The secrets to wooing the Spokane Association of Realtors

click to enlarge FROM LEFT: Spokane Association of Realtors' Tom Clark, Eric Johnson and Darin Watkins. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
FROM LEFT: Spokane Association of Realtors' Tom Clark, Eric Johnson and Darin Watkins.

The Spokane Association of Realtors, in all likelihood, made Nadine Woodward the mayor of Spokane.

It's difficult to say, of course, what would have happened if the Realtors association hadn't summoned a quarter-million dollars in independent expenditures to support the former newscaster two years ago. But even if the Realtors' ads only convinced 500 voters out of more than 68,000 to vote for Woodward, that would have been enough to swing the election.

And this year, they've doubled down, targeting a combined $247,000 in state and national Realtor PAC independent expenditures to support two conservative Spokane City Council candidates, Jonathan Bingle and Michael Lish.

That money — which far outstrips what either candidate has in their own campaign coffers — paid for online ads, phone calls, mailers, text messages, even door-to-door canvassers.

The Realtors argue that their endorsements of candidates aren't partisan — that they're laser focused on the issue of who's the best on housing policy at a time when a housing shortage has sent rents and home prices skyrocketing. They're calling for deregulation to allow denser development in both the cities and the outskirts.

"I guess there came some point when we finally just said, 'If it's not us, who is going to argue for housing?'" says Darin Watkins, the Spokane Association of Realtors director of government affairs. "We just need housing. It's not a red, it's not a blue or green or orange issue — it's a need."

Critics — including candidates like City Council candidate Zack Zappone — have decried the Realtors' influence on the race as something more pernicious.

"I think voters need to be asking themselves, why have the [Realtors] invested so much money on this race?" Zappone says. "What do they expect in return?"

Instead of focusing on candidates with housing policy expertise they may clash with, the Realtors have been just as likely to champion comparative blank slates who are receptive to their input.

"It's not because we want to control the candidates," Spokane Association of Realtors President Eric Johnson says, "as much as, 'Will you just listen to us?'"

HOW TO WIN THE REALTORS' FAVOR

Eight or nine years ago, the National Association of Realtors decided to become a political force. They quickly recognized where they could wield the most power.

"They could put a bazillion dollars in the national level and have very little effect, or put substantially less dollars into local [races] and have a lot more effect on housing issues," says Tom Clark, chair of the Government Affairs Committee for the Spokane Realtors.

But to decide where to spend all that money, the National Association of Realtors relies on local associations in places like Spokane for guidance. Think of the local Realtors associations like ground troops who can call in airstrikes from state and national PACs.

Watkins petitions the state and national organizations to support ideal candidates who may find themselves in tight races. The national association even pays for their own polling to test the waters.

"They will come back and say we think your candidate has this kind of a chance," Watkins says.

But first, the Spokane Realtors had to judge whether each candidate was worthy of their support. It starts with giving the candidates a questionnaire, then an interview.

All the council candidates who made it through the primary agreed with the Realtors that we need to change zoning to allow for denser development on smaller lot sizes. But Bingle and Lish gained extra points by being the only candidates in their races, according to the Realtors, to support expanding the borders in the county where dense housing can be built. Bingle's opponent, Naghmana Sherazi, meanwhile, lost points in the Realtors' eyes by pushing for more tenant-protection regulations.

"I have four degrees, and I'm struggling hard to make ends meet," Sherazi says, stressing why she believes capping rents are necessary. "There are tons of people like me."

Johnson says that their direct candidate donations in the past decade have covered the political spectrum, ranging from Democrats like Washington state Rep. Marcus Riccelli to Republicans as far right as former state Rep. Matt Shea. They even endorsed Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson over her since-disqualified challenger Tyler LeMasters — despite the fact that the more conservative LeMasters was a Realtor.

"We're bipartisan," Johnson says of the state association. "We're the biggest PAC in the state, and our record's 50/50."

But the Realtors fire their heavy artillery in a much more lopsided direction: This past decade in Washington state, the vast majority of the top 20 recipients of independent expenditures from state or national Realtor PACs have been directed at conservative-leaning candidates. The handful of Democrats — like Seattle Mayoral Candidate Bruce Harrell and state Sen. Mark Mullet — were in races facing opponents further to their left.

All this, however, has risked backlash from their own politically diverse membership.

"Many, many individual Realtors have reached out to say they're not happy with this," Zappone says. "They're not getting a say."

HOW TO LOSE THE REALTORS' FAVOR

Two years after losing the mayoral election, former candidate Ben Stuckart thought he'd nailed that interview two years ago. He still doesn't quite understand how he lost out on the Realtors' endorsement to Woodward. His entire campaign was launched on the premise of building more housing in the city.

Watkins says he remembers Stuckart coming into his Realtors endorsement interview brimming with confidence and presenting a detailed plan. It's just that the Realtors thought it was a bad one, Watkins says, scoffing in particular at Stuckart's plan to build more affordable housing in the city's dense "centers and corridors" zones on arterials and neighborhood hubs.

"Our Realtors looked at the centers and corridors and said, 'You realize that's the most expensive housing in the city?'" Watkins says.

But Nadine Woodward? Watkins says she came in and said she didn't have all the answers, but knew who did: The people who were interviewing her. And she promised when she was mayor they would be a part of the group coming up with solutions. The Realtors, who were also displeased with Stuckart's receptiveness to their input as council president, went with Woodward.

Zappone's experience played out in a similar fashion. He disagreed with the Realtors on a number of issues, including concentrating development on centers and corridors.

"There wasn't a lot of give," Clark says. "I think the committee — at least I sure did — felt Lish was more malleable. More willing to say, 'I don't know everything there is to know about this subject... Tell me what you think.'"

But Zappone says it felt like when he walked into the interview the committee had already decided who to support. There was no in-depth conversation and few, if any, clarifications about the answers on his questionnaire, he says: just nice to meet you, here's a souvenir coffee mug, see you later.

"As much as the Zappone thinks the Realtors are against him," Clark says, "The truth is we're not against him, we're in favor of his opponent."

They've dumped over $144,000 into supporting Lish, Clark points out, but they haven't spent anything on negative advertising.

Contrast that with the Spokane Good Government Alliance, which last week sent out a flyer attacking "Radical Zack Zappone." It cites a statement from Zappone's Realtors candidate questionnaire where he supported the city moving toward "prohibition of natural gas," a position Zappone has since disavowed.

While Watkins told the Inlander that the Realtors "have a proprietary agreement with the candidates not to reveal their answers," the Good Government Alliance says "several local members of the Spokane Association of Realtors shared Mr. Zappone's questionnaire with us."

Watkins says he'd shared Zappone's answer on natural gas with Avista, but no one else. He also says, however, that there may be a reason, beyond polling, that the National Association of Realtors is spending more money to elect his opponent than, say, to elect Bingle.

"Mr. Zappone put out some nasty anti-Realtor messaging," Watkins says. "If somebody has come out as anti-Realtor, it does influence the national committee."

"We all know the Realtors spend thousands to try to choose our lawmakers. And liberals, conservatives, and folks in the middle are tired of it," Zappone wrote in a press release in July. "Voters' voices are being diluted by the Realtors' money."

That's one downside of all of the mailers and doorbelling from the Realtors, Lish says — you get accused of being a bought-and-paid-for sellout.

"We both aligned and that's it," Lish says. "Not selling my soul to anybody."

Both Bingle and Lish note that their opponents sought the Realtors endorsement, too.

"If Naghmana had received their endorsement, would she be a puppet for the Realtors?" Bingle says. "No. She's a principled woman. And I say the same thing about myself. I'm a principled man."

That means leaders that the Realtors spend a fortune to elect can just as easily disappoint them.

Asked about Mayor Woodward's performance so far, the leaders from the Spokane Association of Realtors offer a mix of rationalizations and frustrations, but few hosannas. The city's severely understaffed. It still hasn't found a planning director. Woodward wants to spend money reserved for affordable housing on a homeless shelter instead.

"The mayor's had a lot of challenges, right?" Johnson says. "And this is her first term. And COVID's been a nightmare." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...