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Rock Stars, Taco Bell Among Donors To Wash. Gubernatorial Candidates

Austin Jenkins


OLYMPIA, Wash. – What do rock stars, wealthy Texans and Taco Bell have in common? They’re among the financial backers of the candidates vying to become Washington’s next governor. Austin Jenkins has been slicing and dicing the contributor lists. He brings us this audio guide to a few of the donors -- including several from out-of-state.

Let’s begin at a Taco Bell drive-through in west Olympia.

It turns out the Taco Bell franchisees of the nation have their own political action committee. It’s called the Taco PAC. No joke.

And this past May the Taco PAC gave Republican Rob McKenna $500. Calls to the PAC’s Kansas headquarters were not returned. But the website says the goal of the Taco PAC is to “level the playing field” because “business can no longer afford to be the victim.”

Indeed, Republican McKenna enjoys broad financial support from the business community. His list of corporate donors includes: banks, pharmaceutical makers, oil and gas drillers, and timber operations. And the list goes on.

On a conference call with reporters last week, I asked McKenna how voters should interpret this business backing.

“I think I receive support from all kinds of companies, large and small, and from individual business owners because they believe that I’ll help maintain a level playing field for all businesses to compete on.”

It’s not just the big name companies that jump off McKenna’s campaign finance spreadsheet. It’s some notable individuals from out-of-state.

Take Wyoming-based businessman Foster Friess. He’s a conservative Christian who prominently backed Rick Santorum for president. Like McKenna, Friess is no fan of government mandated healthcare.

“This whole idea is health care a right?" Friess said in a 2009 speech. “That issue shouldn’t even come up because we know for those who embrace the Christian values systems, health care is a responsibility. We are our brother’s keeper.”

Friess and his wife contributed $3,200 to McKenna earlier this month.

Another notable out-of-state McKenna donor is Texan Bob J. Perry. Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race?

The Associated Press called Bob Perry the “chief financial backer” of that devastating ad campaign. Earlier this month, Perry and his wife maxed out to the McKenna for Governor campaign with a combined contribution of more than $7,000.

McKenna though is quick to note that out-of-state donors make up less than 10-percent of his contributions.

“The overwhelming amount of support that I’ve received has been coming from individuals in our state,” he says.

That’s true. More than 90 percent of the donors to McKenna and his Democratic rival Jay Inslee are from in-state.

Let’s turn to Inslee. He –- not surprisingly -– has the support of an alphabet soup of unions: AFT, IAFF, IBEW, ILWU, SEIU, UFCW. Inslee calls this labor backing a “mark of honor.” He also enjoys the financial support of trial lawyers.

“I’ve always believed that the jury system is an effective tool of democracy and it should not be suppressed by lobbyists,” Inslee says.

To date, Inslee’s single biggest backer is his own party. The Washington State Democratic Central Committee has poured more than $1 million into his campaign.

Like McKenna though, Inslee also has some high-profile out-of-state donors. They include former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. He made a national reputation taking on Wall Street. But Spitzer is perhaps best known for resigning his governorship in 2008 after a prostitution scandal.

Spitzer –- who later co-hosted a show on CNN -- gave Inslee the maximum $3,600 and headlined a New York fundraiser for the gubernatorial hopeful.

Inslee can also thank another out-of-state donor who’s made headlines. In 2004, former Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes was part of the story that led to the downfall of CBS newsman Dan Rather. In a 60 Minutes interview with Rather, Barnes claimed he helped a young George W. Bush avoid the Vietnam draft.

The Bush administration called the charge false. Barnes was a major backer of Democrat John Kerry that year. Combined Barnes, his wife and daughter have contributed nearly $11,000 to the Inslee campaign.

Inslee says he welcomes funders from around the country who share his vision. And then there’s the rock star money.

Inslee reports contributions from Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard as well as the band’s bass player. As of now, Inslee and McKenna have both raised around $8 million each and spent about half of that so far.

Campaign finance watchers say the thing to look for after Labor Day is the arrival of independent expenditure dollars in Washington -- especially after the Citizens United ruling. This is where outside interest groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on ads separate from the candidate’s campaigns.

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