What’s a Million Dollars?

By October 30, a week before the November 5th, 2019, voting deadline in last fall’s municipal elections, “independent” expenditures topped a million dollars. The previous record for Political Action Committee  (PAC) spending in City of Spokane municipal elections was a mere $176,000 (established in 2013).

Six hundred and twenty thousand dollars, more than half of the total independent expenditures in last fall’s City of Spokane elections ($1,114,000) came from the Washington Realtors Political Action Committee (WA RPAC). That $620,000 was directed by Tom Hormel, the chair of the WA Realtors PAC and, at the same time, a member of the Spokane Association of Realtors’ (SAR) government affairs committee. Mr. Hormel was pivotal in directing this firehose of mostly outside money at the Spokane municipal elections. Most of the WA RPAC money that did come from Spokane came from individual (and mostly unsuspecting?) local realtors who check-boxed a $35 donation to WA RPAC as part of re-upping their membership. Most of those realtors, insofar as they thought about it at all, probably imagined their political donation would go to lobbying efforts on behalf of buying and selling property, not a massive effort to buy an election.

All politics really are local. Most of you probably know one or two of the two thousand or so realtors in Spokane County. The next time you see them, ask what they think about the record amount of money the organization to which they might belong spent on trying to buy the Spokane municipal elections for a slate of Republican candidates, Woodward, Wendle, Cathcart, and Rathbun. Why ask? Because by asking you will let them know that their friends and clients took notice. Asking them might rouse them to take a look at how and by whom their organization spends their donated money. Without the local realtors and members of SAR paying attention to their own organization’s local politics, political operatives like Tom Hormel will feel free to take their money and use it in a similar fashion in coming elections. You don’t have to make a speech to your realtor. All you have to do is ask and listen, and perhaps hint that the news about this money has tainted your feelings about the real estate industry. That alone might be enough to get their attention. (If you want more background on the details of these expenditures check out the archives of my emails at jxindivisible.org. Search WA RPAC or Tom Hormel. Pay attention to dates, since the numbers changed on the way to the Primary and General elections. Similar searches at Spokesman.com or Inlander.com will offer more background.)

Most of the remainder of that more than a million dollars of “independent” expenditures made in the just past Spokane municipal elections came from wealthy individuals involved in real estate development and Republican politics. The money was disguised by the names of the Political Action Committees they funded, of course. Clever names like Spokane Good Governance Alliance PAC and the Concerned Taxpayers of WA State PAC strive to evoke images of grassroots political movements. Hardly. See Who’s Buying the Municipal Elections? Part II for background.)

How much is a million dollars, anyway? For most of us “a million dollars” equates to “a whole lot of money.” I have a hard time wrapping my head around numbers greater than about a thousand. Was that an “m”, a “b”, or a “t”? Million, billion, and trillion are mostly beyond our comprehension. Those numbers require some context to begin to grasp them.

In the department of large numbers one finds the 2020 budget for the City of Spokane. Click and have a look. The total 2020 budget for the City of Spokane is $1,109,975,080. That’s 1.1 billion with a “b”, that’s more than one thousand times the total amount of independent expenditures made by real estate developers and WA RPAC in a gross attempt to elect their slate of candidates to run City of Spokane.

What is an investment of a million dollars relative to a chance to have some say in how a thousand times that, a billion dollars, gets spent? To be sure, that billion is spent on all kinds of things, but it certainly includes tax money spent on infrastructure and municipal services essential to real estate development.

A record million dollars spent on local election “independent” expenditures, although a huge record for Spokane, pales in comparison to the influence it might have purchased. If you believe the folks who contributed to and/or controlled (like Tom Hormel) that million dollar expenditure were motivated by a selfless desire to build housing for the homeless, well, if you believe that, I have a couple of bridges to offer you for sale.

Thanks to campaign finance law in the State of Washington we have the Public Disclosure Commission. It’s regulations are a nuisance to candidates, but without the data the PDC provides on line, we, the voters, would be left in dark. Thanks to the PDC when a gross attempt is made to buy an election is made we can learn whose money it is and guess why they spent it.

Use the information. Talk with your realtor friends. Using our due diligence we can discourage political operatives from making an attempt like this again. Cherish the fact that we retain enough control through the rule of law embodied as the PDC to still see where the money comes from. We need to use these tools.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. As one example of wealthy real estate interests wading into last years municipal elections, Fritz and Katie Wolfe of The Wolfe Co., a “real estate investment firm,” wrote checks totaling $80,000 last year to the Spokane Good Governance Alliance PAC, one of the deceptively named PACs that spent the million dollars. (For reference, $80,000 is $27,000 more than the average household income of Spokane families in 2017.) $80,000 is way more than pocket change for the average voter, but it is a small investment some people hoping to have influence with the slate of candidates they elect.