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Who spends the most on Spokane County elections? Breaking down the biggest donors

Oct. 23, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 24, 2022 at 9:21 a.m.

Michael Baumgartner, one of the best campaign fundraisers in Spokane County history, wishes he could remove money from politics.

“If I had a magic wand, I would ban all political fundraising,” the county treasurer and former state senator said. “We would just have old-timey Lincoln-Douglas debates where you got in front of a crowd and made your case.”

A return to 1850s-style campaigning isn’t happening anytime soon, though. Until it does, money will keep playing a major role in deciding who wins and loses in American politics – even in local races.

In the past 15 years, donors have spent more than $21 million on Spokane County candidates and ballot measures, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission records. That figure excludes donations made in statewide races, federal races and races for legislative districts that aren’t entirely within Spokane County limits. It also excludes nonmonetary donations.

Roughly half of the $21 million has gone to politicians running for the Washington Legislature. Political committees advocating for or against ballot propositions have received under a million. About $9 million has gone to local politicians, such as mayors, county commissioners and school board leaders.

At least $2.8 million in cash has gone toward independent expenditures, which are investments made without input from candidates or parties. Unlike donations to candidates, independent expenditures are unrestricted by federal law.

People have outspent PACs, businesses and unions.

Individual donors have given candidates more than $9 million since 2007. Businesses, unions and political action committees combined have spent $9 million, too. The Republican and Democratic parties themselves, which under Washington law can usually give candidates more than the $1,000 per-election maximum that applies to other donors, have contributed $1 million.

Those millions of dollars influence state and local government. Many politicians and prominent donors say they wish that wasn’t the case.

“The ability to participate in American democracy shouldn’t come down to who can fundraise the best,” Baumgartner said.

Randy Marler, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29, said he believes campaign finance laws should be more restrictive.

But until reforms happen, Marler said, donors are going to play the game the way lawmakers have designed it.

“I think it’s a terrible system,” he said. “But it’s the world we live in.”

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Businesses

No one has donated more to Spokane County politicians than Avista.

And there isn’t a close second.

Since 2007, the energy company has invested $375,000 in politicians and ballot propositions. About $184,000 has gone directly to candidates for the state Legislature or local offices, while $225,000 has gone toward ballot measures. The utility has spent an additional $199,000 on independent expenditures.

For context, the runner-up in campaign donations among businesses is Premera Blue Cross, which has given $66,000 in the last 15 years.

Avista often gives the maximum allowed by state law and almost always supports incumbents, regardless of party affiliation.

Collins Sprague, Avista’s senior director of government relations, said the company has been politically active since the dawn of the public power movement and the rise of economic regulations in the 1930s.

Sprague said Avista makes donations with the intent of promoting economic development and improving the lives of its customers.

“We care about their welfare and what it takes for them to have a good quality of life here in Spokane and other communities,” he said. “Without our customers, we’re not in business.”

Sprague said Avista only makes donations out of dividends that would otherwise go to shareholders, not customer funds.

After Avista, some of the top business donors since 2007 include Delta Dental, the tobacco giant Altria and BNSF Railway Co., to name a few.

Big companies tend to be more interested in state legislative races than city or county offices.

For example, Premera Blue Cross since 2007 has donated more than $55,000 to state lawmakers, such as 6th Legislative District Republican Sen. Jeff Holy and 3rd Legislative District Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli. The health care company has given $11,000 to city and county politicians, such as former County Commissioner Todd Mielke and former Spokane Mayor David Condon.

Builders and contractors focus more on local races.

The Max J. Kuney Co. is second to Avista in donations to city and county politicians, with $23,000 spent since 2007. Baker Construction and Development, Garco Construction and Harley C. Douglass Inc. have all spent more than $10,000 on local elections in that time, too.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

PACs and unions

Unions and trade associations that pool their financial resources are able to have an outsized impact in Spokane County politics.

In recent years, political action committees representing Realtors, developers and builders have been huge donors in local elections. They’ve been especially prolific when it comes to independent expenditures.

For instance, the Washington Realtors PAC in 2019 spent more than $250,000 on independent expenditures supporting Cindy Wendle’s unsuccessful campaign for Spokane City Council president and nearly $265,000 backing Nadine Woodward’s successful run for Spokane mayor. The National Association of Realtors last year spent more than $150,000 in support of Spokane City Council candidates Jonathan Bingle (who won) and Mike Lish (who lost).

Real estate organizations, builders and contractors wield enormous financial might and are clear leaders when it comes to independent expenditures. None of their PACs is No. 1 for candidate donations, though.

Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 since 2007 has contributed $112,000 to candidates and spent $152,000 on ballot propositions through Citizens for Liberty and Labor.

Marler said the firefighters union became more politically active as a response to falling staffing levels.

In the 1980s, the Spokane Fire Department had about 83 firefighters working every day answering 10,000 to 15,000 calls a year, Marler said. In the 2010s, calls had more than doubled while the number of firefighters working per day had fallen to 58.

“We get involved in the political process as a means to serve our mission, which is to improve the lives and livelihood of our professional firefighters,” he said. “It’s not just a safety issue for firefighters that we have appropriate staffing, it’s also a safety issue for the public.”

The firefighters union almost exclusively donates to liberal candidates.

Marler said he thinks the American campaign finance system is broken. He lamented the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling commonly referred to as Citizens United, which allowed unlimited federal election spending by unions and corporations and led to the rise of super PACs.

“I don’t like what we do,” he said. “We’re just trying to compete on the playing field that others have set.”

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Individuals

Spokane residents as a whole have easily outspent businesses, unions and PACs.

The list of top individual donors includes some of Spokane County’s richest, most powerful residents.

Duane Alton, who owned Alton’s Tires before selling it to Tire-Rama in 2008, has spent far more than anyone else.

In the past 15 years, Alton has given more than $70,000 to dozens of conservatives. He’s also spent tens of thousands more resisting school levies. Alton declined to comment on his political donations.

Former Spokane County Republican Party Chairwoman Cindy Zapotocky has been a generous donor, too, with nearly $54,000 contributed since 2007.

Former Red Lion Hotels CEO Don Barbieri leads liberals in campaign contributions with $51,500. His partner, former Spokane County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sharon Smith, has donated $50,000.

A disproportionate number of the top individual donors are developers and real estate investors. Doctors, advertising executives, accountants and car dealership owners also appear among the top 20.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Spending in 2022

Total political spending likely will hit record highs in Spokane County this year.

As of Monday, donors had given candidates more than $2.2 million in cash during the 2022 election cycle. With less than three weeks to go until the November election, 2022 donations will almost certainly surpass the previous record of $2.3 million set in 2014.

But despite the record-setting pace, spending this year has been fairly typical. Lots of familiar names, including the Spokane Firefighters Union, Avista and development industry PACs, have been investing heavily.

The National Association of Realtors has spent $77,000 on independent expenditures to help Republicans Al French and Michael Cathcart as they run for seats on the Spokane County Commission.

Among liberal-leaning PACs, Spokane Community Against Racism and Our Votes Count are the leaders, combining for more than $170,000 in independent expenditures. Spokane Community Against Racism is trying to keep Republican Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell from winning re-election while Our Votes Count has given money to a handful of Democrats running for county office.

Not all of the top donors in 2022 have been regularly involved in Spokane County politics.

Open Democracy, a left-leaning national super PAC, has spent $75,000 on mailers in an effort to help Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton win re-election as she runs against Republican challenger Bob McCaslin.

Two of the Inland Northwest’s most recognizable politicians have been pouring thousands of dollars into state and local races on their own.

Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has contributed $10,500 to county and state legislative candidates through her campaign fund.

Her 2018 opponent has essentially done the same.

Washington State Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown has given $9,000 left over from her 2018 congressional race against McMorris Rodgers to liberal candidates for state and local office.

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