The man behind the no-bridge-tolls money

David Madore backs like-minded candidates

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Helping candidates

US Digital founder David Madore has put a sizeable amount of his own money into this year’s elections. The figures below include cash and in-kind donations from Madore; his wife, Donna; daughter Rachel; and the NoTolls.com PAC.

• NoTolls.com, Political Action Committee

$55,501.93

• Michael W. Appel, Republican, Clark County treasurer

$1,760.87

• Brent D. Boger, Republican, Clark County prosecutor

$2,400

• William Cismar, Republican, 49th Legislative District, Position 1

$2,400

• Paul L. Harris, Republican, 17th Legislative District, Position 2

$800

• John E. Jenkins, NonPartisan, Vancouver City Council

$3,200

• Brian C. Peck, Republican, 17th Legislative District

$2,400

• Craig T. Riley, Republican, 49th Legislative District, Position 2

$1,600

• Jon D. Russell, Republican, 18th Legislative District (defeated in primary)

$4,800

• Alan Svehaug, Republican, Clark County commissioner

$3,200

• Peter Van Nortwick, Republican, Clark County assessor

$1,600

TOTAL CONTRIBUTIONS:

$79,662.80

SOURCE: Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (as of Sept. 29, 2010)

David Madore is a man behind — behind the political action committee NoTolls.com, behind the podium when Vancouver City Councilor Jeanne Harris began her now infamous “gavel down” outburst last month, and financially behind the political campaigns of 10 candidates who agree with his point of view.

A self-made millionaire, inventor, business owner and devout evangelical Christian, Madore has emerged from obscurity in the past six months to galvanize a passionate and visible crusade to stop tolls and light rail on the proposed Columbia River Crossing.

His supporters say that he’s a genuine guy behind a mass movement to protect Clark County from tolls that will hurt struggling families and the local economy, and is doing his best to oust candidates who won’t listen to the people.

His critics say he’s behind the times — that he should have been pushing this agenda well before the $100 million planning process for the Columbia River Crossing was this far along. Those same critics say he’s behind the bamboozling of the voters, supporting candidates who are running against tolls when, if elected, they would have no say or sway in the way that span gets built.

No matter which side of the debate, those who cross his path describe 59-year-old Madore as soft-spoken and respectful. But with the nearly $80,000 of his own money and in-kind donations he’s put into campaigns and his PAC — with rumors that he may contribute hundreds of thousands more in independent expenditures — Madore’s money is doing a lot of talking.

His appearance in the process now has many asking questions: Why is he backing these candidates? Why is he so ardently against light rail and tolls — to the point where he’d rather see the bridge project fail than see it go through? What does he stand to gain out of this? Why now?

Investing in belief

NoTolls.com may be the first time Madore’s convictions have put him in the political arena, but the entrepreneur has a history of putting his pocketbook behind things in which he believes deeply.

Madore is the founder of motion control component company US Digital, which he moved from Orange County, Calif., to Vancouver 20 years ago. His wife, Donna, and his three daughters, now grown, accompanied him.

He’s occupied the 118,000-square-foot former Nautilus building on Northeast 136th Avenue since 2006.

During a 2½-hour interview there on Sept. 21, Madore, a trim man with close-cropped gray hair, smiled frequently, spoke with his hands and greeted many of his 105 employees by name.

Over the past three decades, Madore has grown US Digital to a $16 million-a-year business that he and Donna own without any debt. The technology dreamed up by David Madore is in rides at Disneyland, solar panels, satellites, Navy equipment and more. In solar panels, for example, the components help the panel adjust to the exact angle it needs to catch maximum rays.

He’s used that success to back causes he cares about most fervently, without any apparent financial benefit to himself.

“When I contribute to any campaign, I say you’re not indebted to me, you owe me no favors,” he said. “I am helping you because you’re going to help the community.”

While he spoke, sitting at a tall wooden table near the entrance to US Digital, Republican 49th Legislative District candidate Bill Cismar came in, wearing his campaign badge.

“You come to pick up a check?” Madore asked. “You’ll have to come back, because I haven’t written it yet.”

Cismar stopped to talk for a moment, and after being introduced, shared his enthusiasm for no tolls.

“We’ll build a bridge that’s not on the backs of blue collar workers,” he said, before heading for the exit.

For candidates in smaller local races, checks like that one have been pivotal.

The $3,200 in cash contributions ($1,200 each from Madore and his wife, and $800 from his PAC) represents well over half of the $4,970 in total donations Vancouver City Council candidate John Jenkins has raised for his city council run.

Without Madore’s support “it would’ve been much, much, much more difficult,” to campaign, Jenkins said. “I probably would have still have had to focus on trying to raise more money instead of trying to get my message out.”

A full 20,000 square feet of US Digital is devoted to free office space for 26 evangelical Christian nonprofit groups — missionaries, adoptions, abstinence-only projects, anti-abortion pregnancy counseling, and other ventures.

US Digital employees are also treated to a number of perks. They work four 10-hour days. Nuts, granola and apples are available throughout well-appointed kitchens in the building. There’s a nap room.

A full gym with weights and cardio machines is free to all. He pays for more than 75 percent of a health and weight-loss plan for his workers. A manufacturing manager said he’s lost 37 pounds on the program since April and others have lost upward of 70 pounds.

“We take good care of our people,” Madore said. “I’m a health food nut. I like to give the gift of health to people.”

Sense of justice

Offering health perks, a good working environment and big campaign donations doesn’t pad Madore’s wallet, but rather his strong sense of justice, said Josephine Wentzel, co-chairwoman of NoTolls.com.

“He has absolutely nothing to gain from doing this,” Wentzel said. “I’ve never worked with anybody who’s so respectful and didn’t have any ulterior motives. He really has genuine concern about what’s going on.”

Many describe Madore as a genius-level inventor and engineer, and though he’s his company president, he keeps a hand in day-to-day operations.

“I’m an inventor. I love solving problems in a practical way,” he said.

And Madore thinks that not only is the problem of the Interstate 5 bridge being solved in an impractical way, but he thinks the people in charge are doing residents a malicious disservice.

Though the planning is more than a decade under way, Madore said it wasn’t until this summer that he raised his head from running his business and raising a family to take note of what’s in store.

“I woke up, I became an engaged citizen,” he said. “We assume that the people we elect to office would be making good decisions for us. … What woke me up is discovering this was not happening.”

Madore and the candidates he supports say the federal government should pay the total cost of rebuilding the interstate crossing. Light rail makes the $3.6 billion bridge too expensive, and should be tossed. Fixing onramps on both sides of the river should be cut; the project shouldn’t be about fixing any congestion in Portland, he said.

He wants to know: What’s wrong with a simple bridge from one side of the river to the other?

As it stands now, the bridge is about lining the pockets of those he calls “special interests” and “old boys” — engineering firms, design companies and others who stand to profit.

Many politicians in office now, he said, are working for those special interests.

“This is not about truth, this is not about the best options for our community,” Madore said. “This is about what is the best way to get taxes out of the people. This is about how to plunder our community, and it’s about protecting big business at the expense of freedom of mobility.”

Blind faith?

But those involved in the project say Madore’s faith in federal funding is blind.

“There’s no current trend in federal spending right now that would lead you to logically conclude that they would step up and pay for any kind of modernizing of the structure, unless there was a catastrophe,” said Don Wagner, Columbia River Crossing project co-director. “You can wish for it, but the reality seems pretty slim.”

Wagner is a Washington Department of Transportation administrator and has been involved with the project since its inception in the 1990s.

“In no way are his efforts healthy for our community,” said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who has drawn much heat from Madore for his change of stance from last year, when he campaigned on a “tolls-as-a-last-resort” platform, to supporting a bridge with tolls. “It’s unfortunate that he’s funneling so much of his own personal money and profits he’s made from his company into delivering messages that are inaccurate and replete with rhetoric.”

With the demands of Oregon, Washington, two cities, two departments of transportation, and the sheer scope of the project, compromise is necessary, Wagner said.

Many of the elements that NoTolls.com wants, such as a third bridge, were studied years ago and found to be poor options, he said. No one is getting exactly what they want, he said, but a decade’s worth of meetings and $100 million in planning are bringing the best possible bridge forward.

Madore doesn’t buy it.

“Information is not measured by money, especially when it’s spent by government,” he said. “I challenge any elected official or any candidate to have a debate on tolls and light rail.”

Gavel down

Frequently, David Madore and his cohorts do debate elected officials on the topic of the Columbia River Crossing — whether they like it or not.

He, Wentzel and others attend nearly every city council and other meetings, pushing local officials to fight the bridge. They dominated a July town hall meeting put on by the Vancouver City Council.

It’s a tactic that has irritated numerous officials, especially those on the city council, who say they approved the bridge with a light-rail option in 2008 and it’s no longer city business.

It’s part of what set off Councilor Harris on Sept. 13. Madore was behind the lectern, talking about alternative plans, when she began what became her epic outburst.

It was a cameraman from NoTolls.com who captured the entire council meeting and an argument between Harris and Councilor Jeanne Stewart after the meeting. It was NoTolls.com that put the video on YouTube, where it’s had more than 80,000 hits and been featured in the national news.

“I lost my temper and felt awful about it and people were making judgements based on a one minute video clip that is not at all who I am,” she wrote in an e-mail Sept. 21. “It’s been done to intentional(ly) harm me and to be vindictive.”

A week after the incident, Madore still expressed his shock over the encounter and remains appalled by Harris’ conduct. He also contends that he has every right to address the council about the bridge, and that it’s clearly city business.

But Identity Clark County Executive Director Ginger Metcalf, who has spoken several times to the city council in support of the Columbia River Crossing, called the regular visits from Madore and other anti-tolling speakers “abusive tactics.”

They “have taken over the podium of citizens communications as an opportunity to bash government,” Metcalf said. “They are provided an opportunity to be televised and be quoted in the newspaper on their uneducated comments, with no opportunity for rebuttal from engineers and people who have been involved in the project for 15 years.”

Financing candidates

This year, 10 candidates — nine Republicans and one nonpartisan — have received thousands of dollars from Madore as they push toward the Nov. 2 general election.

Madore personally helped recruit Clark County commissioner candidate Alan Svehaug. Wentzel, the NoTolls.com co-chairwoman, has been paid at least $6,000 since July to be a campaign manager for the PAC; she is also listed as having “ministerial” duties on Svehaug’s campaign filings.

Clark County Republican Party Chairman Ryan Hart said Madore’s involvement has led to the first midterm election in 26 years with a Republican in every race.

“They were helpful in recruiting candidates for the commissioner position,” Hart said. “He has support from NoTolls, and he has our support, as well.”

Some of those with Madore’s backing, such as legislative candidates Paul Harris, Brian Peck, Craig Riley and Bill Cismar, may have a direct vote on tolling — although their voices would be just a few in the 98-member state House of Representatives.

Others, such as Svehaug and city council candidate John Jenkins, could help push their colleagues to oppose the bridge plan.

But his choice to sponsor races that have nothing to do with the Columbia River Crossing — he’s sponsored Michael Appel for county treasurer, Brent Boger for prosecutor and Peter Van Nortwick for assessor — has some scratching their heads.

The county treasurer is an administrator who handles tax dollars and financial transactions, said Doug Lasher, the incumbent since 1984.

“I have no more control over (the CRC) than any other person in Clark County,” Lasher, a Democrat, said. “It’s being disingenuous with the duties that we’re to perform. It confuses the issues out there and makes it even more difficult for people to understand.”

Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen was also mystified by a NoTolls approach for his seat.

“My position does not sit on any transportation commissions, or committees or boards,” he said. “I find it ironic to devote this much effort into a position that doesn’t sit on any transportation boards.”

Jenkins, his opponent in the nonpartisan race, admits that he would cast just one among seven equal votes on the city council. But he said that if enough people in enough seats across the county speak up, they can change the course of the Columbia River Crossing.

“It’s not me alone; I’m counting on a lot of my other friends to make it as well,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just me anymore, it’s a collective of people, that’s what’s going to change this thing. It’s the bigger picture. I’m just a piece of it.”

Wagner, the CRC co-director, said elections could effect change.

“If every elected official in Clark County were against this project, it would be very, very difficult to move this project forward.”

Some of his candidates don’t have any say over tolling and light rail, Madore concedes. But they all have one thing in common, he said: They haven’t “sold out” to special interests.

Not every single NoTolls backed candidate will win. Madore knows that. But the businessman said he’s set to become a permanent player in Clark County politics.

“We will keep fighting,” he said. “There’s another election. We will not go away. Politicians with any sense of a political future better get on board and listen to the people.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.