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Shawn Vestal: If money is speech, this election was a roar

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)

Four people ran for City Council in Spokane this election.

On their own, following the laws that limit donations to candidates, each raised roughly the same amount of money – in the range of $90,000. In that sense, there was a level playing field in terms of the candidates’ ability to get their messages out to people in the ways that cost a lot of money, such as TV and digital ads and mailers.

But in another sense, and one that we all saw in our mailboxes and on TV, the playing field was distorted beyond recognition, for the second election in a row, by Realtors, big business and wealthy individuals, who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in unlimited independent spending into supporting two candidates, Mike Lish and Jonathan Bingle, and attacking the other two, Zack Zappone and Naghmana Sherazi.

This monsoon of spending from a tiny percentage of city residents represented more money than all the candidates raised on their own, combined.

In the era when political money is considered speech, this was an endless bellow.

How satisfying it is, then, to see this gross splurge have limited success. In the first election returns Tuesday night, Zappone – who had the biggest target on his back – was leading Lish, 52% to 48%.

Bingle was leading Sherazi, 57% to 43% .

A lot of votes remain to be counted.

The massive spending in this race may not be an aberration but a new normal: a few PACs, representing a few people, relatively, spending far, far more than anyone else, in order to boost conservative candidates over the fence of their electoral disadvantage in a city trending more and more to the left.

Two years ago, these same donors helped put Nadine Woodward into the mayor’s office but couldn’t quite get Cindy Wendle over the finish line against Breean Beggs for council president. In a previous election, a similar push of outside spending came from the state Republican Party itself, which dumped a lot of money into the campaign of former Mayor David Condon.

Year upon year, this unchecked spending by a relative few grows larger.

It’s legal, and it’s common, and it’s an insidious distortion of what an election is supposed to be.

This year, the Spokane Association of Realtors, through two PACs, spent almost a quarter-million dollars in support of candidates Lish and Bingle, and against Zappone and Sherazi. This money comes from the dues paid by the Spokane group, and represents its 2,500 members.

There are more than 144,000 registered voters in Spokane, for what it’s worth.

Next in line was the Good Government Alliance, which played bad cop to the Realtors’ good cop. Whereas the Realtors bought ads supporting candidates, the alliance spent big bucks on scurrilously negative ads – spooky graphics and unflattering photos, ominous voice-overs, pictures of homeless people as scary political props, and cameos by the sheriff to smear candidates with distorted claims that they want to defund the police.

This PAC raised more than $331,000 and has spent about $211,000. Its top donor was the developer Larry Stone – who produced the anti-homeless film “Curing Spokane” a few years ago, calling for building a new jail and filling it up with homeless people.

Stone contributed $50,000. Other top PAC contributors were Pearson Packaging ($30,000), Washington Trust Bank ($30,000), the Spokane Home Builders Association PAC ($22,000), PyroTek ($16,000), Garco Construction ($15,000), and Walt and Karen Worthy ($15,000 each.) Betsy Cowles, chairman of the Cowles Company, the parent company of Cowles Publishing Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review, contributed $6,000.

These groups spent, in all, more than $430,000 on two City Council races. The four candidates combined, raising money one modest donation at a time, raised just over $362,000.

It’s been interesting in recent weeks to see representatives of these PACs describe their investments as humble attempts to have a seat at the table, as if they were scrappy little underdogs just hoping to catch a crumb or two from the adult table. That framing insults the intelligence; with this much spending, you’re trying to buy all the seats and the table, too.

They’ve also pointed out that other independent expenditures have been made on behalf of the candidates – sometimes from PACs with Seattle addresses. This is true as well.

Zappone, for example, received more than $15,000 in independent spending on his behalf, about a third of which came from the union-backed Seattle PAC Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy. Not a cent of independent money was spent against his opponent, Lish.

Meanwhile, total independent spending against Zappone, and for Lish – which was mostly, but not totally, the Realtors and Good Government Alliance – added up to more than $250,000.

Sherazi received more than $12,000 in independent expenditures on her behalf, including about a third from the Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy. More than $2,300 was spent on mailers against Bingle.

Total independent spending against her, and for Bingle, was more than $228,000.

There simply isn’t any comparison.

Money has always been a part of politics, and unlimited spending by those for whom fifty grand is a comfy wager is now established as an expression of their constitutional rights.

It’s all just speech, we’re now supposed to believe. Some people get to whisper, and some to bellow.

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