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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Realtors and other rich interests are pouring money into funds to back Nadine Woodward and other Spokane candidates

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 20, 2019

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Every so often there is an effort to reform campaign finance laws – nationally, statewide or municipally – meant to level the playing field, root out real and perceived corruption, and reduce the outsized influence of big money on elections.

And every time, big money finds its way back in. The money flowing into this year’s city elections simply reinforces it: campaign speech is for sale, and special interests, big business and the very wealthy buy an ever-bigger share with each new political season.

Almost two years after a new city law, pressed by City Council President Ben Stuckart, put caps on individual contributions to candidates, coalitions of Realtors, developers, builders and bankers are pouring money into independent political action committees supporting mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward, who is running against Stuckart, and Cindy Wendle, who is running against Breean Beggs for City Council president.

One PAC alone – the state Realtors association – is spending more than any single candidate. Such PACs, which are required to operate independently of the candidates they support, can spend as much as they want and this year, they want to spend a lot.

Woodward and Stuckart are raising about the same amount in direct contributions, each with roughly $210,000 as of this week. But Woodward has been the recipient of more than $197,000 in outside independent spending, almost all of which comes from the Washington Realtors PAC ($137,000-plus) and the Spokane Good Government Alliance ($50,000-plus), which is funded chiefly by six large local donors.

Stuckart has received $941 in independent spending, mostly from the Washington Association for Gun Responsibility Victory Fund.

Wendle, meanwhile, has outraised Beggs in direct contributions (about $130,000 to $75,000) and has been the recipient of far more independent spending (about $80,000 to $1,000).

The biggest spender by far is the Washington Realtors PAC. That statewide organization is donating in local races all over Washington. It has raised more than $1 million in this election cycle, including more than $114,000 from the National Association of Realtors, $24,000 from the state association of Realtors – and $5,000 from the Spokane Association of Realtors.

In addition to the mayoral and council president races, it has spent more than $9,600 on behalf of Michael Cathcart, who is running for City Council against Tim Benn, and more than $11,000 on behalf of Andy Rathbun, who is challenging incumbent Karen Stratton.

No independent spending on behalf of Benn or Stratton has been reported.

All told, this single PAC has spent $218,544 to support four candidates – more than any single candidate has raised.

The Spokane Good Government Alliance is not far behind, having raised about $150,000 from a slate of businesses and individuals from the Better Spokane coalition. The lion’s share of that comes from a pair of $27,500 contributions from Fritz and Katie Wolff, of The Wolff Co., a Spokane-based real-estate private equity firm.

The bulk of the rest comes from R.A. Pearson Co. ($25,000), also known as Pearson Packaging Co; Worthy Hotels ($15,000); DAA Northwest ($12,500), an auto-remarketing firm; Inland Northwest Association of General Contractors ($10,000); and WTB Financial Corp. ($10,000), which owns Washington Trust Bank.

Also investing heavily is Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State, which is almost entirely funded by a $70,000 contribution from a single concerned taxpayer of Washington state – Steve Gordon of Lake Tapps, a reservoir community in Pierce County. Gordon was a co-owner of Gordon Trucking, which sold to Heartland Express in 2013 for $300 million.

That PAC has spent about $20,000 on behalf of Wendle and $9,000 for Woodward.

Most of those who are contributing to the independent expenditures are maxing out on direct contributions to the candidates, as well.

This spending is legal, as the people who do it will quickly remind you. It’s legal and proper that the size of their influence corresponds with the size of their bank accounts. That a single out-of-town PAC should be the biggest election spender in Spokane. That a handful of individuals and corporations can buy a vastly louder voice than everyone else.

Unions do this, too, of course, but they’re so far not making anything close to the same impact on these races. Smaller, direct union donations are common, but there has not yet been a big union-backed PAC presence. One PAC, Citizens for Labor and Liberty, which is seeded by Spokane firefighters union money, has said it intends to spend on behalf of Stuckart, but has not reported such spending yet.

Tom Hormel, chairman of the Washington Realtors PAC and a member of the Spokane Association of Realtors’ government affairs committee, said his organization decided to go big in this year’s city race because of the top-to-bottom housing crisis, including but not limited to homelessness, and a desire for a more politically balanced City Council. He said that the group prioritizes private property rights and efforts to make it easier for developers to fulfill housing needs, but isn’t in support of “unchecked” growth.

As for my larger concern – the influence of unlimited spending on politics – he reminded me that we live in a post-Citizens United reality.

“We can have that debate in a different time about whether it’s right or wrong, but right now, the Supreme Court says it’s right,” he said.

The court did say it’s legal. Is that the same as right? When the new municipal campaign finance law was passed, the most frequent political donation in Spokane was $50. One would guess it hasn’t risen much.

Do donors with $50 to contribute deserve 100 or even 1,000 times less free speech than the deep pockets?

What about people without even that?

One thing is clear, as the races and the spending intensify: When the votes are tallied in November, a relatively small number of relatively big spenders will be viewing election results as a return on an ever-growing investment.

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