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Realtors pump big campaign money into Spokane City Council races ahead of August primary

UPDATED: Thu., July 22, 2021

Realtors' associations are pouring money into local primary races with hopes of putting more conservatives on the Spokane City Council.  (Christopher Anderson)
Realtors' associations are pouring money into local primary races with hopes of putting more conservatives on the Spokane City Council. (Christopher Anderson)

It’s 2019 all over again.

Concerns about housing and homelessness are leading issues of the day, and Realtors are pouring money into primary elections in the city of Spokane.

This time, they’re hoping that the investment is enough to change the political makeup of the Spokane City Council.

They’re tossing bigger money into smaller races, dwarfing the amount they spent on council district races in the last municipal primary election.

Leaders of the Spokane Association of Realtors and its affiliated political action committees say it’s more important than ever to invest, and invest early, in the council races.

Realtors hope the candidates they’re backing – Jonathan Bingle in the northeast council district and Mike Lish in the northwest – will bring balance to a City Council they believe has become one-sided.

“We’re putting the full force of the PAC behind them,” said Tom Hormel, the Spokane-based president of Washington Realtors and member of the Washington Realtors Political Action Committee’s legislative steering committee.

Feel the force

Realtors have contributed more than $53,000 to Bingle in District 1 and $49,000 to Lish in District 3 from two sources, the Washington Realtors PAC and the National Association of Realtors Fund. The support comes in the form of independent expenditures, which means the spending is not done in coordination with the campaigns but still is reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Although the PACs are based in Olympia and Chicago, respectively, the Spokane Association of Realtors’ members make the decision on who to support, according to Darin Watkins, its government affairs director.

“Even though it may say Washington Realtors, really the funds are of, by and for the Spokane Association of Realtors and their 2,500 members,” Watkins said, noting that each member pays annual dues.

To put the amount of spending this year in perspective, the $49,193 Realtors have put behind Lish is more than the $47,989 his four opponents’ campaigns have spent combined.

The state Realtors PAC has invested in only one other race in all of Washington, for a seat on the Vancouver City Council.

The Spokane Association of Realtors has endorsed one incumbent, District 2 City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, but the PACs have not independently spent money in her race against challenger Tyler LeMasters. Because there was not a third candidate, there is no primary election. Both LeMasters and Wilkerson will appear on the general election ballot.

Only one other group has reported independent expenditures in Spokane thus far. The political arm of the progressive organization Fuse Washington has backed three candidates – Luc Jasmin III, Lacrecia “Lu” Hill and Naghmana Sherazi – with $780 each.

Same strategy, different results?

In 2019, the Realtors also got involved early. They made a nearly $10,000 investment in support of Michael Cathcart’s campaign in northeast Spokane ahead of the primary. He and Tim Benn moved on to the general election, in which Cathcart was the victor.

The state PAC also backed Andy Rathbun with about $11,400; he ultimately lost to incumbent Councilwoman Karen Stratton.

The Realtors heavily supported Cindy Wendle in the citywide primary for City Council president, in which she placed second, but she ultimately fell short of Breean Beggs in the general election.

The makeup of the council remained basically the same, as Cathcart replaced Mike Fagan as the lone conservative.

Realtors spent nearly $100,000 in the primary election for the mayoral race, and eventually got what they wanted when Nadine Woodward defeated former City Council President Ben Stuckart.

So they went two-for-four in the 2019 elections, but are still unhappy.

Hormel of the local Realtors’ association, doesn’t blame what he views as inaction in addressing the housing crisis on Woodward or Cathcart. Instead, he accused the City Council of obstructing meaningful changes to housing policy and continuing to back the city’s Centers and Corridors plan, which focuses dense development in select areas and dissuades sprawl.

He wants council members to be open to expanding the boundary of the urban growth area and criticized the council’s recent decision to block a requested zoning change for a proposed multifamily housing development in the Southgate neighborhood.

“You can say you want your city to stay exactly the way it is, but it’s not going to,” Hormel said.

Spokane’s building policies are forcing developers and buyers to look elsewhere, like Idaho, Watkins argued.

“We are literally pricing Spokane out of Spokane,” Watkins said. “We are hearing story after story of renters who can no longer afford where they live, of rentals being sold off.”

Contrary to the perception that Realtors are raking in cash in a record-hot housing market, Hormel said they’d actually prefer it to slow down.

“In my inbox I’ve got close to 40 offers this year that I’ve written that haven’t been accepted. … I don’t know any Realtor that’s loving this market, it’s 10 times harder,” Hormel said.

The missing middle

Candidates seeking an endorsement were provided a questionnaire about housing policy. They also met for one-on-one interviews with a committee of Spokane Association of Realtors members.

But beyond bare policy positions, Hormel also stressed that Realtors are ultimately looking for “balance” on the council.

Hormel believes the Spokane City Council is out of whack, with six members who lean left and Michael Cathcart as the lone conservative voice. That’s a problem, Hormel said, because “all good policy comes out of the middle.”

Zack Zappone, running for office in the northwest council district, knows what it’s like to fill out the Realtors’ survey only to watch funding flow in support of his opponent’s campaign.

“I just wonder, with that much money being invested, what kind of influence that gets them. It’s a big concern,” Zappone said.

Bingle dismissed any notion that the Realtors’ support could buy his ear or his vote.

“The Realtors and I have similar goals in that we have a housing crisis in the city and we need to get it handled, so in that way our policies are aligned,” Bingle said. “That doesn’t mean they have undue influence on my decision-making.”

Bingle likened the support to contributions other candidates have received by labor unions, even if they pale in comparison to the amount invested by the Realtors so far.

“Does that give that group an undue influence?” Bingle asked of unions.

It’s unclear to Zappone why he wasn’t endorsed by the Realtors. In fact, Zappone argued, “they actually have a lot of the same policies about increasing density, infill, and fast tracking permitting” that Zappone supports.

This is the second consecutive election that Naghmana Sherazi has watched an opponent receive independent support from Realtors ahead of the primary. Sherazi also ran for the open northeast council seat in 2019, but placed third and failed to qualify for the general election.

Like Zappone, Sherazi feels that her approach to housing actually aligns fairly well with that of the Realtors.

Sherazi is an openly progressive candidate in a nonpartisan race, and also highlights her struggles as a tenant who has fallen behind on rent and couldn’t afford a mortgage.

“We need the voice of a renter and a person who has lived through those experiences,” Sherazi said.

The Realtors may be looking for a conservative, but Sherazi said “in this instance, we go around full circle and meet up at the same values, especially where housing is concerned.”

Watkins said the gap in policy positions between those who won Realtor support and those who didn’t was clear, and decisions were made based on who “best aligns with our positions, who best aligns with moving forward to try to make change.”

“Change has not happened, and we’ve been pushing for these changes for a long time,” Watkins said.

Lish views the Realtors’ support as sign that he has the right message when it comes to housing.

“We need more housing, and at this point in time I don’t see that it really matters what kind of housing it is, any housing is going to help the market,” Lish said.

Lish could tell it was “the right fit” when he went through the Realtors’ endorsement process.

“We really need to make sure that we have more places like Kendall Yards, places that people are excited to live that aren’t necessarily an apartment complex,” Lish said.

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