Larry Stone, TRAC, and the “Curing" Videos
The Promotion of Mis-information and self interest
Larry Stone’s latest video opens with a simplistic lie. A deep-voiced male narrator intones:
In Washington State, akin to Oregon and California, the allowance of camping on public property and open drug use in cities has resulted in a surge of homelessness, escalating crime rates, business closures, and compromised public safety.
It is an absurd proposition on its face. The narrator asserts that the surge in homelessness many cities have seen in recent years is the result of people being “allowed” to camp and use drugs in the open. I have a stable place to live—and I am going to abandon that shelter to take up life on the streets because government now allows me to camp and openly use drugs on city property? Really? Consider the absurdity.
Mr. Stone follows up with an interview of a homeless woman who declares that being homeless is “a piece of cake”. Could he find a homeless person living on the streets of Spokane for this insight? Apparently not, since the interviewee is one individual on the streets in Portland, Oregon. The whole eight minute video, “Curing a Broken Spokane”, goes on like this. How many people click and watch this slick bit of propaganda uncritically, nodding their heads? Impossible to know, but, as of last Saturday, it had racked up 10,446 “views”.
The difference between run-of-the-mill disinformation and Mr. Stone’s latest polemic video is simply this: Larry Stone happens to have a quarter of a million dollars to promote incarceration for homeless people—his cure. His motivation? Five years ago he felt threatened by “five or so ‘rough-looking people’” hanging out near an ATM he wished to access across from the STA Bus Plaza. The fear and discomfort he felt drove him the next year (2019) to finance the production and provide the narrative for the YouTube video “Curing Spokane”. “Curing Spokane” is a 17 minute, slickly produced polemic posted just before the last City of Spokane mayoral election in 2019. Stone modeled his video after “Seattle Is Dying” a similar polemic composed by KOMO News in advance of the Seattle municipal elections.
Stone (and KOMO) circumvented election law by not openly promoting a candidate by name, although it was perfectly clear that Stone was backing candidate Nadine Woodward. Arguably, Stone’s video may have made the difference in the close election as uncritical potential voters absorbed Stone’s message.
Stone is a developer with a substantial financial interest in the outcome of this November’s election. Don’t let him determine that outcome.
On October 12 the Inlander published an article by Nate Sanford on Larry Stone, an article well worth every voter’s time to read. I have taken the liberty of copying it below. (I encourage you to click on the title for the article and associated photo.)
Keep to the high ground,
By Nate Sanford
October 12, 2023
Larry Stone is a unique force in Spokane politics.
He's a major donor to conservative causes that fund attack ads against progressive politicians. This summer, he paid for the signature-gathering efforts that put the initiative to ban homeless camping within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and child care facilities on this year's Nov. 7 ballot.
All told, the businessman, developer, manufacturer and lifelong Spokanite has spent at least $223,400 on independent expenditures and direct contributions this election cycle.
And that's not counting advertising and production costs for his two recent big-budget videos attacking the Spokane City Council over bus lanes and homelessness — expenditures that Stone says don't need to be reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission because the videos aren't directly advocating for a candidate.
Stone's outsized role in local politics makes a lot of people on the left uncomfortable. Council President Lori Kinnear describes it as "disturbing."
"I've watched this escalate over the years not really understanding, 'What's his endgame?'" Kinnear says. "What does he really want to have happen here?"
Critics argue that Stone is using his wealth to push misinformation and an agenda that's hostile to homeless people. There's also a maze of conflict-of-interest questions and allegations of poor conditions at the warehouse on East Trent Avenue that Stone owns and leases to the city for use as a 350-bed homeless shelter. ("It's actually nicer than my fraternity house," Stone says. "I can honestly say I'd rather live there.")
Paul Dillon, a progressive activist running for City Council this year, thinks Stone's political spending shows the need for tougher campaign finance laws.
"He's behind the scenes with funding efforts that are creating a very toxic atmosphere in Spokane and dividing neighborhoods and communities," Dillon argues.
Stone's supporters, however, see a man with a singular focus on improving his city and whose charitable activity goes far beyond politics.
"He's definitely influential," says conservative City Council member Jonathan Bingle. "I just think he's a guy who's trying to make his city a better place. So God bless him. I hope he continues to do that. And I hope others follow his lead, especially those who have the ability to put their money where their mouth is."
Stone himself often avoids the spotlight. He rarely talks to reporters — especially during a string of negative news coverage this year about his ownership of the Trent shelter. (He did, however, find one Spokesman-Review headline about him "Stonewalling" City Council funny enough to frame.)
But Stone is a key player in this year's election cycle. Who is he? And what's his vision for the city?
"I'm not making friends with the far left people," Stone says. "But I'm doing what I think is right."
"I USED TO BE A DEMOCRAT"
Stone, 68, was born and raised on Spokane's South Hill.
After graduating from Walla Walla's Whitman College, Stone started working at a pipe manufacturing company owned by his father, which he took over and later expanded to include property management and other manufacturing companies.
In 1985, Stone came out as gay. It was a different world.
"We were hated," Stone says. "'AIDS' and 'gays' were one and the same back then."
In 1993, Stone founded Stonewall News, a gay and lesbian newspaper for the Inland Northwest.
"It was a pretty big deal for Spokane," says Dean Lynch, a member of Spokane's LGBTQ+ community at the time who currently sits on the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force. "That was a way for members of the LGBTQ+ community to meet other people, to hear about what was going on."
Stone sold the paper several years later, but continued to be active in the gay rights movement and made significant financial contributions to the fight for marriage equality in Washington state.
"He was very involved," says Lynch, who was also briefly a City Council member in 2001. "He wasn't the leader, but he was one of a number of leaders."
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Stone regularly gave money to Democrats, mostly at the state level. He says he barely paid attention to city politics.
"The city just ran, I never knew if they were Democrats or Republicans, I didn't care," Stone says. "But after what happened to me in March of 2019..."
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon.
Stone was running errands downtown. He needed cash and decided to drive to a Bank of America ATM near the Spokane Transit Authority Bus Plaza.
A group of five or so "rough-looking people" were hanging out nearby, he says. Stone felt nervous, and decided to stay in his car and circle the block. They were still there when he returned, so he left.
"It was the first time in 63 years I didn't feel comfortable getting out of my car," Stone says.
That's the whole story. But Stone says the incident shook him profoundly and, more importantly, opened his eyes to Spokane's growing homelessness crisis.
"That's when I woke up to what was going on downtown," Stone says. "That's when I did the first video."
"Seattle is Dying" — a KOMO-TV special that generated controversy for its portrayal of Seattle's drug and public camping problems — had come out that same month. Stone was inspired and started drafting a script in his head for a Spokane version.
Kinnear recalls Stone complaining about the ATM incident at a Downtown Spokane Partnership meeting that spring.
Her recollection of the story is slightly different — something about a homeless person asking for cash while a friend of Stone's was at an ATM. But the core message was the same: Stone, for the first time in his life, felt scared in downtown Spokane. He saw a growing problem being swept under the rug and was determined to make sure everyone knew about it.
"What I learned from being a gay man is, the closet never works," Stone says. "It's why the AIDS crisis killed so many of us. ... And when we have a problem downtown, and throughout our low-income neighborhoods... we've got to face up to it and talk about it."
A CURE FOR SPOKANE
Stone released "Curing Spokane" in late August 2019, in the run-up to the election that would put Nadine Woodward in the mayor's office.
The 17-minute video features mournful piano music and bleak montages of people in varying states of drug and behavioral health crises downtown. It called on city leaders to build a new, bigger jail, enforce misdemeanors, sell the STA Plaza and move the bus station underground.
The reaction was swift and polarizing. Some, like Woodward, expressed support and thanked Stone for shining a light on what was going on. Others saw it as fearmongering and criticized its conflation of homelessness and crime.
To this day, Stone is defiant.
"I was the canary in the mine," Stone says. "It's only gotten radically worse in four years."
Last month, on the precipice of another mayoral election, Stone released "Curing a Broken Spokane," the sequel to the 2019 film. The main message — that the City Council and a lack of accountability "made being homeless easy" and led to a rise in crime — is much the same.
Advocates have been critical. Ryan Oelrich, an interim City Council member who previously led Spokane's Homeless Coalition, says Stone's new video is "incredibly harmful."
A pie chart in the video claims that 50% or more of "arrests of criminal homeless" involved someone who moved to Spokane. The data source isn't made clear in the video, but Stone says it comes from a public records request his team filed for a list of people arrested one recent afternoon downtown.
The request came back with 12 names. Of those, police said six people were not from Spokane. One person was marked as "unclear."
It's not exactly a statistically valid sample, but Stone says he's still skeptical when the "far left" insists that most unhoused people are, in fact, from Spokane.
"Those that are from Spokane we should take care of, but when most people feel that more than half are from out of Spokane, we have got to do something," Stone says.
Stone's assertion is wrong, says Matthew Anderson, the director of the urban and regional planning program at Eastern Washington University.
"There's no evidence there," says Anderson, who has also worked on the annual census of unsheltered people in Spokane, which found that 74% of respondents lived in Spokane County before becoming homeless. Other point-in-time counts consistently have similar findings, Anderson says.
The police record Stone obtained shows that one of the people officers categorized as not from Spokane had lived in the city since he was 5 years old. He moved to Seattle at age 16 and returned a few years later. Another immigrated to Spokane from Honduras five or six years ago. One person categorized as not from Spokane had been here for 26 years.
Regardless, Stone pushes back on critics who say his videos are divisive.
"I feel like I'm being informational to the public, and the public can make their own [decisions]," Stone says. "The films are provocative, they aren't meant to be boring. They're provocative, but I don't think they're divisive."
Stone supports calls for a new jail, but he argues that it should be built out of town near the Geiger Corrections Facility — not in the central city where it's currently planned.
"We just dump it on the poor, and that's what really upsets me," Stone says.
It's a point Stone comes back to time and time again, across multiple interviews.
He ties his concern for the poor not just to the new jail, but also to the issue of bus lanes and the homeless services that are disproportionately placed in lower income neighborhoods. He stresses that it's the driving force behind his recent political efforts. He says he'd be happy to have the new jail built in his Manito Park neighborhood but knows wealthy neighbors would never allow it.
'HE CARES ABOUT THE COMMUNITY'
As a child, Stone recalls sleeping in the backyard to escape a dysfunctional home and a mother who struggled with alcoholism. He'd fall asleep to the sound of the wind blowing through the ponderosa pine trees overhead.
Those trees became a fixation. As an adult, Stone started a nonprofit that planted more than 100,000 ponderosas across Spokane, and he successfully lobbied the City Council to designate the ponderosa pine as Spokane's official tree in 2013.
"He worked with us really cooperatively, it was truly a group effort," says Kinnear, who was then an assistant to former Council member Amber Waldref. (Waldref is now a county commissioner.) "It was a really good experience."
Kinnear is one of many progressive politicians who, in a different era, benefited from Stone's financial support. He even threw a fundraising party for her City Council campaign at his house in April 2019.
Stone also supported Lisa Brown when she was a Democratic state senator in the early 2010s. But during her run for mayor this year, Stone has spent heavily on the Spokane Good Government Alliance, a political action committee that runs attack ads and billboards claiming Brown will bring "MORE CRIME" and "LESS COPS."
Brown calls it "polarizing and unproductive."
"I believe he cares about the community," Brown says. "But I'm really puzzled by why he thinks this is the right way to improve it."
Stone calls himself a centrist and insists that it's the left that's grown extreme. But he still has a soft spot for Kinnear and smiles when asked about their collaboration on the pine tree project.
"I like her as a person," Stone says. "But I'm disappointed with our City Council."
Like many on the left who recall working with Stone before 2019, Kinnear is puzzled — even a little saddened — by Stone's political turn.
"I would like to still have him as a friend, but I can't have somebody as a friend who thinks I'm responsible for the homeless crisis in Spokane when it's blatantly not true," Kinnear says. "He just doesn't pay attention to anything unless it's STA or homelessness."
He is singularly focused on those subjects. Though he says it's been about 24 years since he rode the bus, the Spokane Transit Authority is a frequent target of his ire.
This summer, Stone released a video in opposition to plans to add bus-priority and protected bike lanes to North Division Street.
"Do you want to be forced to ride the bus?" the narrator asks, ominously.
Stone argues that the planned changes will increase congestion and harm local businesses.
"Does anybody really think that making a bus-only lane on Division is going to get more people to take the bus?" Stone says. "I'm very thankful that we have a good bus system, but I don't see how it helps them to stop all 20 cars behind them."
BATTLE OF THE DONORS
Stone isn't the only wealthy Spokanite who uses their fortune to push a political vision for the city.
In some cases, Stone's spending pits him directly against Sharon Smith and Don Barbieri, a wealthy Spokane couple that founded the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, which advocates for a variety of liberal causes in Spokane.
For example: Stone has given $115,000 to Clean and Safe Spokane, the PAC that worked to place the homeless camping ban on this year's ballot. On the other side, the Smith-Barbieri fund has donated $10,000 to the Spokane Community Against Racism PAC to fund a lawsuit that unsuccessfully tried to challenge the proposed ban in court.
Stone doesn't like being compared to the couple.
"I live in Spokane 12 months of the year. I've lived here for 68 years... I'm downtown all the time," Stone says, before shifting focus to the couple's second home in Hawaii. "How do you know what's going on in Spokane when you're sitting in Maui?"
Lerria Schuh, the executive director of the progressive fund, confirms that Smith and Barbieri are, in fact, residents of Hawaii, and that the couple spends the winter months there. But she argues that someone can still care about improving a city even if they don't live in it year-round. She says the couple are retired and have limited involvement in the fund's day-to-day operations.
Schuh stresses that the couple also supports a variety of charitable causes outside of politics. The same is true of Stone. In many cases, the donors' interests converge: Both have donated to the Odyssey Youth Movement, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ youth in the Inland Northwest.
TURMOIL AT TRAC
Stone continues to face criticism for his ownership of the Trent shelter. Some council members have argued that Stone got a friendly deal and is profiting off taxpayers.
Stone denies this and says he only bought the building because the city was struggling to find a spot for a permanent homeless shelter. He'd spent the past three years telling anyone who would listen that homeless services should be located in industrial areas, and he was happy to help.
Council member Zack Zappone says he believes Stone's desire to help the city solve a problem was genuine. But he still has concerns about Stone's deal with the city being "done behind closed doors without trying to negotiate in good faith a better deal for taxpayers."
The shelter was previously vacant and available for sublease at $21,000 a month. But Stone says the owner was wary of the city's plans to use it as a shelter. So in March 2022, Stone stepped in and bought it for $3.5 million. After a period of negotiation, he began leasing it to the city for $26,100 a month.
Stone says the lease price is fair, and points to the fact that he held it off the market for months and that his contract with the city required he make improvements to make the building habitable, which cost $580,000. He says the warehouse represents just 1.6% of the total square footage he owns.
"It's nice to do things for government, but I don't pretend to be a charity," Stone says. "I give money to charitable organizations, but I can't run my business like a charity. I'll be bankrupt."
Basically, Stone was willing to give the city of Spokane a hand up, but not a handout.
"I don't see it as an unfair deal," says Bingle. "What I do see is a person, again, who cares about the situation trying to be of service to the community."
Other council members are talking about abandoning the city's lease with Stone next year, citing the high lease and operator costs and broader concern about the congregate shelter model. Plans to install much-needed indoor bathrooms have stalled, as council members fret about putting taxpayer money into a building the city doesn't own.
Council members say Stone tried to ask for $8 million — more than double what he purchased the building for — when they tried to exercise an option-to-buy clause in the contract this winter. Citing the confidentiality of real estate transactions, Stone declined to comment on whether or not the $8 million figure is accurate, but says he was still willing to negotiate in good faith.
"They're tearing me down for not selling it, but what if they'd bought it?" Stone says. "They didn't have the money, and now they're talking about abandoning the building after a year. Tell me how crazy that is?"
Stone also pushes back against allegations of bad conditions at the shelter, which are mainly the responsibility of the city and its contractors, as he says. He notes that the Trent shelter offers free food, internet and other services.
Last week, I texted Stone photos that showed the shelter's outdoor porta-potties in a poor state, with trash and feces in places they shouldn't be, a toilet lid snapped in half and other visible damage.
"I do not find any of this repulsive," Stone says, looking at the photos. "I find it unfortunate." (He suggests, however, that people at the shelter "deal with it" because they stay there for "free.")
Stone has spent the past year at the center of some of Spokane's most contentious political debates. He says he's tired and doesn't plan on releasing any more "Curing Spokane" videos. He's done what he can to educate people and call on leaders to take a stand.
"I'm 68," Stone laughs. "So the good news to the far left is that I'm getting worn out."