Citizens United Comes to Spokane County

Dear Group,

As a customer and small stockholder of the Avista Corporation, I am really peeved reading the document I posted above. Avista has an effective monopoly on the sale of electricity and natural gas in much of eastern Washington, North Idaho, and beyond. They are also a private company with a big profit motive. So what is Avista doing pouring an overwhelming amount of money into the re-election campaigns of two sitting Spokane County Commissioners?

Transparency is only as useful as one’s willingness to look. Thanks primarily to the efforts of Democrats we, as citizens, have a transparent window through which to look at the money spent on the election of candidates for office in Washington State. It is called the Public Disclosure Commission. You can visit here:

Check out the above document from the PDC website. Avista paid $99,517 each for the production of TV ads in support of two candidates for County Commissioner, Al French and Mary Kuney. Is that a lot of money to spend in races for Commissioner? Yes, in fact, it is a breathtaking amount. Here are the total amounts raised by the candidates (exclusive of Avista’s “independent” expenditures) for these two seats. (Click on the name to link to the raw data at the Public Disclosure Commission as of October 15):

Al French  $92,392.44

Robbi Anthony  $5,216.93

Mary Kuney  $85,903.37

Rob Chase  $20,859.59

Eye-popping, isn’t it? With this nearly $200,000 “independent” expenditure Avista Corporation is weighing in on the basis of its “free speech rights as a corporate person” (Read here, here, and here for background and detail on the Citizens United v. FEC decision that made this legal.)

Someone or several someones at Avista Corporation made the decision to spend $200,000 of the money Avista made to support two candidates for Spokane County Commissioner. That total amount is nearly as much as raised by all four candidates combined to date.

Why is Avista weighing in on two County Commissioner races? What does Avista expect of Mr. French and Ms. Kuney in exchange for this wad of money, this “independent” expenditure, supporting their incumbency? As a corporation Avista’s primary duty is to its own corporate profit. This two hundred thousand expenditure should raise eyebrows. 

I find the Spokane County method for selecting County Commissioners rather odd. In the Primary (last August 7) candidates run in one of three Districts, but in the following General Election each of the three seats is voted county-wide. Robbi Katherine Anthony faced off against Mr. French in District 3 and beat Mr. French, 26,023 to 18,726 (55 to 45%). I imagine Mr. French finds those numbers a little worrisome. However, roughly 144,000 ballots were cast in the entire county in the Primary. The field of voting for this position in the November General election is the whole county. Furthermore, ballot turn-in is likely to be higher, so the field of votes to woo for this seat is much larger.

I will cast my vote for Robbi Katherine Anthony. Avista’s profit-driven massive expenditure in Mr. French’s support only underlines business relations that are a little too cozy. French is vehemently against expanding the County Commissioner seats from three to five. He threatens to take Washington State to court (on our dime) to contest the issue. This sounds to me like a man on the losing side of an argument desperately trying to consolidate his power–and now Avista is loudly defending him in monetary “corporate speech.” Is Avista afraid of losing a cozy arrangement that defends their profits?

Robbi Katherine Anthony is young, personable, smart, highly conversant in the digital world (she owns two local tech businesses), and she’s in favor of expanding the number of Commissioners to better represent the county’s residents.  It’s time for a new face in that seat. For more, read the Inlander article or the Spokesman article. (Better yet, read both articles and ponder the subtle differences in slant.)

The other County Commissioner race, between Mary Kuney and Rob Chase, is a tough one for me. Ms. Kuney has  four times the war chest of Mr. Chase, (Nine times if you count Avista’s help.) It seems to me Chase is more likely to speak truth to business power and stand up against cozy relationships on the County Commission, but his involvement with Northwest Grassroots, the white supremacist, conspiracy-theory-fueled local Republicans, and his rabid conservatism make me very uncomfortable. Avista’s weighing in Avista’s self interest is in danger of pushing me over the edge in favor of Chase. Perhaps I’ll re-think that Kuney sign in my front yard. 

Keep to the High Ground,


P.S. After you click on a candidate name (above) to go to the PDC website, click around to see who has contributed money to these candidates. Form your own opinions.

P.P.S. Yesterday morning Amy Edelen of the Spokesman covered this story on the front page of the Spokesman. I invite you to read it here. Ms. Edelen does not mention the $100,000 investment per candidate by Avista is more than either candidate has been able to raise on their own. Ms Edelen writes, “Collins Sprague, who is Senior Director of Government Relations for Avista Corp., said the independent expenditures – which are funded by company shareholders and not included in utility rates – were made pursuant to state law in support of each candidate”.  Avista Corp. does maintain accounting that keeps Avista Utility earnings separate from its political speech activities, that is, Avista Utilities cannot claim political speech as a cost of its doing business as a utility when asking for a rate hike.  On the other hand, profit finally made from the utilities business feeds Avista Corp.  In any case, I am a shareholder and I DISAPPROVE of the message. I acknowledge Avista is within its legal rights, thanks to Citizens United’s ludicrous concept of corporate personhood and free speech. Legality makes the expenditure no less deplorable as an example of overwhelming and egregious corporate election meddling.

NOTE: this archived missive has been modified from the original email to reflect the relationship between Avista Utilities and Avista Corp.