comes to dealing with the firefighters union.

Cause for support

It would be easy to describe the race between Woodward and Stuckart as in line with the age-old American contest pitting labor against business, workers vs. bosses. But it’s more complicated than that.

For one thing, not all city unions are behind Stuckart. Notably, the Spokane Police Guild, which represents Spokane Police Department officers, has endorsed Woodward despite her support of Proposition 1 on November’s ballot, the anti-labor ballot measure opening the city’s negotiations with unions for public view, as well as her opposition earlier this year to the tax measure allowing the city to hire 20 more police officers.

Most of the union’s spending on this year’s local election – $80,000 of its total $118,000 contribution – has gone to an independent political group called Citizens for Liberty and Labor Political Action Committee, run by Randy Marler, former president of the Spokane fire union.

Firefighter support of the PAC is the largest it has received, but its war chest of $240,000 has also come from SEIU Union Washington State Council PAC, the liberal Fuse Votes and UFCW 21, the state’s largest private sector union, which represents grocery store, retail and health care workers.

That union money is largely being used for two simple purposes: to attack Woodward and praise Stuckart.

“Ben Stuckart is a champion for public safety,” said Alexis Moore, a Spokane firefighter, in one of the PAC’s ads. “He led the charge to pass the recent public safety levy to hire more police and firefighters in Spokane.”

Another ad from the PAC said Woodward “would put developers first and ignore us” by “spending our tax dollars on development outside the city limits, bringing Seattle sprawl and traffic to Spokane.”

Since 2007, the firefighters union has spent $217,486 on political campaigns in Spokane, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission, under various groups that invariably include “Spokane Firefighters” in the name.

The union itself is part of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a 318,000-member association that runs one of the most active independent political groups in the nation – the FIREPAC.

The international union wields such influence that President Donald Trump has waged war on Twitter against it, saying in April, “The Dues Sucking firefighters leadership will always support Democrats, even though the membership wants me. Some things never change!”

In a sense, Trump’s right. A conservative candidate like Woodward who has the support of executives from some of the city’s wealthiest companies would be hard-pressed to get an endorsement from a labor union.

But Tim Archer, president of the 360-member fire union, said he’s grown tired of ideological battles, even while affirming support for Stuckart.

“The idea is to support candidates who support public safety and fire department staffing. I look at it through that lens and only that lens,” Archer said. “In terms of how aggressive we’ve been in the past, I don’t think that’s the best way forward.”

Ethics and political shenanigans

The fire union’s support of Stuckart stretches back to 2011, when it gave him $800 for his initial run for City Council president.

That was also the first and last time the union directly contributed to Stuckart, though it was by no means the last time the union supported his runs for office. In fact, that $800 represents just 1% of the $80,000 the union has spent indirectly on Stuckart this year, through the Liberty and Labor PAC.

But the spending for, and relationship with, Stuckart hasn’t always gone well for the union or Stuckart.

In November 2014, Stuckart was fined $250 by the city’s ethics commission for forwarding a confidential email from the city’s legal department to Waller, then president of the fire union.

The email dealt with a lawsuit launched by the fire union in opposition to Mayor David Condon’s plan to reorganize the fire department into a fire “division” and sidestep an entrenched bureaucracy resistant to change. The new division created positions outside of the union’s reach, allowing Condon to fill them with whomever he chose, instead of having them go through a civil service process that led to union-protected jobs.

Stuckart had voiced strong opposition to Condon’s plan, and warned of the potential for nepotism if the voter-approved, century-old Civil Service system examining the abilities of applicants for nearly all city jobs was weakened.

“It’s a real-world example in Spokane County where somebody hired three of his sons,” Stuckart said in 2013 of former Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris’ 12 years in office, when all three of his kids got county jobs. “That’s what Civil Service protects us against.”

Despite his clear support of the fire union’s cause in this case, he was a leader at the city and received updates on the city’s legal strategy.

“Certainly, there was a potential for harm to be done to the city,” said Troy Bruner, the ethic committee’s chairman, about Stuckart’s action. “We had no evidence that harm was done, so we figured that the penalty should be minimal.”

Bruner said the matter was closed but noted the committee would write a “strongly worded statement showing our disapproval of his actions and admonishing him.”

Stuckart said last month that forwarding the email is among his top three regrets as council president.

“I shouldn’t have forwarded the email to the firefighters,” he said. “We all knew the city was going to appeal the lawsuit, but I forwarded a confidential email I shouldn’t have.”

Woodward said the forwarded email “was a betrayal of taxpayers.”

“Talk about doing business behind closed doors,” Woodward said. “You don’t pass on protected information to a union. Uncalled for. Completely uncalled for.”

The forwarded email, not to mention Stuckart’s fire union-friendly policies, raised suspicions in 2017 when he proposed a law limiting political spending that mimicked similar efforts at the state level by Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat who is now Senate majority leader.

The prime thrust of the law was to lessen the influence of “dark” or “gray” money – political contributions whose source is obscured from public view – that had increasingly influenced elections since 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.

Stuckart’s law capped the amount individuals could give to a candidate and barred private companies from contributing at all if they had contracts with the city worth more than $50,000.

The city’s bargaining units were not barred, but had to disclose the sources of their contributions.

The different rules for companies and unions has led Woodward to accuse Stuckart of carving out a special exemption for unions. She suggested unions shouldn’t be able to contribute, noting that “their livelihoods are being decided by the person being elected, that they’re spending to get elected.”

“I’d love to be able to repeal that ordinance,” Woodward said. “We just need to level the playing field. If unions can give, businesses should be able to give.”

The same year, in 2017, the fire union-supported Spokane for Honest Government PAC was caught doing political shenanigans that continue to dog it.

First, it was fined $7,000 by the PDC for failing to report more than $94,000 of spending on ads in support of council members Lori Kinnear and Karen Stratton during the 2015 election two years before.

Then, in the midst of the general election campaign, the PAC sent out a controversial mailer questioning City Council candidate Matthew Howes over minor health code violations at his restaurant, Adelo’s Pizza. The Spokane Regional Health District said the mailer’s claims were inconsistent with health district records.

In response, the firefighters union said it believed in “positive electioneering” and would no longer contribute to that specific PAC.

The questionable practices of the fire union continue this year.

A complaint filed with the PDC alleges that the union failed to account for the source of more than $66,000 in contributions – money that’s already been spent.

Archer, the current president, said it was an accounting error that he was “still trying to unwind.”

“It had to do with rolling over money into the current year” he said, noting that all of the union’s political spending comes from voluntary contributions by members, not their union dues. “There’s no wonky money that’s been added or taken away or spent on something or embezzled or anything. It’s a record-keeping oops.”

In a statement, Woodward said the episode showed “once again that my opponent is bought and paid for by unions.”

“It is comical that the unions are running attack ads accusing my campaign of being funded by dark money, when they in fact have a $60,000 black hole in the same account which paid for them,” she said.

Bled out

It’s the negative politicking backed by big dollars that’s led to the union’s troubles, Archer said, and he wants to move beyond it.

“I don’t like it at all. I am part of it, but I would like us to trend away from it,” he said of the amount of money being spent in this year’s municipal elections. “I would like us to look at other avenues rather than spend piles of money.”

Much like Michael Senske, one of the biggest backers of the conservative Spokane Good Government Alliance PAC supporting Woodward, Archer calls the record political spending an “arms race” and a “standoff.”

According to the PDC, $885,000 in independent political spending has been done in Spokane races this year – up more than $200,000 from just a week ago. That adds to the $845,000 spent by the campaigns themselves.

Through his campaign finance legislation, Stuckart has made clear his views on “dark” money and the corrosive effect of political spending.

Woodward said his ordinance is unfair, but she too said something has to happen to limit the amount of spending in local campaigns.

“This race has historically seen more money than ever before. I’m sure we’re going to see some legislation after this election to change that. I fully expect to see that,” she said.

For his part, Archer is on board.

“I’d like to back away from being so financially aggressive politically,” he said. He added that the amount spent by the fire union this year drained its bank account and he didn’t anticipate it spending any more. “Frankly, I think we’ve about bled out.”

The only solution

But spending on campaigns and engaging in politics arguably has proven beneficial for Spokane firefighters, helping make them among the best-paid group of employees at City Hall.

In 2018, the 373 people who worked in the city’s fire department – from its chief to fire equipment operators – received $37.4 million in total gross pay, averaging about $100,000 per person, according to 2018 city payroll data.

That total pay makes the city’s firefighters the city’s best paid, followed closely by the 440 employees in the police department, who were paid $40.4 million in total gross pay in 2018, or about $92,000 a person.

This pay far exceeds the county’s median per capita income of $28,325.

Before the Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29, there was the Inland Empire Firemen’s Association, which was also a member of the international union.

Don Waller, who was the union’s president from 2013 to 2015, said the foundation for today’s local union was laid by a captain of Fire Station No. 14 named Jack Waller.

“He was one of the first ones. The first major one,” Waller said. “Unfortunately, we are not related.”

Waller was in the news in May 1944, when he came within one vote of being elected vice president of the international union, representing Washington, Idaho and Montana.

W.E. Brower, a firefighter from Everett who won the vice president post over Waller, said that a “financially sound pension plan” was at the top of the fire union’s legislative priorities, followed by a “minimum wage plan for the firemen of the state.”

A few years later, Waller was elected secretary of the Washington State Council of Firefighters and was described as being central to the union’s political activities, like when the fire union’s state association began to fight in 1959 to limit members’ workweeks to 40 hours, at an hourly $1 minimum wage.

John Alexander, then president of the state association, said the state and international firefighter unions would go to battle for better pay. Walter Lambert, who led the local fire union at the time, agreed, saying the new 40-hour workweek and minimum wage law not only granted better pay for firefighters, but guaranteed “collective bargaining, which he said is the only answer to the solution of the firemen’s problem because they are prohibited from striking.”

Don Waller, who left the fire department earlier this year and moved to the West Side, said this earlier conception of the fire union, where firefighters stand among other wage earners, is the one to which he subscribes.

“I felt we couldn’t be so self-centered. We can’t push things that are only fire-centric. We need to make sure we have everybody in mind, for a well-rounded city. A healthy city,” he said. “That’s why unions were formed. We didn’t have enough political clout. So we formed to get clout, and to pool our resources to fight the people who have more resources than us.”

Change means control

The pooling of resources has been to great effect, if you just count the dollars spent. The union’s spending over the last 12 years has been substantial, at $217,486 since 2007.

The success of the spending, however, is less clear.

For instance, Condon didn’t have union support but is the only Spokane mayor to win re-election in two generations. Even before Condon, the union didn’t always see its preferred candidates win office.

In 1997, the city reached a high-water mark for political spending – $184,000 – unmatched until recent years.

Much like today, unions and developers did the spending in the midst of a competitive mayor’s race. That race was between John Talbott, an anti-tax political outsider, and Mayor Jack Geraghty, who ran in part on his hiring of 30 new police officers and the opening of nine neighborhood police substations.

Talbott was a burr to unions, and sponsored an initiative in 1993 that aimed to roll back the salaries of city employees earning more than $50,000 a year. His ballot measure sent more than 300 nonunion employees scrambling for the cover of organized labor. Talbott missed a filing deadline, and the council rejected the petition, but by the time he ran for mayor, only 16 city employees weren’t part of a union.

Talbott had the backing of developers like John Stone, Martin Howser and members of the Sandifur family, which owned Metropolitan Mortgage and Investments, as well as the Spokane Home Builders Association, which gave him $4,000.

The unions lined up behind Geraghty, including the Washington Council of County and City Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The firefighters local gave him $2,000.

Talbott won anyway, paving the way for a massive reformation of city government that gave new and stronger powers to the mayor.

In 2000, nine unions representing firefighters, police officers and Spokane County jail staffers joined as a political bloc to back John Powers, who would become the city’s first “strong mayor” under the new reorganized government.

Ted Rail, with the firefighters union, said the group – which represented more than 1,000 rank-and-file firefighters, corrections officers and law enforcement officers – would have a greater impact in key political races by standing together. Their focus was on purchasing new equipment, protecting unions and winning better compensation packages.

It was the first and last time public safety unions banded together in a such a unified front.

In the years since – including this year – they’ve all kept spending, even if they don’t always choose the same candidate.