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Outside campaign spending on Spokane City Council races grows to unprecedented level

Zack Zappone, left, faces Mike Lish in the race for a Spokane City Council seat representing northwest Spokane in the November 2021 election. Lish's candidacy has gotten a big boost from Realtors, which have spent more than $140,000 in support of his bid.
Zack Zappone, left, faces Mike Lish in the race for a Spokane City Council seat representing northwest Spokane in the November 2021 election. Lish's candidacy has gotten a big boost from Realtors, which have spent more than $140,000 in support of his bid.

Realtors are spending an unprecedented amount of money to support Spokane City Council candidates.

Political newcomer Mike Lish’s campaign to represent northwest Spokane on the council has been bolstered by $187,000 in independent support, primarily from local Realtors and their associated political action committees on a state and national level.

That’s more money than Lish’s campaign has raised. And it’s more than the combined spending for the same seat four years ago when Candance Mumm defeated Matthew Howes.

The Realtors’ heavy investment in the race has become debate fodder for Lish’s opponent, Zack Zappone. In a recent forum, Zappone urged voters to ask themselves why Realtors and developers have spent a “record amount of money supporting someone that doesn’t have ideas to help middle and working class families.”

Lish defended the independent support. While noting that he does not have control over the Realtors’ spending, he said it is “because our values align.”

“Zack went for the same endorsement, it’s just sour grapes that he didn’t get it and he feels that it puts him behind,” Lish retorted.

The story is much the same in northeast Spokane, where conservative candidate Jonathan Bingle has benefited from $128,000 in independent support, primarily from Realtors.

The campaign of Bingle’s opponent, Naghmana Sherazi, has raised $94,000 and spent more than half of that, according to the most recent filings with the Public Disclosure Commission. Sherazi has also benefited from $7,700 in independent support.

Zappone has recorded similar numbers in northwest Spokane, bringing in $94,000 in campaign donations and spending $67,000. He’s received independent support of $5,300 from several progressive groups, but has had $51,000 from independent groups spent against him .

Bingle and Lish’s campaigns have raised an amount comparable to their opponents, but spent relatively less, as they’ve received independent expenditures on their behalf that dwarf the support given to their opponents.

Realtors invested early in the election cycle, citing the ongoing housing crisis in Spokane and their perception that the current City Council has stymied new development. Darin Watkins, government affairs director for the Spokane Association of Realtors, questioned why new building development within the city limits isn’t keeping up with the growth in neighboring areas.

“Expert after expert have all concluded that it is the policies of the city of Spokane that is prohibiting building,” Watkins said.

Watkins called for a housing effort like that undertaken following World War II.

“We really believe that we need that level of commitment to building,” Watkins said.

Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University, said political scientists have long struggled to define with certainty the effect such spending has on policymaking.

“At its most basic level, oftentimes they invest in candidates who are already supporting their goals, and so the hope is to affect the outcome of an election, to get someone in office who is a supporter,” Ridout said. “It’s really hard to prove that outside money influences specific votes, but one thing we’re pretty confident about is that it does give those groups access to those politicians.”

Spokane is not alone in seeing a surge in outside money. Even for those spending the money, “it’s hard for them to measure” the efficacy.

“I think they figure it’s better to at least have a seat at the table, to have those politicians returning those phone calls as opposed to not,” Ridout said.

The consequence, naturally, is that people with resources have a platform that those without do not.

“The Spokane Association of Welfare Recipients doesn’t exist,” Ridout said.

Realtors backed Mayor Nadine Woodward’s campaign in 2019, but Watkins said they’ve had only three meetings with the mayor since she took office. They did not support Councilwoman Karen Stratton’s campaign the same year, but Watkins said they’ve had productive conversations with her in the time since – a relationship he said is possible because they don’t run negative advertisements.

“I don’t know that it buys us a seat at the table, but it certainly has helped us to raise the drums that we’ve been beating for 10 years that we’re in a housing crisis,” Watkins said.

While the scale might be eye opening, outside investment in a City Council race is not new.

In 2013, independent support – and opposition – flowed into tightly contested City Council races ultimately won by Mumm and Jon Snyder. Mumm and Snyder were heavily outraising their opponents, which prompted pro-business groups to wade into the race.

“The citizens are smarter than that and they can’t be bought,” said Mumm, who noted she is both married to a Realtor and owns a real estate company.

In this race, Mumm questioned what Realtors expect to gain. Mumm argued that council members have proposed legislation to help improve the city’s housing situation, while the administration has failed to fill the city’s long-vacant planning director position.

Watkins countered that the administration has been consumed by the city’s COVID-19 response, but added “would we like to see things done better? Absolutely.”

Ultimately, Mumm said it’s a red flag when a single industry is so substantially backing a candidate.

“I don’t think that our citizens are served by candidates that are narrowly focused on one issue, I think it’s important that candidates have broad support, because there are a myriad of issues that we need to tackle on a daily basis,” Mumm said.

Both candidates receiving significant financial support from the Realtors are the more conservative of the two in their races, but Watkins said the Realtors endorse candidates based on their recognition of the housing crisis.

“We have really worked very hard to be more open and transparent about our process,” Watkins said.

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