Past reform efforts proved toothless amid record-breaking spending in 2019.
$1.25 million. That’s the record-breaking spending mark for Spokane’s 2019 mayoral election. In that election, Nadine Woodward narrowly defeated incumbent city council President Ben Stuckart. This year, Woodward is running for re-election, and has raised over $52,000 before any of her current challengers have raised a dime.
The 2019 election saw a major influx of both individual donations to candidates and spending from political action committees (PACs), which aren’t directly tied to the candidates, are more difficult (but not impossible) to track funding for and aren’t tethered to state spending limits. It was also the first test of campaign finance reform laws the city passed in early 2018. With another huge political spending season just getting underway, we wanted to see what impact those reforms had and examine how other communities are addressing the role of money in politics.
Toothless 2018 reforms
Spokane’s Fair Elections Code, went into effect in 2018 after the council overrode a veto by then-Mayor David Condon. The law has three main prongs:
- Political action committees must publish their top three donors.
- Individual donors can only donate 50% of the maximum allowable donation until specific fundraising triggers are met.
- Contractors who do business with the city cannot donate to political campaigns.
In 2019’s elections, disclosure rules brought more public awareness to who was funding hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads, but they didn’t stem the tsunami of independent expenditures flowing into city races. The mayoral race alone saw more than $660,000 in PAC money, which was more than the candidates raised for their campaigns.
Realtors lead the way in spending. The Washington Realtors PAC spent more than $620,000 on 2019 elections with the bulk of the money in support of Woodward and city council president candidate Cindy Wendle.
In part because of the huge influx of PAC spending, Spokane City Council revoked the 50% contribution limit last September. Council member Jonathan Bingle explained the reasoning for lifting the donation cap. “If you can only raise so much money and [independent expenditures by PACs] can raise a lot more than you — and they can spend it how they want — it puts the candidate at a disadvantage and actually gives a lot more power to the independent expenditures.”
Bingle also said he believes that limiting individual donations only invites more opaque spending from political action committees. “I think it would actually make it a lot easier to track money and where it goes if we didn’t have so many limits,” Bingle said.
In September 2022, city council revoked the campaign contribution limits. So, now donors can give $1,000 in the primary and, if they wish, another $1,000 for the general election. That change was championed by Councilman Zack Zappone.
Bingle didn’t support the updated campaign finance laws because it maintained prohibitions on city contractor donations, but did not limit contributions from unions. “Unions and contractors should be treated equally and either there should be limits on both or limits on neither,” Bingle said.
The bill passed 5-2, as has been the case so often during the current council. Mayor Woodward returned the bill unsigned with a note expressing the same concerns as Bingle about the lack of prohibitions on union donations. The note was not a veto, however, and so the legislation took effect despite the mayor’s concerns.
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With unprecedented money coming through PACs in 2019 and the lifting of personal contribution limits last year, the prohibition on contractor donations is the final piece of local campaign finance laws to examine.
The stated purpose of this part of the electoral reform package was to prevent any appearance of pay-to-play campaign-giving from contractors doing business with the city to the elected leaders who approve those contracts. The resolution to pass the ordinance read in part: “contractors have received more than $116 million dollars in City of Spokane contracts after donating $88,000 to current elected officials thereby creating the appearance of quid pro quo corruption.”
Whether or not that corruption exists, and how it manifests are open questions. What isn’t up for debate is that, because of the structure of many of the largest city contracts, these reforms have had little impact on how people doing business with the city are able to financially support their preferred candidate. Part of that is because the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that political donations are a form of protected speech, rendering PAC money beyond the reach of local government law-making. The other part is that the law doesn’t cover many major contracts the city doles out.
The first and most obvious gap between the intent of the law and the power it actually has is that it has no impact on outside spending. While big money donors can only give $1,000 per ballot (a total of $2,000 if they give the maximum in both the primary and general election), those donors can funnel as much money as they want through PACs.
That has set up some curious strategic spending. For example, developer and entrepreneur Larry Stone, who owns the Stone Group of Companies and who leases the Trent shelter building to the city, donated $500 to council member Zack Zappone’s 2021 race, the maximum amount at the time. While Stone contributed to Zappone, he also gave $50,000 to the Spokane Good Government Alliance PAC, which turned around and spent more than $84,000 opposing Zappone.
Stone did not respond to requests for comment on his political spending and how it relates to his decision to buy and then lease the warehouse he owns on Trent Avenue to the city as a homeless shelter.
Stone’s political giving, which has spanned the partisan spectrum over the years, reveals the other gap in the city’s attempts to block people who have high value contracts from donating to political campaigns. Currently, Stone has a $1.86 million lease agreement with the city for the Trent shelter. He’s also donated the maximum amount ($1,000) to Mayor Woodward’s current re-election campaign toward her primary run.
Mayor Woodward and her campaign team did not respond to requests for comment before this story was published. It will be updated if and when they do.
On its face, this seems like the kind of financial relationship that the city’s campaign finance reforms were intended to prevent — but they don’t.
That’s because Spokane’s campaign finance law only applies to competitively bid contracts. This is a nuance that Council President Breean Beggs said he wasn’t aware of until RANGE reached out to him for this story. “I can tell you, as someone who co-sponsored that legislation, the intent was if somebody was leasing a building to the city they should not be donating to city candidates,” Beggs said.
The current letter of the law doesn’t match that intent. The only time the law — which relies on citizen complaints — was tested, this contract loophole was established by mayoral candidate Ben Stuckart. In Stuckart’s successful defense against the campaign finance complaints for receiving donations from Avista, Centurylink, Spirit Pruners and North Gorge Residential Partners, he established that because these contracts weren’t competitively bid, the donations to his campaign were not in violation of the campaign finance law.
Stuckart said that he thinks the law as written makes sense because there’s less chance for corruption when a business, like Avista, doesn’t have any competitors and therefore can’t benefit from the preferential treatment campaign donations could try to buy. “They’re the power provider in this area, so there’s no room for corruption,” he said.
Rather than reform the law to include other contracts, Stuckart said the city should have more competitive bid processes, which would be covered by the existing law. Using the example of the Trent shelter, Stuckart said, “If you were gonna open a shelter, go out to the real estate community and say, who’s got a building?” Then, he said, a competitive process can show the public what options are available and reduce the chance that major financial decisions are happening without public input as the proposals would be public. “At least then you have a fair process that’s open to everybody,” Stuckart said.
That wasn’t the case with the Trent shelter siting decision. Instead, the city administration put forward the warehouse as the only option for the city council to consider, according to multiple council members. The process to site the shelter was “very opaque,” Beggs said. “They never gave me a list of places that are actual options [other than Trent].”
With the city unable to restrict outside PAC spending and a law that doesn’t prevent people doing millions of dollars of business from donating to campaigns, Spokane can’t and isn’t doing much to blunt the influence of money in politics.
More people, less money
An alternative to getting money out of politics is attempting to bring more money from more (and different) people into politics. Since passing a property tax to fund the “Democracy Voucher Program” in 2015, Seattle has been doing just that. The program generates about $3 million dollars a year in taxes that in turn become four $25 vouchers that each Seattle voter can give to a candidate or multiple candidates of their choice each election cycle.
Since 2017, the first year the voucher program was in place, there’s been an uptick in each subsequent election in participation in the program and from 2013 to 2021 more than double the amount of registered voters have contributed to political candidates in the city, according to a Georgetown University study of the program. That participation has increased the diversity of people donating to political campaigns. Since 2017, “some of the largest percentage gains in participation were concentrated among people of color, younger, and lower income residents,” the report found.
Council member Zappone said he likes the idea of vouchers, but he doesn’t think it’s something that could work in Spokane like it has in Seattle. “Seattle has a much larger budget and has some large corporations that allow it to bring in a lot more money into their budget,” he said. “So, they’re able to carve out the money where Spokane doesn’t have that tax.”
Zappone said there’s little room to add funding for something like a voucher program with the city already struggling to pay for necessities like homeless shelters. “You saw the budget last year, we could barely get by.”
While Zappone likes the idea of vouchers, council member Bingle wasn’t supportive of the concept. “I think by doing a tax, taking money from the public, and then giving it to folks… you’re taking money from me to give to somebody I may disagree with,” he said. “I would have a problem with that.”
With a voucher program seemingly out of reach in Spokane, and campaign finance laws that do little to stem the flow of campaign cash, people in Spokane who don’t have the disposable income to spend on elections will continue to take a back seat in the political process.
The current and former local politicians RANGE interviewed for this story said that political donations to their campaigns haven’t had a direct impact on their decisions, but it’s impossible to ignore the hundreds of thousands of dollars private interests spend to influence local politics.
“I think the current levels of campaign contributions to campaigns themselves at $1,000 to $2,000 total … is a good number,” said Zappone. “$2,000 is not gonna make or break a campaign.”
But, Zappone said that unregulated outside expenditures from political interest groups, like the hundreds of thousands spent by the Washington Realtors PAC, “raises the question about how much influence they have and how much say they are getting.”