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Sue Lani Madsen: Shocking news – there’s politics in government

Members of the local progressive media have recently broken the “news” that Republican-leaning staff and political consultants intersect on local, state and national campaigns. Sometimes they might even help each other figure stuff out, like making suggestions on how to improve a piece of writing. And while it’s admitted Democrats connect and collaborate too, it’s somehow sinister when the GOP team does it.

Of course people with common political interests talk to each other. Of course they tap common pools of talent, just like managers in any occupation. Breathlessly breaking news about silken threads of a dark web of national politics entangling local politicians is disgruntled spidey spin.

One columnist painted Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers as lurking at the center of a well-oiled political machine, quietly pulling strings to support Mayor Nadine Woodward in her re-election campaign. It was a pretty partisan perspective. Or as Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, describes it, “Shawn Vestal should be registered as an in-kind contributor to Lisa Brown’s campaign for mayor.”

The silliest evidence of this shadowy web was reported by the Inlander. A college student working part time posting on social media for two campaigns accidentally posted a tweet for McMorris Rodgers to Woodward’s account and then quickly fixed it. It’s the equivalent of a waitress mixing up a lunch order on a split ticket at the Onion. The story was a nothingburger.

But there is another political pitch circulating to local media with a little more meat to it.

This week, several batches of emails from a public records request to the city of Spokane were forwarded to me. In 2020-22, mayoral candidate Brown’s husband Brian McClatchey was clearly networking with his wife in his position as policy adviser to the Spokane City Council and her position as director of the Department of Commerce, manager of state money available to cities. Lots of local Democrats were included on the threads for meetings he set up. And why not cc the head of Commerce to keep a state official up to speed on the local situation? Looks like an efficient way to cut through red tape.

Or it could be described as the operation of a slick statewide Democratic political machine binding local politics to a governor who likes to hold onto power from his tower in Olympia, using state money to influence the narrative around his protégé as she runs for mayor.

See how easy it is to spin a news narrative? A few key adjectives here, a selective emphasis there and you’ve spun your web.

Ostensibly nonpolitical organizations like the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund are another thread in the warp and weft of Spokane’s political fabric. Trustees are Sharon Smith, chairwoman of the Spokane County Democrats from 2005-06 and vice chair of the Washington State Democratic Party from 2009-10, and her husband, 2004 Congressional candidate Don Barbieri. Barbieri has maintained his interest in national politics by donating to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the House Progressive Caucus and Sen. Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed socialist. Smith and Barbieri are still treated as a Democratic power couple in Spokane, although they no longer live here, according to their website.

Smith is reputed to wield her donations to Spokane-area charitable causes with an eye to political as well as philanthropic impacts. She provided key funding to the Camp Hope protest until the state stepped in and extended support to the end of the state’s fiscal year. Coincidentally, it meant a contentious political issue overlapped the start of the mayoral race.

Could be another nothingburger, or it could be a full meal deal. Hard to say, when no one talks about it publicly. We can only pretend to be shocked to discover there’s politics going on.

As partisan leanings have become more obvious in nonpartisan municipal races, political parties have become more involved and that’s not surprising. People who take an interest in politics stay engaged in between higher-profile elections by working with a political party, either as volunteers or consultants. Whether you see a professional network of like-minded political activists or a shadowy cabal conspiring to pull strings behind the scenes depends on whether it’s your web.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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