Dino Rossi's problems with lawsuits over possibly illegal campaign activity are getting more serious, causing us to put Gov. Chris Gregoire up a notch on the Guvometer. The Republican challenger's legal problems come at a critical time in the campaign, when people are starting to vote by absentee and fence-sitters are making up their minds.
The complicated cases have to do with activities by Rossi support groups, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) and the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. Both have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, opposing Gregoire and pushing conservative causes. There are questions as to whether BIAW concealed a role in bundling worker compensation refunds for donation to the BIAW's political arm and whether Rossi illegally helped coordinate activities by these independent political committees. If he did so, the committee would become ineligible to make "independent expenditures" and would be limited to spending $2,800 on the candidate's race.
Rossi has been brushing off the charges as acts of political desperation. But that gets increasingly hard to claim with so many Republicans involved in bringing legal action against the groups and Rossi. Two former Washington Supreme Court justices, Faith Ireland and Robert Utter, initiated the complaints and have now upped the legal stakes by planning to sue Rossi directly for alleged improper coordination. Now a King County Superior Court judge has agreed that the plaintiffs can begin depositions (on the narrow grounds of determining whether a pre-election injunction, to stop further expenditures, should be granted). Both Ireland (appointed by Republican Gov. John Spellman) and Utter (appointed by Republican Gov. Dan Evans) are highly respected jurists, and Utter, while a Gregoire supporter, has been called "a lifelong Republican."
Also involved is Republican Rob McKenna, the state attorney general who has been bringing legal actions against the BIAW and the Master Builders. McKenna is in a race for re-election himself (though probably not a close one), and so he has been given a golden political opportunity to prove his professional independence, even though the BIAW was a generous backer of his race in 2004. Asked by his opponent, Pierce County Executive John Ladenberg, to recuse himself, McKenna said no, noting that an outside lawfirm has been brought in only once in recent years, in 1993 in a case that was a complaint against then-Attorney General Gregoire personally.
McKenna is naturally supporting Rossi for election, but his real client is the governor and state government, so he has to play it very straight. Besides, McKenna is not particularly close to Rossi and his circle. And keep in mind that the Attorney General's Office is mostly staffed with Democrats, since "very few Republicans want to work for state government," as McKenna recently explained.
What was more notable was McKenna's further lawsuit last Friday, this one aimed at the state Republican Party for allegedly spending $212,000 of soft money contributions for three mailings that urged people to "Vote for Dino Rossi." That's a no-no, since soft money can only go for administrative and party-building activities, not to promote candidates expressly. Here it gets dicey. State Party Chair Luke Esser is one of McKenna's oldest friends and political allies, stemming back to their meeting on the University of Washington campus in 1983. And in this case, McKenna said he would not be involved personally in the case any further.
Whether McKenna's zeal in bringing cases against Republicans will hurt him later with party faithful remains to be seen. Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican who played it straight in the protracted recount of the Rossi-Gregoire contest in 2004, seriously angered conservatives.
McKenna likes to tell the story of how former state Attorney General Slade Gorton called him up in 2004, right after Gov. Gary Locke said he wasn't going to seek a third term and Attorney General Gregoire announced she was running for governor. "That same day, Slade called and said I had to run for A.G.," recalls McKenna. "It's the best possible job." That it is. Incumbent attorneys general earn headlines in prominent cases and get many chances to prove their non-partisan professionalism, winning over independents. So while these past few weeks have been a political headache for Rossi, they have been political godsends for McKenna. Buildergate may be the toppling of one GOP candidate for governor and the making of another one in 2012.