If you've watched the recent presidential and vice presidential debates, you may have heard the refrain, "We're not going to go negative "more than a few times. Since everything those candidates say has been thoroughly poll-tested, it would seem to suggest that somebody somewhere thinks Americans are fed up with negative campaigning. Whether George W. Bush and Al Gore can keep things on a higher plane remains to be seen, but here in Spokane, the race for strong mayor has already slipped into the negative. And both candidates -- Mayor John Talbott and John Powers -- say it's not their fault.
A new group with some familiar backers has inserted itself into the strong mayor campaign, and although its efforts are designed to benefit Talbott, the mayor says he has nothing to do with the independent campaign. Meanwhile, both candidates are forced to deal with questions about how the campaign is being waged rather than spend valuable time talking about what they would do if elected.
Citizens for Fair and Open Government (CFOG) is spending money on mailers and TV ads that say, "We don't know anything about John Powers. "While the group was started just a few weeks ago, its list of contributors is similar to other groups that have sprung up around previous campaigns, like the Lilac City Garden Club, which was supported by Valley businessman Bernard Daines and Metropolitan Mortgage and helped fund the campaigns of Steve Corker and Steve Eugster. CFOG has received contributions from those two and also boasts the support of Dave Sabey, the former owner of NorthTown Mall who supported Talbott in 1997. CFOG also shares a staffer with the Lilac City Garden Club: Penny Moyer has served as treasurer for both groups.
While Talbott points out that independent groups can say what they want, he adds that, "they're asking a lot of provocative questions, and that's what this campaign needs. "
The Powers campaign, which has been riding high since its surprising showing in the primary, has criticized the message of CFOG, saying it's misleading and negative in a way that will turn voters away from the political process. A recent mailer from CFOG carries kernels of truth, but is misleading in the way most campaign ads are: it offers selective information, leaving it to the other candidate to provide the rest of the story. For example, the mailer points out that Powers' law firm received about $250,000 in legal fees from the city -- but it doesn't mention that it was for work unrelated to the River Park Square issue. It says the developers of River Park Square sent him a campaign contribution -- but it doesn't mention that he sent it back. Powers has received -- and kept -- contributions from attorneys involved in the parking garage issue, including Duane Swinton, and his own treasurer, Mike Ormsby, who is bond counsel for the Public Development Authority that issued the controversial parking garage bonds.
The mailer, which features a shadowy puppet figure on one side, is also significant in that it contains information that closely mirrors points raised in a so-called "push poll "conducted on the weekend of Sept. 30. So far, no one has taken responsibility for the mysterious push poll, which consisted of callers asking Spokane citizens if they knew certain things about the candidates. While comments about Talbott were of the, "Did you know he drives a government car? "variety, people who received the calls say the questions about Powers suggested that he is supported by Spokane's Cowles family, that he has received $250,000 in attorneys' fees over River Park Square and that he is a personal friend of the Cowles family.
While people who fit the establishment profile are certainly behind Powers, he appears to have no personal ties to the Cowles family. That many of the issues in the push poll are showing up almost verbatim in CFOG's campaign makes Powers' supporters, like Campaign Manager Susan Brudnicki, think the new group was behind the calls. But Brendan Hill, CFOG's campaign manager, says he, too, doesn't know who is behind the push poll. Hill even suggests (as does Talbott himself) that Powers' campaign may have made the calls to be able to claim a negative campaign was being waged. Powers' campaign denies the charge.
Equally mysterious is who hired a private investigator to gather negative information on Powers, as was first reported by KREM-TV this week.
Still, the Powers campaign is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Also mentioned in the poll is the fact that John Powers was named in three lawsuits, and many are expecting that fact to be the next issue to be used against him. Here's where it gets complicated.
Powers, a bankruptcy attorney, was one of many individuals and groups to be sued by Spokane resident Duncan McNeil. John Munding, the attorney who has handled the case for Powers and his firm, Paine Hamblen, says that Powers has been cleared and is no longer a defendant in any of the suits. But McNeil, in a rebuttal to an Oct. 6 Spokesman-Review story he faxed to The Inlander, claims that Powers is still on the hook for the case in Spokane federal court. Sources inside the newspaper confirm that McNeil has since threatened to sue The Spokesman-Review for misrepresenting him and his case. Munding says the newspaper's story was correct in clearing Powers.
While these legal issues are aired out, it's clear that the issue of the lawsuits is seen by some as campaign fodder and may be coming to your mailbox someday soon. Some Talbott supporters say privately that The Review is showing its true pro-Powers colors by not covering the lawsuits more aggressively -- suggesting that if Talbott was being sued, it would be front-page news for a month.
But Powers supporters say relying on issues like who has contributed to his campaign and the lawsuits, which they characterize as frivolous, will be viewed by the voters as negative and could backfire on CFOG and, ultimately, Talbott. And they add that this election is following a pattern that has been established in previous races.
"It's exactly what happened three years ago, "says Jack Geraghty, who lost to Talbott when he ran for reelection. "It's even the same people. "
Geraghty says there were push polls used against him, too, that not only got into the Lincoln Street Bridge and River Park Square issues but also referenced his impending divorce with untrue allegations about child support payments. Geraghty adds that the funding for the shadow campaign that helped topple him only showed up on state Public Disclosure Reports after the election, and they closely match the contributors to CFOG.
Keith Johnson says he had a similar thing happen to him in the Democratic primary to face Sen. James West two years ago. On the weekend before the primary, Democratic households were blanketed by a mailer that featured a sinister gunsight target with the question, "Who is Keith Johnson? "Johnson lost the primary by some 500 votes, and West defeated Judy Personett in the general election.
If the mailer's "Who is...? "message sounds familiar to the one just sent about Powers, it's because they're both the work of Stan Shor, a political consultant from Olympia who has worked on several Spokane races. He is currently working for CFOG. Erik Skaggs, who was a political strategist before becoming Met Mortgage's director of community relations, has worked with Shor on campaigns in the past and says he doesn't think Shor was behind the recent push poll because Shor doesn't think they are effective. Skaggs adds that he hasn't been active as a strategist in any campaign this year, although his company has given money to both Talbott and CFOG.
Meanwhile, Hill says his mission is more anti-Cowles than pro-Talbott. He says he is motivated by the debacle of the parking garage. While Talbott says he isn't working with CFOG, he agrees that River Park Square is perhaps the biggest issue in the race. All this wondering about who Powers is really boils down to a suggestion that he is the "Cowles guy, "and that he would return things to the way they were before the new majority took over -- including dropping the lawsuit and letting the Cowles have access to the city's parking meter fund. Between CFOG's current and planned efforts and Talbott's campaign rhetoric, this appears to be the underlying strategy of the mayor's reelection campaign. So rather than playing up Powers' lack of municipal experience, which Talbott does on the stump, the mayor's campaign may, if CFOG gets its way, become a referendum on River Park Square.
"We will not find out the truth about River Park Square if Powers is elected, "states Hill.
But it could prove to be a risky strategy. While it's not clear that the new strong mayor could drop the lawsuit even if he wanted to, Powers has never promised to do that. Rather, he has called for mediation or arbitration of the dispute -- something a strong majority of citizens supported in a KXLY/Inlander poll back in May. Hill, however, says arbitration will keep the people from finding out what really happened with the garage.
It's also not clear that a majority of the people is as incensed as some elected officials. As the mall has filled out, acceptance of the project may have increased. And there's national and statewide precedents for such acceptance of public/private partnerships, no matter how unfair. It can be argued that anyone who is now cheering for the Seattle Mariners, which received a huge state boost for Safeco Field, is complicit in a subsidy far larger than the one enjoyed by River Park Square. And anyone who criticizes River Park Square, but who supports the candidacy of George W. Bush, could be suffering from a mild case of hypocrisy for overlooking the fact that the presidential contender presided over one of the biggest public subsidies in the history of Texas. After the city of Arlington gave Bush's Texas Rangers $135 million in cash and the power to seize valuable property near the team's new stadium project, Bush wound up profiting by 2500 percent on his initial investment when the team was sold. The message? If it's popular and the promise -- however shaky -- of an expanding tax base can be made, people can be pretty forgiving.
Still, the spectacle of a largely poor city lending a helping hand to the likes of Nordstrom remains a hot issue for many, including Hill and Talbott. Whether it adds up to being enough people to win an election remains to be seen.
Talbott appears more amused than anything by the charge of dirty campaigning. "I'm a big boy, and I've been through this before, "he says. "When special interest groups who have been controlling this system for years see a threat to them, they cry foul. "
But his comment, true or not, raises yet another challenge as he seeks to become the first mayor to be reelected in Spokane since 1973: While running as an outsider was an easy sell three years ago, now that his faction has taken control of City Hall, it gets harder for people to view him as an outsider. It's almost the same problem that confounded Newt Gingrich when he rose to power back in 1995.
Skaggs thinks the questions about Powers are adding up, and that people will get behind Talbott in the end because they trust him. "The voters know where the mayor stands. "