How the Realtors threw a hard elbow in wine country
A tale of calculated political retribution over an arcane issue of real estate taxation
Beware the political wrath of the Realtors. An Eastern Washington Republican lawmaker learned that lesson the hard way when a calculated and aggressive independent campaign mounted by the political arm of the Washington Association of Realtors torpedoed his bid for a state Senate seat over an arcane issue of real estate taxation.
Rep. Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, finished third in the primary in August behind Democrat Danielle Garbe Reser and fellow Republican Perry Dozier, a Waitsburg-area farmer and former Walla Walla County Commissioner, in a race for an open Senate seat in the 16th District, which stretches from Prosser to Walla Walla.
Here’s why this matters: A powerful interest group, operating within the law and the rules, improved the political and policy-making playing field to its advantage. How they did it:
An obscure Realtor-backed political action committee called Columbia Voice spent $150,000 on the race — overwhelmingly on radio, TV and direct mail pieces attacking Jenkin and supporting Dozier. Dozier finished 1,700 votes ahead of Jenkin. Reser technically “won” the primary; she got 48 votes more than Dozier. Of that $150,000, $130,000 came from the Realtors. That’s not much compared to the billions flying around in the presidential campaign, but it’s a ton of money in a primary for the Legislature. And it’s completely legal so long as it wasn’t coordinated with one of Jenkin’s opponents. Dozier figures to win the general election easily. Game, Realtors.
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Nathan Gorton, the government affairs director for the Realtors, freely acknowledges the political hit, likening it to a basketball player throwing an elbow to establish that he or she can’t be fouled with impunity. He evoked an anecdote about the great Boston Celtics center Bill Russell. Russell, the story goes, was ruthlessly fouled as a rookie. Famously sportsmanlike, he was reluctant to throw an elbow to discourage all this hacking. Legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach encouraged him to do so, once, on national television, to make a point.*
And in fact, it appears that this coup was carried out with scrupulous attention to Washington’s campaign finance and disclosure laws. The Washington Observer found the outlines of it duly reported in the Public Disclosure Commission’s data. The Realtors fleshed it out because, well, throwing an elbow to make a point doesn’t work if nobody sees it.
The Realtors’ point in this case: Taxes on real estate transactions. Jenkin had been co-sponsor on an obscure bill before the 2019-2020 Legislature that would have had the effect of allowing the Walla Walla City Council to raise the real estate excise tax, known as the REET, by .25 percent without submitting the idea to the voters. The word for that, for all you nerds who like to learn something every day, is “councilmanic,” which sounds like a bad ska band.
“For the most part, we want less taxes on real estate, the opportunity for more transactions,” Gorton said.
The city wanted the money to fix and upgrade its crumbling sidewalks and other infrastructure, said Ki Bealey, the city’s public works director told the Observer. Bealey said local Realtors were mostly on board. Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla,, co-sponsored a similar measure.
“We could spend those funds multiple times over,” Bealey, said. “Walla Walla is a wonderful town, but it is not without its challenges.” Neither Jenkin nor Walsh responded to messages seeking comment for this story.
The median home price in Walla Walla, per Zillow, is $284,547. An extra quarter-point on the REET would add $711.37 to the sale of that house.
But of course the stakes were much higher than that, because state law generally prohibits laws that target just one city or county, The bill would have applied to 10 medium-sized counties around the state where tax averse voters likely prevent local governments from raising the tax, and perhaps eventually to 11 smaller counties where the local REET isn’t collected at all.**
Both bills died in committee after opposition from the Realtors’ formidable lobbying corps. But when Jenkin stepped up to run for Walsh’s seat, the Realtors saw an opportunity drive a stake through the idea.
Jenkin had been elected easily in 2018 with 69 percent of the vote, but also without a Republican primary opponent. Some vulnerabilities immediately presented themselves. Jenkin is a transplant from California. Also, he had served on the local school board. School boards routinely put property tax measures before voters to build and operate schools. So he was on the record as supporting higher taxes not just once, but multiple times. And a three-way race meant that the second Republican wouldn’t advance to November.
“We knew that D would take 35 percent in the primary, which means the math gets easier. It was a unique opportunity,” Gorton said. “Sometimes the stuff all lines up.”
This prompted the Realtors to do something relatively uncommon in state legislative races — conduct a poll. The survey, conducted by American Strategies, a national firm with close ties to the Realtors nationally, found Jenkin slightly ahead of Dozier after generic positive messaging for both candidates. But the pollsters also tested negative messages against him, including that he was a professional politician from California, supportive of raising property and real estate taxes, and against the public’s right to vote on taxes.
The survey, conducted in June, indicated that those messages would be profoundly effective in swaying voters. The issue of the right to vote on taxes was particularly potent; 80 percent of respondents said it made them less likely to vote for Jenkin. ***
None of this should be any surprise to students of Washington politics. The 16th District is heavily agricultural, and farmers own a lot of land. Ergo they are resistant if not hostile to taxes on property and property transactions. Anti-Californian xenophobia has been an issue in Pacific Northwest politics and culture for decades. And the right to vote on tax increases is firmly enshrined in our politics.
The Realtors quickly put their research to work, mounting an aggressive campaign as the primary approached through television, radio, digital media and old-fashioned direct mail.
They outspent the Dozier and Jenkin campaigns combined. A second poll conducted in mid-July showed that the campaign was pushing Republican voters from Jenkin to Dozier. By the Aug. 4 vote, the campaign had moved enough to push Jenkin into third place.
Here’s what the Realtors got for their $130,000. Walsh, who was supportive of giving Walla Walla the power to impose the tax, is replaced by Dozier, who won’t be. All other races being equal, that’s one less vote for that idea. They also showed a willingness to go big to pave over policies they despise.
"My guess is that Walla Walla will not be back with that bill next session,” Gorton said.
The Walla Walla City Council is set to meet on its legislative priorities for 2021 later this month.
*This anecdote, sadly, may be apocryphal, which is why there is no grainy GIF of Russell laying out some racist goon in 1956 to illustrate this story. The story traces back to a scene from “The West Wing,” in which Leo McGarry urges political aggression, and may thus be just a figment of Aaron Sorkin’s fertile imagination. Gorton confesses to be a fan of all things Sorkin, as is The Washington Observer. That said, it is a matter of record that Russell was mercilessly hacked, and thus easy to believe he threw at least one elbow in a point-delivering fashion.
**We’re into the seriously wonky neighborhood of the Growth Management Act here. Local governments in larger counties can impose the full .50 percent REET without their voters. Local governments in medium-sized counties that opt into the GMA’s planning requirements can impose the first .25 percent on their own, but need the voters for the second .25 percent. In smaller counties that largely opt out of the GMA, the local REET isn’t allowed at all. If you want to really dig deep, go ahead.
*** Internal polls conducted by campaigns or interested parties are properly viewed with skepticism when released publicly during a campaign. But they can be among the most scrupulously accurate surveys around. The Realtors were deciding whether to bet big on this race; they wanted to know how sure their bet looked. And they didn’t show it to me until after the election.
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