Daniel Walters photo
City Council President Ben Stuckart wants to reform the way elections are conducted in the city of Spokane.
Last year, City Council President Ben Stuckart announced he was running for mayor — in 2019.
Sure, Stuckart ended up dropping his mayoral ambitions
to run against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, then dropping those national ambitions
to deal with family health issues.
But recently, two things have happened: First, the buzz about whether Stuckart may run for mayor, after all, has increased significantly — speculation that Stuckart has neither confirmed nor exactly denied.
Second, Stuckart announced a proposal to dramatically overhaul the city's campaign finance system for mayor, city council and municipal court races.
So that leads to the obvious question: If Stuckart runs for mayor, would his campaign finance changes make it easier or harder for him to win?
That depends on the sort of candidate he's up against.
Stuckart's plan would make it much easier for a candidate to start fundraising late:
It wasn't absurd to announce his run for mayor three years early, Stuckart told us last year, it was necessary. That's the sort of head start that fundraising takes.
"I think I’m going to have to start on fundraising in early 2017," he said then. "Because I think it’s going to take quite a bit."
After all, Mayor David Condon had started fundraising for his reelection almost immediately after winning his first term
. The fact that he'd built up such a huge campaign war chest — nearly $170,000 before 2015 hit — may have contributed to the fact that Condon only attracted a relative unknown as his challenger.
Stuckart's plan, by contrast, would only allow donations to a candidate to occur during the year of the election.
“I’m cutting my own knees off if [I decide to run],” Stuckart says. “If I’m going to announce for mayor, it’s gotta to be next year. And then I’m going to be announcing for mayor, and not be able to raise money and use my built-in advantage.“
Stuckart argues that incumbents would be hurt by his reforms. Incumbents currently have a long time to raise money and an easier time using their position to attract funds.
But Michael Cathcart, director of the pro-business political nonprofit Better Spokane, which generally supports conservative candidates, disagrees.
“Lazy incumbents start campaigning in May,” Cathcart writes in a Facebook message. “Hard-charging challengers start in November or even September of the prior year. A narrow window helps most incumbents.”
Theoretically, under the new rule, it would be easier to jump into the race later and harder to gain a major advantage before other candidates start raising funds.
But in reality, early fundraising has been relatively rare for other candidates.
According to Stuckart aide Adam McDaniel's calculations, Mayor Mary Verner had raised nearly $18,000 for her 2011 reelection battle and Councilwoman Candace Mumm had raised nearly $5,500. Other recent candidates didn't even break $1,000.
And, in terms of mayoral races, it's not like incumbents always have a major advantage. Condon was the first mayor to be re-elected since 1973
A $500 cap would even out some races, and make disparity in others more dramatic:
Right now, donors can give $1,000 in the general and $1,000 in the primary. Stuckart's plan would cut that in half, theoretically giving the little guy a chance to compete with richer incumbents.
, Republicans get larger donations from fewer people and Democrats get smaller donations from more people. That hasn't necessarily always been the case with city council races.
McDaniel ran a crude test on previous council races, testing who the winners and losers would have been if the cap had already been in place.
That scenario may have shifted the outcome of at least one race: It would have increased the fundraising advantage that Richard Rush had over Michael Allen in 2011 by nearly $4,000. In a race determined by only 88 votes, the extra outreach might have mattered.
In many races, however, the financial disparity was so large that the cap wouldn't have had a major effect. Mike Fagan would still have lost $900 in his race against Donna McKereghan, but still held a nearly 2-1 fundraising lead.
Jon Snyder would have lost more than $13,000 in his 2013 race against John Ahern, but he'd still have been ahead by nearly $45,000.
Stuckart would have been hurt by the new rule more than his opponents, but his fundraising lead wouldn't have been in danger. In 2015, Stuckart's fundraising advantage would have fallen from having only 18 times more money than competitor John Ahern to only 14 times as much money. His 2011 lead against Dennis Hession would have fallen from more than $38,550 to a still significant $28,090.
Political parties won't be able to play the heavy:
Few single contributions in Spokane races have been as dramatic as the 2011 decision by the Washington State GOP to suddenly drop $63,000 on candidate David Condon
. It likely played a major role in his sudden, come-from-behind victory, ousting Verner.
Currently, the cap on giving by parties is determined by their number of voters. But with Stuckart's reforms, parties would have the same limitations as everyone else. (Condon would still, however, have had nearly twice as many campaign donations in 2011 as did Verner.)
That would apply to the Democrats as well as the Republicans. In 2015, for example, Stuckart would have lost out on $2,000 from the Spokane County Democratic Central Committee and $2,720 from the Third Legislative District Democrats.
Stuckart's plan would hamstring contractors more than unions:
That might help candidates backed by Democrats.
Contractors and city unions both have a similar conflicts of interest when it comes to donations. The same elected officials they're donating to are the ones making decisions to increase their salaries or award them lucrative contracts.
According to McDaniel's analysis, city unions have donated more than $90,000 directly and indirectly to current elected officials, while contractors have donated more than $88,000.
Stuckart's proposal would ban contractors who've received city contracts worth $50,000 or more in the past two years from donating directly to candidates. (Seattle passed a similar limitation on contractors
The original draft would also have restricted unions from donating while union contracts were open for negotiation. But that was taken out after discussions with the city's legal and HR departments.
"Legal's point was you're just going to create a situation where a mayor or a council will keep a contract open for three or four years in order to keep them out," Stuckart says. Instead, unions will be required to list the amount they've donated to each current elected official on any contract before the council signs them.
Typically, unions, particularly the firefighters union, have backed liberal-leaning candidates in Spokane. That fact has left Cathcart's Better Spokane group with major concerns regarding the balance of power.
"If the purpose of prohibiting private contractors from contributing to political campaigns is to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest then there is no reason this rule should not equally apply to collective bargaining units," says
Better Spokane's Facebook page. "This is one of several concerns we have regarding the proposal and its intentions. If this ordinance passes as written, we believe it would tip the scales in an unfair direction."
Transparency rules would give us a better idea of who's behind sketchy independent ads, but wouldn't cap their spending:
Typically, the sleaziest ads don't come from candidates. They come from independent groups backing one candidate or another.
Take Spokane For Honest Government, the Spokane firefighters union-funded group that ended up inaccurately hitting council candidate Matthew Howes on his restaurant health records
Or let's go back to one of the grossest ads in Spokane's recent history, an anti-Chris Marr ad from "Spokane Families for Change." It falsely claimed
that Marr had ridiculed a woman for her weight and made sexually explicit comments at the car dealership he co-owned.
But it took a bit of digging by the Spokesman-Review
's Jonathan Brunt to figure out
who actually funded the ad. The entirety of Spokane Families for Change's budget came from a westside group called "Working Families for Change," and the entire funding for that
group came from a group called "The Leadership Council."
And just who made up the The Leadership Council? "The biggest donations were from the Republican State Leadership Council, Washington Health Care Association, the Building Industry Association of Washington, the Washington Hospital Association political action committee, Sabey Corp., Katsam, Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Comcast and MillerCoors," Brunt wrote.
The Supreme Court, however, concluded in the 2010 Citizens United
decision that free-speech rights allow an organization to spend as much money as it wants to speak out about a candidate
. (Legally, Greenpeace has just as much of a right to run a 60-minute infomercial about how President Trump's environmental policies are bad as Fox News has the right to run a 60-minute program celebrating those policies.)
But the Supreme Court does
allow for major new transparency requirements. PACs like Better Spokane or Spokane For Honest Government would have to list their top three contributors on their ads — and wouldn't be able to just list another political committee. Instead, they would have to do the work to find out which individuals or businesses have donated to those political committees. For example: Better Spokane might have had to list the Wolff Company, Pearson Packaging Systems and Walt Worthy as their top funders.
PACs wouldn't be able to hide behind other PACs, in other words. And for nonprofits wading into the race with advertisements that aren't considered a political PAC? They're required to submit the names of their top 10 biggest contributions to the city clerk's office, as well as the names of any candidates they support or oppose.
Now, the question is whether voters knowing an ad is funded by the Washington Health Care Association, the Republican State Leadership Council, or the Spokane Firefighters Union would blunt the impact of an ad making false sexual harassment or health inspection allegations.
Not only that, but donors might be more reluctant to fund groups slinging attack ads if their names are directly attached to those ads. In the past, businesses have been swift to distance themselves from sleazy ads once they've been identified as the major funder
So if Stuckart runs for mayor,
would his reforms put him in a better spot? It's hard to say.
He might have less of a massive advantage if he's facing an underfunded underdog like John Ahern. But if he faced a business-backed Republican backed by the Republican Party, like say, former Rep. Kevin Parker? Then the rules against city-contractor donations and the cap on party donations could help him.
In other words, the rules seem like they'd have the biggest impact not on Stuckart's races, but on the routes that Mayor David Condon used to win two terms. No more mega-donations from the state GOP, like Condon used to win in 2011. And no more spending three years fundraising for reelection, like Condon did to win again in 2015.