Every elected official from Spokane County was invited to a meeting last Tuesday with the Spokane Complete Count Committee, an alliance of local organizations tasked with making sure that everyone — particularly underrepresented groups who don't trust the census — get counted this year.
But only one got asked not to attend: Rep. Matt Shea, the controversial Spokane Valley Republican currently under investigation by the Washington state House, which is looking into whether Shea promoted political violence or has been involved with groups who do.
Larry Valadez, with the Hispanic Business/Professional Association, says he recently received a call from Alex Panagotacos, Spokane County Census Committee Coordinator for the community Innovia Foundation, letting him know that Shea might be in attendance.
"We told her that we’re not comfortable with him being present, and that we would prefer he not be involved with the census committee [if he was]," Valadez says. "I told her, 'That is not a problem if you want to invite him. But if he comes, we’re not going to stay. We’re going to seek out other affiliations.'"
Shelly O'Quinn, CEO of Innovia, says she contacted Shea on Monday to raise the concerns about his presence.
"I talked to Matt on Monday and he said that he wasn’t even familiar with the meeting and was not planning on attending," she says.
But at a Tuesday meeting of the Spokane Complete Count Committee, Shea's new legislative assistant, Shea Layton, did make an appearance. Several attendees said they witnessed O'Quinn ask Layton to talk with her out in the hall, and after a lengthy conversation, Layton came back in, collected his stuff and left.
O'Quinn says she and Layton spoke with Shea over speakerphone.
"Given the recent media reports, there were folks in the room that were uncomfortable sharing in the meeting," O'Quinn says. "We wanted to ensure that [Shea's legislative] district was well-represented and that everyone was comfortable with being around the table... and I suggested that they consider not attending this meeting, and they had agreed."
O’Quinn says she didn’t consider her request for Shea to not attend the meeting to be rescinding the original invitation. She says that Shea or his assistant could have attended the meeting despite her request, but chose not to.
But it's not just Valdez who wants to make sure Shea isn't involved. Kamau Chege, a former Whitworth University student and a left-wing activist, is the manager of the Washington Census Alliance, a collection of 70 different organizations for minority groups around the state. He knows how important perception is when it comes to the census.
"Rep. Matt Shea represents a local clear and present danger to our ability to have communities of colors, immigrants — people who are historically undercounted — to trust the process," Chege says. "People who have a fear or distrust of government, they aren’t always well-informed that the census is very safe."
The census has a particularly fraught history when it comes to minority groups. In the 1940s the U.S. government used census information to round up Japanese-Americans and place them in internment camps.
Subsequent laws have barred private census information from being shared with other governmental agencies. But more recently, the Supreme Court rebuffed a Trump administration attempt to add a question about citizenship to the census. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had falsely claimed that the Trump administration wanted to ask the question to prevent racial discrimination. But documents from a deceased Republican strategist showed that Republicans also wanted the question being asked in order to draw maps that strengthened the GOP's power. Critics warned that by asking about immigration status, fewer unauthorized immigrants would be willing to participate.
Since U.S. House seats are doled out according to population, the more minorities who refuse to participate, the less political power minority communities have.
And it's not just political power, Chege stresses. It's federal resources.
"If we don’t have an accurate count, we are going to see underfunded and overpopulated schools," Chege says. "We are going to have underfunded roads."
And Shea's promotion of groups that, for example, use the teachings of a pastor who preached against interracial marriage to teach young men "Biblical Warfare," has alarmed many groups in the community, and has driven everyone from Spokane's Republican mayor to the Spokane Police Guild to call for Shea's resignation.
Ideologically, Shea is generally more closely tied to the far-right militia movement than the alt-right. Shea generally scoffs at the idea that he's racist, pointing to his black friends, like Marble Community Fellowship's Doug Taft, to counter such accusations.
"If Matt was a racist, I would have nothing to do with him," says former Spokane Valley Councilman Caleb Collier, a Shea supporter whose wife is Hispanic.
But on the other hand, Shea's speeches are full of lines disparaging unauthorized immigrants and Muslims — both groups who need to be counted by the census.
In one 2014 speech, Shea transitioned from a riff against the Transportation Security Administration into a slam against immigrants.
"I say we take the TSA and put them on the southern border, and let them grope and feel some of these tuberculosis-laden leprosy-laden immigrants," Shea says. He also speculated that U.S. money was being used to bring immigrants across the border.
Similarly, in a 2018 Marble Country God and Country Celebration, Shea shifts from bragging about how much Eastern Washington loves freedom to celebrating the fact that we have the lowest number of mosques in the nation. According to the Spokesman-Review, Shea bragged that he'd founded a local anti-Muslim ACT for America chapter and that he'd “banned the creation of Sharia Courts in Washington.”
Shea's conspiracy theories tie together left-wing activist groups like Black Lives Matter with groups like antifa, an anti-fascist group. He speculates that they're both funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, a key figure in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
"When they hear that someone who makes disparaging remarks about their communities on a normal daily basis is going to be part of the census engagement process, that is what [drives] cynicism and apathy," Chege says.
On top of that, Shea offered to help run background checks into local left-wing activists who his allies had discussed surveilling or assaulting.
"You have an elected official who trafficks in racist conspiracy theories, who himself does not takes seriously the sensitivity of people’s information," Chege says.
The Spokane Complete Count Committee won't have any involvement with the actual census data, to be clear. Instead, its goal is to be trusted messengers for the census, to urge undercounted groups to trust the privacy of government data. And Chege and Valadez argue that, when it comes to Shea's presence, even the perception of Shea is toxic.
"Rep. Matt Shea cannot be a trusted messenger," Chege says.
O'Quinn says she does not know whether Shea or Layton will attend future census committee meetings. But her team is working on developing a new system to get feedback from everyone who's interested in offering it.
“We will be providing a structure and a format that will allow everyone to participate and be represented,” O'Quinn says. “We’ll have committee meetings, we’ll have open public forums."
This story has been updated to clarify that Shelly O'Quinn did not consider her request for Matt Shea not to attend the meeting to be a disinvitation.