Wednesday, October 28, 2020
DARK DEEDS: The Gristle noted last week the special role of the state’s public utilities in providing guardrails and alternatives to the region-wide, near-monopoly control private investor-owned utilities (IOUs) hold over vital services. “Naturally,” we wrote, “this creates a great deal of political interest (and independent expenditures) from these utilities in special elections for public utility commissioners.”
Local election watchers feared the anticipated late, “gray money” cash dump may have arrived this week from the North Cascade Jobs Enterprise Washington PAC, a political action committee financed by Puget Sound Energy and their affiliated industry partners. “Gray money” is a strategy in Washington, and particularly in Whatcom County, to shield the flow of money through revolving PACs, campaigns or political parties that cloak donations by individuals, corporations and industry associations. Puget Sound Energy is a major player in this area, spending more than $7 million over the last ten years, or more than half of all political spending by fossil-fuel interests in Washington.
This late messaging is invariably negative, designed to smear a candidate so late in an election there can be no counter-narrative. And to conceal the fingerprints of those who paid for the smearing, sometimes for weeks following an election.
This election cycle, as much as $50,000 of fossil-fuel money may funnel into the tank in Whatcom’s Public Utility District race in late spending to benefit the campaign of incumbent Commissioner Jeff McClure against green energy advocate Christine Grant. The PAC has been sitting on this war chest, silent and unused, waiting for a late-hour spend, since the end of June.
As we went to press this war chest still appeared to be locked, the reporting on its status unchanged since June, with no final updated campaign finance report as required by law. But given this PAC’s history of late reporting, the silence is not reassuring or exculpatory.
Puget Sound Energy’s interest in this race is an obvious one. More than 60 percent of the company’s political contributions over this decade have been routed to groups formed in opposition to local initiatives that would have given the public more control of their utilities. These included failed initiatives in Whidbey Island and Skagit County, and a successful public power initiative in Jefferson County. A vital and active public utility district in Whatcom County focused on green energy investments stands athwart PSE’s energy portfolio investments in coal and fracked natural gas.
The North Cascade Jobs Enterprise Washington PAC has a storied history of campaign finance and election abuse in Whatcom County.
In 2018, the Enterprise WA Jobs PAC made contributions to five affiliated and sponsored political committees totaling more than $1.7 million, including more than $190,000 in late campaign spending in the 42nd Legislative District Senate race. Doug Ericksen defeated Pinky Vargas in that race by just 45 votes out of more than 72,700 cast.
The PAC’s legally required financial reporting for the 2018 race arrived more than 87 days after the general election, denying voters the very essence and purpose of campaign finance disclosure law—a means to know who is influencing elections. A formal complaint was filed with the state’s watchdog agency for campaign expenditures, the Public Disclosure Commission.
“The public was deprived of significant committee expenditure information for the entire 2018 election cycle,” the PDC found. That included the $190,000 the PAC spent in last-minute electioneering advertisements in opposition to Vargas. The PAC was fined $65,000 by the PDC, with half of that amount suspended.
Scofflaw PACs brush off these civil penalties and price their costs into their operating budgets, holding enough in reserve to paper over the penalties. The same serial offenders return year after year to manage other campaigns and campaign finance reporting requirements. They’re practiced at this, but—honestly—how effective are late smear campaigns in an era of early voting and vote-by-mail?
In the case of Pinky Vargas, they only needed to be effective by fewer than 50 votes.
Sadly, McClure’s re-election machinery appears to be staffed by serial scofflaws who have been previously sanctioned by the PDC. Equally sad, the strongest backers of his campaign are those groups and affiliates who have benefitted most from the paralysis and inaction of Whatcom PUD No. 1—a dismal endorsement of a talented man who has served long and capably on the commission.
Grant isn’t even a radical threat to the PUD status quo. She’s a technocrat and knowledgable industry consultant who would like to see the PUD do more than it currently does. As a contributor to Bellingham’s Climate Action Task Force, Grant challenged PSE to accelerate their commitment to a green energy future. As long as power generation through coal and natural gas continues to be part of PSE’s power generation portfolio, the city cannot meet its stated clean energy goals.
This is a modest race, and to this point an honest and credible one, with Grant outpacing McClure in small campaign contribution dollars by about five to one. A big cash dump by powerful entities on the reporting deadline changes this equation considerably.
Yet a strategy of late campaign spending seems particularly ill-conceived and stupid in 2020. More than half of Whatcom County’s ballots have already been returned. As of Monday, more than 82,765 ballots had been received by the county Auditor’s Office. Likely half of the remainder will arrive this week. But—as we’ve seen—in a tight race a mere handful of late votes can flip the results.