Donors pick sides over growth rules

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

Money is pouring into Snohomish County Council contests at an unprecedented rate, as Republicans and Democrats jockey for control of the council in the Nov. 6 election.

Candidates in the two major parties have amassed more money than in any other county council battle of the past decade.

Republicans are leading in the fund-raising race, with $210,000 among the three candidates, according to the most recent state records. Their major contributors are tied mainly to the construction and housing industries.

The three Democrats have raised $150,000, with environmental groups and activists the biggest source of large donations, followed by unions, political parties and government workers.

The difference in major contributors highlights the pivotal role the council plays on development regulations.

The three seats up for election have over the past four years joined together on several important votes affecting land-use. This year, council members in those districts voted as a block in a series of 3-2 votes tightening development limits.

Two of the incumbents, Democrats Dave Somers and Mike Ashley, are seeking re-election. Councilwoman Barbara Cothern opted not to run again, and council staffer Dave Gossett has taken her spot on the Democratic ticket.

Growth-control advocates have welcomed the council’s recent decisions. But several votes have angered people in the housing industry.

The Republicans

The housing industry has responded by opening its checkbooks for Republican county council candidates. The industry and people affiliated with it account for three-quarters of the money given by big donors to Republican council campaigns, according to a Herald analysis.

The state Realtors association and the Affordable Housing Council, the political arm of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, gave the most, hitting the limit of $2,400 for each Republican candidate.

Martin Robinett is one who gave generously. The Everett developer has donated $1,100, and two companies of which he is part owner have given $1,800, according to state campaign filings.

Robinett said he wrote the checks because the current council has swung too far toward limiting growth. That’s threatening the county’s economic viability and the availability of affordable single-family homes, he said.

"The council we have now is anti-jobs," he said.

District 1 Republican candidate John Koster and District 5 candidate Jeff Sax have been the chief beneficiaries of those large donations. The two have out-raised all other candidates.

Koster has collected $97,000, while his chief opponent, Ashley, has brought in $52,000. Sax has raised $90,000, to Democrat Somers’ $52,000.

Sax said the support shows that businesspeople agree with his belief that the current county council is trying to stop growth and is hurting the business climate.

"We need more homes," he said. "The constant restriction on building anything and the constant delay I think has prompted a pretty strong response from businesses in Snohomish County."

Somers, however, said it was a sign that development industries see in Sax someone who allow more growth with fewer regulations.

"It’s obvious they want to get rid of me, and they’d like somebody in there that will do their will," he said.

The Herald analysis looked at people or organizations that donated more than $1,200 to Republican or Democratic campaigns.

It did not capture the full scope of the contributions by different interest groups, because of difficulties assigning donors to those groups. For example, the Robinett family has interests in a number of development companies that each donated separately to Republican candidates. On the other side, members of an environmental organization could donate money without listing their affiliation.

The Democrats

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have taken the lead as major donors to Democratic campaigns. Groups or activists accounted for 35 percent of the money from major contributors, followed by unions with 27 percent and government workers or politicians with 24 percent.

Citizens for Environmental Responsibility, or CER-PAC, was the largest single donor, giving $6,600 to the three candidates combined. The political arm of the Washington Conservation Voters has given $4,500.

Steven Greenebaum, the PAC’s executive director, said the group formed in 2000 to counter the financial power of industries such as the housing industry. The group gave money to Democrats in the general election because those candidates had a moderate approach to growth, he said.

"You’ve got three people who realize that business as usual has brought us gridlock, overcrowded schools and subsidized sprawl," he said. While the opponents, "want to go back to the way it was."

Somers said the support reflects his interest in environmental issues, from water quality to salmon to growth management.

"A quality environment is important to me," he said.

However, Sax took it as a show of support from groups seeking to handcuff growth.

"We have a group of environmental PACs and some very involved individual environmental people who would like to see growth stopped in Snohomish County," he said.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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