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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big money buying lots of negative advertising in race between French and Yates for Spokane County Commission

Maggie Yates and Al French

Negative ads are filling up mailboxes and airwaves in Spokane County Commission District 5, as developers and unions try to carry their preferred candidates to victory in Tuesday’s election.

District 5 covers the West Plains, northwest Spokane and the South Hill above 29th Avenue. Republican incumbent Al French and Democratic challenger Maggie Yates are vying to be the district’s first representative on the new five-member Spokane County Commission.

Unlike the county’s other four commission districts, purplish District 5 gives both Republican and Democratic candidates decent chances to win. French versus Yates is expected to be close, which is part of the reason so much money is pouring into the race.

Citizens for Liberty and Labor, a political action committee backed by a handful of unions, has spent more than $117,000 on anti-French mailers, digital ads and TV commercials. For context, French has spent $161,000 on his campaign and Yates has spent $143,000.

Two of the Citizens for Liberty and Labor mailers point out that French has strong financial backing from developers. One accuses the longtime politician of “putting the profits of his contributors ahead of the people he serves.”

French said he’s proud developers support his campaign and praised them for creating jobs. The Republican said he thinks it’s lazy to accuse him of helping developers at his constituents’ expense.

“It’s a hollow complaint that is old and tired,” he said. “There is absolutely zero evidence of that. It did not happen, it has not happened and it will not happen.”

Yates said she didn’t want to “get into the weeds” with the mailer, but she has accused French of prioritizing development over responsible growth during his time on the Spokane City Council and county commission.

The Citizens for Liberty and Labor mailer blames French for traffic problems – Yates has done the same. The Democrat has said French’s policies created congestion issues on the West Plains and in the Latah Valley.

French vehemently rebuts that claim. He says any traffic issues along the U.S. Route 195 corridor are the fault of Spokane officials who took office after he left the City Council in 2009.

The mailer also includes a French cartoon that shows the politician soaring through the air with his mouth ajar while reaching for a nondenominational dollar bill.

An negative mailer, paid for by a handful of unions, includes a caricature of Al French.   (Citizens for Liberty and Labor mailer)
An negative mailer, paid for by a handful of unions, includes a caricature of Al French.  (Citizens for Liberty and Labor mailer)

French said he hadn’t paid much attention to the cartoon but doesn’t find it amusing.

“None of this is funny from my standpoint because it deceives the voter,” he said.

Yates hadn’t seen the cartoon but said she doesn’t support personal attacks against French.

While left-leaning PACs are throwing their financial might behind Yates, right-leaning ones are spending big to help French.

Between the National Realtors Association’s PAC, the Washington Realtors’ PAC, the Spokane Home Builders Association’s PAC and the Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State PAC, French has gotten roughly $70,000 in help from independent expenditures.

The Spokane Home Builders Association’s PAC has spent $11,000 on anti-Yates mailers that call the political rookie “radical.”

Many of the mailer’s claims are vague and presented without supporting evidence, so it’s difficult to cleanly categorize them as true or false. Some of its points, however, are clearly misleading.

For example, the mailer gives French a green checkmark for his experience managing multimillion dollar budgets and gives Yates a red X.

It’s technically true that Yates’ department didn’t have multimillion dollar budgets when she worked at the county. The statement is misleading though, because Yates managed millions of dollars in grant funding.

The Spokane Home Builders Association mailer also accuses Yates of not prioritizing public safety.

The Spokane Home Builders Association has sent out thousands of anti-Yates mailers.   (Spokane Home Builders Association PAC)
The Spokane Home Builders Association has sent out thousands of anti-Yates mailers.  (Spokane Home Builders Association PAC)

Yates, who led Spokane County’s criminal justice reform efforts from 2018 until her resignation in January, said she thinks the accusation is completely untrue. She said she’s spent her entire professional career working to improve community safety.

French said he thinks all of the points in the Spokane Home Builders Association ad are accurate and highlighted that he’s the candidate with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s endorsement.

One theme emerges from the Yates attack ads, whether they were paid for by French or independent PACs: They all attempt to paint her as soft on crime.

In a TV ad paid for by French, one of his supporters says Yates wants to give criminals a “get out of jail free card.”

The Spokane Home Builders Association’s ad uses the same line, verbatim, as does a mailer paid for by the Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State PAC.

That mailer even includes two pictures of Monopoly’s mustachioed mascot, Rich Uncle Pennybags, to drive home the message.

Yates said she thinks the “get out of jail free card” claim is inaccurate and unoriginal.

“Voters understand that is a tired and lazy political trope,” she said. “My record and position on public safety is really clear.”

French said he thinks the “get out of jail free card” label is perfectly fair and criticized the work Yates did while serving as regional law and justice administrator.

“Her job was supposed to be an advocate for an equitable criminal justice system,” he said. “Instead of that, she spent that time advocating for a system that would get people out of jail, not protect the public.”

Reducing the county’s jail population was part of Yates’ job.

County leaders for years have said they want to reduce jail crowding because the facility is unsafe and plagued by suicides. Deaths and injuries to inmates have cost the county millions of dollars in lawsuits and settlements since 2000.

French was part of the decision to hire Yates. As a commissioner, he was also was one of her bosses. Any significant decision Yates made as regional law and justice administrator had to receive the commissioners’ approval.

“It’s not as though I was doing this without their support,” she said.

Before the 2022 campaign season began in earnest, French had praised Yates.

“Thanks, Maggie, for all your expertise, your leadership and your diligence to get so many programs into place that have improved the quality of the criminal justice system here,” he said during a January public meeting, after Yates resigned.

On Thursday, French said he and Commissioner Josh Kerns would have fired Yates if she hadn’t resigned and that he only praised her because “from her failures, we learned a lot of things that we would not do again.”