Unopposed lawmaker's fundraising no laughing matter

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

Steve Kirby is considered one of the funnier members of the Washington Legislature. Low bar, perhaps, but the South Tacoma Democrat usually finds a way to make light of situations, like his re-election campaigns.

"Steve Kirby. You could do worse!" is one of his buttons.

So a solicitation received by some lobbyists recently wasn't unexpected in tone or subject. Kirby presented a multiple-choice test called the "Lobbyist Acuity Examination" with questions like:

"Steve Kirby hasn't had an opponent for re-election seven out of the last 10 times he's run for office because: A. He campaigns hard every time his name is on the ballot. B. He is the most powerful person in the Legislature, and no one would dare oppose him. C. Dumb luck."

And this: "If we don't help Steve Kirby on his campaign, A. He will think we don't understand how this business works. B. He will be disappointed. C. He won't even notice."

Funny stuff, I guess. But the real joke is that the email was sent three weeks after Kirby knew that, again, he was running unopposed. By then he'd already raised about $31,000. Kirby said his campaign budget this year is $35,000 for mailings, signs, campaign management and a consultant.

Running campaigns even when unopposed is the reason he rarely draws an opponent, Kirby said. There's that, but also facts like how he's been on the ballot in South Tacoma 20 times and represents one of the state's most heavily Democratic districts. Even when he has had opposition, it is usually a token effort. In 2010, Kirby defeated Republican Jesse Miller by a 2-to-1 margin.

That year, Kirby raised $78,310 from most of the big interests in Olympia — dentists, car dealers, the trial lawyers, Realtors, optometrists, telecom companies, tobacco, Microsoft, a few unions. But the bulk came from banking and insurance — the industries that come before the House Business and Financial Services Committee, which Kirby chairs.

On the expenditure side, $15,000 went to his wife, Rebecca Summers, for campaign consulting and campaign management. Of that, $11,000 came after filing week revealed he wouldn't have an opponent. Another $17,000 went to TR Strategies, a campaign management firm owned by the late Terry Thompson. Of that, $3,000 was paid after the election as a "win bonus," something Thompson required in his contract. Another $1,650 was paid to Kirby's son Cameron for putting up and taking down campaign signs.

The way things work

By far the largest expenditures were transfers to Kirby's surplus account. Those are accounts that can be filled with campaign contributions and then spent by office holders for "nonreimbursed public office related" expenses. Those are defined in the state code as costs incurred by an office holder or a member of his or her immediate family "solely because of being an official."

Between 2007 and 2012, Kirby transferred $93,535 to his surplus account and spent nearly all of it. About half went to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which is used to help challengers or incumbents in tight races. The rest was spent on furniture, office equipment and computers.

Kirby said lobbyists know the way things work in Olympia, that unopposed or barely challenged incumbents still raise money — sometimes lots of it. And frankly, many lobbyists use such contributions to hide the ultimate destination — the campaigns of people challenging incumbents of the other party. By passing it through several steps, they don't risk the wrath of powerful incumbents.

Kirby said he hopes to raise a total of $80,000 and plans two or three additional solicitations of lobbyists plus follow-up phone calls.

"I'm behind. I'm nowhere near where I need to be," he said. "I'm going to have to really start working on it."

He wasn't joking.