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Shawn Vestal: Team Cathy helps drive local politics, but mum’s the word

If the Cathy McMorris Rodgers machine is hand-puppeting some of the fund-raising, policy-making and PR ploys of conservative politics in Spokane city government – an undercurrent that was illuminated in detail last week in the Inlander – the question is: Why do the local politicians she’s helping tie themselves into knots to keep it quiet?

It’s not really a difficult question. The congresswoman is an electoral juggernaut in Eastern Washington, but the city of Spokane is one place in McMorris Rodgers Country that is not McMorris Rodgers Country.

Consider the indigo cast of recent elections among city voters (according to a breakdown by Logan Camporeale, a local elections data wonk and historian working on a project identifying racist housing covenants in Eastern Washington).

Among voters in the city, McMorris Rodgers trailed Lisa Brown by 17 percentage points the 2018 race. In 2022, the congresswoman trailed Democratic challenger Natasha Hill by 11 points.

The city went for Hillary by 10 points and Biden by 17.

You see the pattern. We’re an island in a district McMorris Rodgers’ mostly dominates. Which is why city candidates and office-holders on the right – from former Mayor David Condon to current Mayor Nadine Wodward to the conservative candidates who are pretending not to be conservative – have done their best to obscure their connections to the congresswoman and GOP politics, often pretending to be mere ideological blanks, pure and unopinionated non-partisans whose only values are “common sense” and “safety” and who are disgusted by how political other people are.

The Inlander story outlined a network of consultants with ties to the congresswoman, as well as current and former staffers, operating as the wind beneath the wings of political activities on the local right. That has included helping put together the appearance of support for the misbegotten Trent shelter (putting millions into the pockets of a Woodward donor) to organizing PR for a push to expand laws sanctioning homeless sweeps to coordinating criticisms of the participation of Councilman Zack Zappone in the redistricting process.

This web also threads into the email bombardment of City Council members by a small group of wealthy property owners, as well as the cozy, favor-granting relationship between that group and Police Chief Craig Meidl.

The resulting picture is that of a political machine gliding on the surface of city politics like a swan, while paddling furiously and constantly under the water.

This overlap of national and local politics came amusingly to light recently when the mayor’s campaign account sent out a tweet boasting “I am proud to have led the passage of the HALT Fentanyl Act two weeks ago in the House” above an image with the word, “Cathy.” It was obviously meant to appear on the account of McMorris Rodgers; apparently a social media staffer working for both of them made a simple mistake.

Not a huge deal. Just an enlightening one.

The most illustrative example in the Inlander piece about the participation of Team Cathy in city politics – as well as the lengths people go to hide it – involved an ethics complaint filed in May 2022 against former City Council President Ben Stuckart.

The complaint was advanced by Councilman Jonathan Bingle, who charged that Stuckart had improperly participated in discussions about a homeless shelter operator when he was up for a job with one of the candidates. It might have seemed strictly like a case of inside baseball at City Hall.

Local politics at it localiest.

But in fact the complaint was carefully attended by Team Cathy – which Bingle denied when the Inlander asked him about it last year. In fact, the complaint and a news release announcing it were worked on by three separate people with ties to the congresswoman.

Emily Strode, a consultant who was a former campaign manager for McMorris Rodgers, helped put together the complaint and news release. Another consultant and former longtime McMorris Rodgers finance director, Dawn Sugasa, “reviewed and tweaked,” the news release, the Inlander reported. And the congresswoman’s deputy chief of staff, Patrick Bell, helped doctor up the “quotes” from Bingle in the news release.

You might say that all politics is built on connections and associations, and you’d be right. You might note that political consultants of all stripes tend to swim in the same ideological pond, and you’d be right. You might point out that news releases are heavily doctored propaganda, not instruments of truth – and you’d be right.

You might also point out that city politics – while technically non-partisan – have been obviously divided into partisan camps for a while now. The members of the liberal majority absolutely have connections in the world of Democratic politics.

Still, the extent of Team Cathy’s involvement in local politics is unusual even in that context, both in the degree of involvement and the efforts to keep it out of sight.

There’s plenty of help for those who want to join the team. But mum’s the word.

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