This summer, it came up again and again as the city discussed topics from tax breaks to a ban on fireworks — the claim that city council members are swayed by campaign donations.
Vancouver resident Debbie Peterson, along with a handful of others, asked that members who had received donations from developer Ellie Kassab recuse themselves from an Aug. 8 vote to give him a temporary tax break on condos he wants to build downtown. At least five of the seven of them had, in amounts from $200 to $750 in their last elections. The vote later passed 6 to 1.
Just the month before, Stephanie Turlay, who is married to current city council candidate Bill Turlay, stood at the podium in City Hall, lambasting city council members, particularly Mayor Tim Leavitt, for failing to ban personal fireworks use. Leavitt, she noted, took $5,000 in his 2009 mayoral race from Dominic and Angela Rinck, owners of the Bomber Brothers fireworks stands.
In each case, residents said that the money officials got in their election bids was now influencing their policy decisions.
Candidates and elected officials, however, beg to differ.
“I have not had a conversation with Dominic Rinck since the election,” Leavitt said. “When Dominic calls, if he calls, I’ll answer his call just like anyone else.”
The practice of taking campaign money from anyone — be it developer, union, business owner or regular Joe — is legal, City Attorney Ted Gathe said. The Supreme Court last year maintained contributions are a form of free speech.
“Every legislator, unless they’re like (Councilor) Pat Campbell and refuse to take contributions, could be accused of (conflict of interest) in any situation,” Gathe said.
Contributions allow candidates not wealthy enough to finance their own campaign a chance to win. It takes big money to print fliers, put up signs and buy ad space to get a politician’s message out. The practice also lets supporters put their money where their mouth is.
But as elections season gets into full swing, the question of influence inevitably comes in.
Washington voters enacted a law in 1992 limiting contributions to statewide candidates to $800. The limit, the state law reads, upholds the spirit that “the financial strength of certain individuals or organizations should not permit them to exercise a disproportionate or controlling influence on the election of candidates.”
For county and city elections, however, that same $800 limit wasn’t imposed until the legislature chose to do so in June 2010. Until then, donors could give up to $5,000 each to candidates — a big chunk of change in local races.
In Vancouver, that meant record-breaking amounts raised in the November 2009 races. The battle between incumbent Royce Pollard and now-Mayor Tim Leavitt was the most expensive in the city’s history, with the men raising $179,286 and $141,529, respectively. Council member Jack Burkman had the most expensive city council race ever, raising $34,929.
On the flip side, council member Pat Campbell, who refused to accept donations or endorsements for his August primary run to keep his seat, lost in the three-way race. Not taking money was intentional, Campbell said.
“It just makes life easier for me, it gives me the freedom that I need. To me, when someone gives me money, I feel somewhat of an obligation,” Campbell said. “I need to strictly operate on the basis of conscience.”
Campbell’s opponents, Turlay and Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who moved on to the general election, both raised thousands. Campbell said this week that he doesn’t judge other politicians for taking money, and admitted the lack of funding was probably a factor among several contributing to his loss. If he runs again, he said, he may go after donations.
During a recent interview on CVTV, Turlay bristled when he was asked about his two largest contributors, anti-Columbia River Crossing and conservative activist David Madore, and Madore’s wife, Donna.
He asked why Madore’s donations have come up in the first place.
“He decided to support me because we have common goals and ideas,” Turlay said. “He’s a fine Christian man.”
Madore said he’s not looking for anything besides representatives who he thinks are truthful and open.
“The one thing I insist that (my contribution) does not do, is it does not buy me personal favors,” said Madore, CEO of U.S. Digital in east Vancouver, who was the leading local contributor to campaigns in 2010. “I am one citizen and they are not beholden to me, they are beholden to the citizens. I strongly oppose special interests.”
Turlay pointed to McEnerny-Ogle’s backing from the Vancouver Firefighters Union and the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council in the CVTV interview.
“Does that mean she’s obligated to the unions because they give her campaign money?” he questioned.
McEnerny-Ogle said that it did not mean she was obligated to the unions and added that Turlay also sought the support of the city’s police and fire unions.
“People want a candidate that they think will listen to them, that they think they can talk to, that will listen to their concerns, will share those concerns … and involve them in the decision making process,” she said.
The Vancouver Firefighters Union looks for candidates who are supportive of adequate funding for the fire department and public safety, President Mark Johnston said. McEnerny-Ogle, Councilor Bart Hansen, and Democratic Rep. Sharon Wylie are among those the union has given its nod to for this November’s election.
“That’s who we’re going to support,” he said. “We don’t expect any sort of quid pro quo at all.”
Johnston said he hasn’t seen politicians act simply because of the backing his union gave them. If donors “think they’re going to buy somebody, I think they’re sadly mistaken,” he said.
Other local big-time donors did not return requests for comment: Liz Pike, political affairs coordinator for the Building Industry Association of Clark County, and Philip Parker, treasurer of the Southwest Washington Electricians PAC.
Independent expenditures, however, mean that the $800 campaign limits don’t keep well-backed parties from funneling tens of thousands to a candidate’s cause.
In the high-flying 2009 mayor’s race, the Southwest Washington Electricians PAC spent nearly $52,000 in radio, TV and print ads for Pollard. Leavitt got almost $57,000 in independent expenditures, from a New York-based national union group and a Vancouver group called Build the Vote.
In 2010, Madore spent more than $150,000 of his own money to support nine Republican candidates and one nonpartisan city council race. Though he’s contributed money to candidates directly this year, public disclosure records show he hasn’t put any money into the NoTolls.com PAC this year.
Washington Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson, however, pointed out that’s why her agency exists — so that voters can research who’s backing which politicians. Reports are available on their website, www.pdc.wa.gov.
“That’s the whole point of transparency,” she said. “People can know who is making contributions and decide if they’re OK with that.”
Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood; www.twitter.com/col_cityhall; email@example.com.
How much Vancouver City Council candidates have raised
Vancouver City Council, Position 4
• Bart Hansen (incumbent): $11,850
Donors contributing the $800 maximum: Steve and Jo Marie Hansen ($800 each), Vancouver Firefighters Union, George Killian, Ed Lynch, Southwest Washington Electricians PAC, Southwest Washington Central Labor Council.
• Josephine Wentzel: $4,767
Donors contributing the $800 maximum: David and Donna Madore ($800 each).
Vancouver City Council, Position 5
• Bill Turlay: $7,238
Donors contributing the $800 maximum: David and Donna Madore ($800 each).
• Anne McEnerny-Ogle: $7,878
Donors contributing the $800 maximum: Vancouver Firefighters Union, Southwest Washington Central Labor Council.
Vancouver City Council, Position 6
• Larry Smith (incumbent): $16,293
Donors contributing the $800 maximum: Barry Cain, Ed Lynch, Southwest Washington Electricians PAC, Waste Connections.
• Cory Barnes: $3,694
Donors contributing the $800 maximum: James Randall.