PO candidates can’t give back realtors’ contributions

Questions about the influence of outside groups and big money on Port Orchard city government races have been raised by Port Orchard blogger Todd Penland. Penland’s posts about campaign spending in four local races have generated chatter on Facebook and letters to the editor of the Kitsap Sun.

Recently, Penland posted an online petition through Change.org calling on four candidates, including mayoral challenger Rob Putaansuu, to reject campaign contributions from the National Association of Realtors, which are recorded in the database of the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. The contributions, totaling nearly $25,000 in the four races, are listed as independent expenditures.

The petition had 32 signatures as of Wednesday.

In the interest of transparent campaign finance, the state requires all candidates for elected office to detail direct contributions they take in (including from themselves) and expenditures they make during their campaigns.

Individuals, organizations and political action committees who make independent expenditures on behalf of a campaign (either for or against a candidate or cause) also must log their revenue and expenditures with the PDC. But here’s the difference, the candidate has no control over independent expenditures. In fact, state law requires contributors not to coordinate in any way with the candidate, according to Lori Anderson, PDC spokeswoman.

The National Association of Realtors, based in Chicago, has spent $8,307 on mailers, phone calls and online ads supporting Putaansuu’s campaign and $5,449 apiece to support the campaigns of city council candidates John Clauson, Cindy Lucarelli and Shawn Cucciardi. All four candidates have been endorsed by the Kitsap County Association of REALTORS.

The no coordination rule will make it tough for the candidates to return the money, because it never was actually in their control. As current campaign finance logic goes, candidates have no say over the free speech of individuals, organizations and PACs who wish to campaign on behalf of or against them.

The bottom line is, Putaansuu, Clauson, Cucciardi and Lucarelli can’t decline the expenditures no matter how may signatures Penland gathers.

Penland’s concerns that the National Realtors’ donations will erode local control of city government were echoed in a letter to the editor of the Kitsap Sun by Dianne Gardner, who worries that the “bigwigs out of Chicago” have their eyes on Port Orchard to make a profit. “What’s more, I am completely against outside money influencing voters,” Gardner writes.

Mike Eliason, CEO and government affairs director for the Kitsap County Association of REALTORS, fired back with a letter stating, “Although our national organization headquarters are located in Chicago and Washington, D.C., political candidate endorsement decisions and funding are decided by local Realtors within Kitsap County.”

Eliason described the Realtors as a “bottom up” association. Local groups aren’t directed from above, he said, but visa versa. A portion of local dues goes to funds with the state and national organizations for “government affairs,” which can cover lobbying or political campaigns, potentially on state or national issues. But local groups retain interest in and proportionate control over these funds.

When election season rolls around, the Kitsap Realtors draw on the local, state or national funds to support the causes or candidates of their choice. What fund they tap depends on a variety of factors, including the balance in each, Eliason said.

Members of the Kitsap realtors group also have the option to donate to RPAC, the association’s political action committee. The committee, which anyone can join, is the group that makes endorsements and devises the campaign spending strategy, Eliason said.

Eliason said the Kitsap realtors group routinely makes independent expenditures as well as direct campaign contributions. While Washington State campaign finance law limits donations to candidates in city council or mayoral races from any one person, group or PAC to $950 per election, there is no limit to independent expenditures.

Direct contributions to city of Port Orchard races from the Washington Association of Realtors on behalf of the Kitsap Realtors stack up as follows: $950 for mayoral candidate Rob Putaansuu and $700 each for Shawn Cucciardi and John Clauson.

Lucarelli (the position 5 incumbent) has registered with the PDC for mini-reporting, which requires she raise and spend no more than $5,000 and which exempts her from detailed reporting. So we don’t know at this point if she has received direct campaign contributions from any Realtors group. Anyone who’s curious can request an in-person meeting to view details of a mini-reporting candidate’s records within eight days of the election.

Lucarelli is not alone. All other city of Port Orchard candidates (aside from the four named above) this year have gone with mini-reporting.

Eliason said he wasn’t free to discuss independent expenditures made by the Kitsap County Association of REALTORS in this year’s election because of the “no coordination” rule. Were candidates to read his statements in the media, they could be construed as a form of communication. But he pointed to past activity as examples of how it works.

“In the past decade, we’ve had independent expenditures in the city of Poulsbo supporting candidates, also in the city of Bremerton,” Eliason said. In 2008, the realtors supported three candidates, including Clauson with independent expenditures. Whether the money is listed as coming from the local, state or national level, it is directed toward campaigns in Kitsap County by the local RPAC, Eliason said.

All four candidates who received the independent expenditures said they were not contacted by the National Association of Realtors about spending to promote their campaigns, and they were unaware of the expenditures until the chatter started online and about town.

“I heard about the situation, but I have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re spending the money on,” Clauson said.

But these expenditures do show up on candidates’ PDC summary reports, which anyone can access.

Remember People for a Better Port Orchard, the group that spent $2,785 in 2011 on advertising aimed at defeating then-incumbent Mayor Lary Coppola? You’ll see their spending in the mayoral campaign listed on Coppola’s PDC disclosure page as an independent expenditure (IE, against).

Are independent expenditures bad in and of themselves? Not necessarily, but they’ve gotten a bad name. The lack of spending limits and the potential for groups to game the system are sticking points in the ongoing debate over campaign finance reform. Eliason says his organization plays by the rules and shouldn’t be lumped in with the bad guys.

It is interesting and perhaps significant that of the 53 mayoral candidates around the state listed by the PDC in this year’s election, Putaansuu is the only one with an independent expenditure. And among the more than 600 candidates for city councils, the three in Port Orchard are among a mere 20 candidates with independent expenditures. In the council races, the donations aren’t all from Realtors. The National Association of Realtors, as of the most recent reporting, had donated at total of $129,264 for city council candidates, including those in Port Orchard (total $24,857), plus candidates in Renton, Seattle and King County.

It’s no secret that a hot button issue for Kitsap realtors (and the Home Builders Association of Kitsap County, contributing through their PAC the Affordable Housing Council of the HBA of Kitsap County) is a proposal in the city of Port Orchard to impose development impact fees. The Kitsap County Association of REALTORS took out a large display ad earlier in the discussion stating their position. The HBA’s PAC by the way has donated $950 apiece to Putaansuu, Cucciardi and Clauson.

Eliason said the realtors, unlike some PACs, will always put their logo on campaign materials (or identify their organization in phone calls), and as an organization they eschew slamming opponents of those they endorse.

“In all of our activities, we’ve always run positive messages about our endorsed candidates. We don’t run negative ads about our opponents,” Eliason said.

As for endorsements, the Kitsap realtors do “early endorse” incumbents whose records suggest they’ve represented the group’s interests, Eliason said. This year, they endorsed Clauson and Lucarelli before the filing deadline and did not hold interviews with the challengers, Marcus Lane and Nick Whittleton. Lane, who filed on the last day of filing week, said he has been invited to a couple of realtors’ luncheons and has accepted the invitation.

Cucciardi and his challenger Keith Law were both invited to interview before the RPAC, Eliason said. Only Cucciardi responded to the invite, according to Eliason.

When it comes to campaign contributions, it’s understandable that people watching local races may become concerned by relatively large expenditures on races for mayor or council seats. There is no doubt that groups like the HBA and Kitsap County Assocition of REALTORS are well heeled and well organized. But ultimately they don’t hold the pen to individual ballots. The public at large may or may not be swayed by their materials.

Would it be overly optimistic to think that Port Orchard residents are capable of critical, independent thought when it comes to evaluating the source and content of campaign materials, blogs and articles in the media? Or that on election day the results will be the product of the democratic process, imperfect though it may be? You tell me.

I’m open to receiving or hearing about campaign materials related to the Port Orchard race that you receive from any candidate or group. I’d like to know what’s out there. So thanks in advance for keeping me up to speed by emailing christina.henry@kitsapsun.com or calling (360) 792-9219.

— Chris Henry, Kitsap Sun

4 thoughts on “PO candidates can’t give back realtors’ contributions

  1. I am disappointed to have been featured so prominently in this article without having been given the same opportunity to comment in advance that Messrs. Eliason and Clauson were given. That said, this isn’t about me. It is about a long-standing failure to communicate on the part of the recipients of this money and that’s where I would like the focus to remain. I’ve expanded on this further in my response at: http://wp.me/p6ftlZ-kO

  2. Hi Chris,

    With regard to your above article citing Mr. Eliason on Real Estate policies, in particular his statement “Although our national organization headquarters are located in Chicago and Washington, D.C., political candidate endorsement decisions and funding are decided by local Realtors within Kitsap County.”

    I have called a number of Brokers and owners of Real Estate Companies and have talked with a number of Realtors, and none of them had ever been contacted by the Board of Realtors by phone, flyer, or email to ask “what candidate they would like to support.” I too, was a Realtor in the 80’s and 90’s and was never asked what candidate I would like to support.

    So, I just have to surmise that Mr. Eliason didn’t ask any licensed Realtor or Broker for their input on what candidate they wanted to support, but instead the decision on whom to support was made entirely by the Board of Realtors without the Realtors input.

    Capt. Sherry Barnhart

    1. Mr. Eliason implies that the decision to award the National Realtor monies is from the “REALTOR”; and he is right, however, the decision is from the “REALTORS” who are only on the BOARD OF REALTORS!

  3. Sherry – It’s my understanding from Mike Eliason that endorsement decisions are made by the Kitsap Association of REALTORS RPAC (Realtors Political Action Committee), as mentioned in the post. All association members are eligible to serve on the committee. You are correct, the decision is not made by the entire membership. Eliason said the RPAC makes its endorsements based on the interests of the association as a whole.

    Chris Henry, reporter

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