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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
email@example.com or calling (360) 792-9219.
— Chris Henry, Kitsap Sun
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