Local Campaign Finance Fiasco
Note: The inspiration and the basic facts for this email come from Daniel Walters' article "A mayoral candidate who already dropped has busted campaign donation limits wide open" which appeared in The Inlander May 13.
Andrew Rathbun was running for Mayor of the City of Spokane. On April 24 he announced he'd changed his mind. He is not running for Mayor. Instead, he filed to run against incumbent Karen Stratton for Spokane City Council, District 3 (NW part of Spokane). All that is pretty unremarkable. Filing week for public office ends today. The political landscape shifts, odds change. Even though Mr. Rathbun has dropped out of the mayoral race, he has left a big mark. During February and March, when Mr. Rathbun was still planning to run for Mayor he contributed $29,010 to his campaign, a fairly princely sum for a personal contribution to a local election campaign. He accepted several $1000 contributions from supporters for either the Primary or the General, for a total of $2000 from some individuals for his mayoral candidacy. His new account for the City Council candidacy shows he contributed another $11,500 personally and is already accepting $2000 (Primary plus General Election) donations.
Here's where is gets complicated. In late 2017 the Spokane City Council passed the Spokane Fair Elections Code. Its intent was to make donations to political campaigns more transparent and make it harder in our local community for large donors to overwhelm the campaign contributions of more modest contributors. Among the new regulations is a $500 cap on a contribution to either a Primary or a General election ($1000 for the two combined), The Washington State limits are twice that at $1000 for each election ($2000 for the whole cycle of Primary and General).
There was a problem, however. In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that spending one's own money on one's own political campaign is part of a candidate's right to free speech. If someone like Andrew Rathbun wants to jump into a race and self-fund his campaign, it is his Constitutional right to do so. Lacking any Constitutionally valid means of limiting such self-funding, the new Spokane Fair Elections Code says that if a candidate enters a race and contributes $11,500 or more to his/her own campaign, then the restrictions revert to the higher State of Washington limits for everyone in that race. The writers of the Spokane Fair Elections Code reasonably figured that in the event of a self-funding candidate the other candidates should at least be allowed to accept a nigher level of contribution (the Washington State legal limit).
Andrew Rathbun is no longer a mayoral candidate. He says he has wound down his personal money in his mayoral campaign account to below $11,500.
This makes Mr. Rathbun a bit of a spoiler. What to do when one candidate exceeds the personal contribution limit and drops out of the race, and no other candidate has similarly exceeded the personal contribution limit? Nadine Woodward knows exactly what to do: ask contributors for the full $2000 to cover both elections and declare that's the way it ought to be. The limits were lifted by Mr. Rathbun, right? You can't turn back the clock.
When Nadine Woodward filed with the Public Disclosure Commission on April 2 she opened with twenty-one thousand dollars in $1000/election donations. Currently, Ben Stuckart has 334 distinct contributions, Woodward has 200, and yet they have gathered equivalent funds at around $65,000.
Rathbun argues that the limits should revert back to $1,000 (Primary + General) now that he's gone. "I am not aware of any requirement for me to report the above, but I believe this is the right course of action in the spirit of full disclosure, transparency and the Spokane Fair Elections Code."
Woodward disagrees. No surprise there. She has the big money associated with the Spokane Republican Party behind her (even though all these municipal races are nominally non-partisan). The language of the Spokane Fair Elections Code and the City Attorney's office agree with her.
In a system that affirms spending personal money on a campaign is part of "free speech," writing campaign finance law without loopholes is tricky business. Ms. Woodward and the Republican machine that backs her wasted no time in finding and exploiting the opening. (Read the P.S. below for a fanciful conspiracy theory.)
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. If this story were played on the national stage the conspiracy theorists would be having a field day. Here's how it would read: The local Republicans saw an opportunity to subvert the new Spokane Fair Elections Code. Mr. Rathbun was funneled money from the local wealthy Republicans supporting Woodward. (Alternatively, Mr. Rathbun is himself a wealthy committed Republican willing to legally spend $29,010 to support Woodward.) They set him up to briefly enter the mayoral race. Once he established a campaign account he contributed the money to his campaign precisely to trigger blowing up the contribution limit for Ms. Woodward. Then, carrying the extra name recognition with him, Mr. Rathbun shifted his focus to a City Council seat, contributed the precise amount necessary to blow up contribution limits for the City Council seat, too. Even better (from the standpoint of weaving a conspiracy theory), along the way Mr. Rathbun is coached to throw people off the scent by accusing Woodward of campaign finance irregularities (Mayoral candidate raises questions about opponent's transparency.) and insisting, disingenuously, to the Inlander that, in the "spirit of full disclosure, transparency and the Spokane Fair Elections Code," the limits should revert back once he dropped out of the mayoral race. Of course, he knew full well what he was doing the whole time. Alex Jones, step aside, spinning a conspiracy theory is easy!
All kidding aside, what IS Andy Rathbun thinking stepping into two local races with his fat fat bank account and blowing up the contribution limits? At the very least he is thumbing his nose at the intent of the Code. At worst, his plea for the limits to revert in the mayoral race after his departure suggests he is clueless about reading an ordinance. That alone ought to disqualify him for both the races in which he has meddled.