Millions clash with billions in Kennewick City Council race

Steve Lee, a Kennewick City Council candidate, snaps a selfie in front of the Ben Franklin Transit bus with his political ad. Lee is raising eyebrows with his plan to spend $85,000 in mostly his own money during his campaign. He is challenging incumbent Greg Jones for Position 2.
Steve Lee, a Kennewick City Council candidate, snaps a selfie in front of the Ben Franklin Transit bus with his political ad. Lee is raising eyebrows with his plan to spend $85,000 in mostly his own money during his campaign. He is challenging incumbent Greg Jones for Position 2. Tri-City Herald

City council elections can be sleepy affairs.

Candidates run shoestring campaigns involving some lawn signs, door knocking and appearances at voter forums.

Not this year. Not in Kennewick.

In the most lopsided municipal contest in the state, an incumbent is spending little to nothing on his re-election campaign.

His challenger is spending $85,000.

Welcome to the Position 2 contest between incumbent Greg Jones, who oversees billions as CFO of Hanford, and his challenger, Steve Lee, a self-made millionaire cannabis entrepreneur.

Roger Lenk, a Pasco resident who monitors campaign law and frequently complains about election law violations to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, said $85,000 is an “outrageous” budget for a campaign for a $12,000-a-year job.

Lenk suspects it will be an aberration. The 2017 election is the liveliest in recent memory thanks to a confluence of events — a polarizing presidential election, Richland’s $20 car tab controversy, redistricting in Pasco and an open seat in Kennewick.

“This has been the most contested municipal election on both sides of the river,” he said, adding, “I hope it continues.”

As Hanford’s chief financial officer, Jones oversees $2.5 billion in spending for the Office of River Protection and the Richland Operations Center.

Lee and his wife own Green2Go, one of the three legal marijuana retail outlets in the Mid-Columbia. The store does $1.25 million a month in revenue and provides the Lees with an income he describes as “ample.”

Their campaigns are as disparate as their backgrounds.

Jones is registered with the PDC as a “mini-filer,” meaning he plans to raise $5,000 or less and is not subject to detailed disclosures. He is the subject of a Lenk complaint that alleges he failed to file candidate disclosure documents with the PDC. The agency is assessing the charge.

“Mini” versus full

Jones’ “mini-filer” status is not unusual. About half of local city council candidates opt for the low-budget approach.

Lee, however, is running a full-throated campaign that includes an ad that covers an entire transit bus, signs, fliers and a full suite of advertising in print, online and on radio. His budget subjects his campaign to the state’s full reporting rules.

As of this week, he has raised $64,920, almost entirely from his own pocket. He told the Tri-City Herald editorial board he will spend about $85,000 in his bid to “iron out” the advantages his opponent gains from being the incumbent.

For context, Washington candidates have raised $14.2 million so far this year, with $725,000 of the total coming from candidates themselves.

Lee’s self-funded campaign represents almost 9 percent of all the money Washington candidates have given to their own campaigns.

That campaign war chest is one of the richest for a city council race in the state. Only candidates for the Seattle and Bellevue city councils have raised more.

Jones called Lee’s campaign budget “concerning.”

It could set the bar so high that future candidates may not seek office. The incumbent said he might have reconsidered running for a second full term if he’d known Lee intended to spend so much.

“I am not willing, and can’t, spend that kind of money,” he said.

Points of fact

Jones turned the disparity into a campaign talking point. As Hanford’s CFO, he has experience operating within the limits of a budget, even if it is a 10-figure one.

“I have a lot of experience prioritizing needs,” he said. Jones, who is 52, said he still has goals as a council member, including promoting economic development and sound financial management.

“I’m not done yet. There’s too many things left to do.”

Lee defended his budget, saying it takes money to put his unknown name before the public. His financial advantages help combat the advantages Jones enjoys as the incumbent, he said.

If he wins, Lee said he would spend much less if he seeks re-election in the future, perhaps $4,000.

Lee acknowledged he’s unique. At 33, he’s a newcomer to politics and independently wealthy thanks to Green2Go.

Lee — who said he’s not running for council to reverse Kennewick’s marijuana retail ban — said he wants to push the community to become to become Washington’s most liveable city.

Economic development and cultural amenities are key to wooing young professionals like him to town. It’s his message, not money, that should be in the spotlight, he said.

“If this community doesn’t want to vote for me, it won’t. I don’t think $85,000 breaks our political system.”

Collectively, Mid-Columbia candidates have raised $223,453 this year, according to PDC figures.

The Kennewick council race and a special election to replace retired Benton County Sheriff Steven Keane are easily the Mid-Columbia’s most expensive races this year.

Here’s a look at how campaign finances are shaping up in the Mid-Columbia. The figures are drawn from the agency’s publicly accessible database, which is more current than those yielded through a simple candidate name search.

Benton County Sheriff

Benton voters don’t normally choose a sheriff in an odd-numbered year. But ex-Sheriff Steven Keane’s decision to retire earlier this year compelled a special election to serve out the last year of his term. The Benton County Commission appointed Undersheriff Jerry Hatcher to serve as the appointed sheriff until the election.

Hatcher is running against Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin, who was also a candidate for the appointment.

It’s common to see bigger campaign budgets in sheriffs’ contests because they are partisan, and come with a full-time job and a full-time salary. In Benton County, that’s $123,000 a year.

As of this week, Hatcher had raised $75,470. Lattin has raised $22,406.

It may seem like a lot to spend on a job that will last only a year. But November’s winner will enter the 2018 election for a full four-year term as an incumbent.

Hatcher is the target of a complaint to the PDC by Brian Wright, who alleged nine violations of campaign rules. Hatcher denied the allegations in a detailed response.

The PDC is assessing if the complaint has merit and has not determined if a full investigation is warranted.

There are no complaints pending against Lattin.

Kennewick City Council

Pos. 1: Incumbent Don Britain has raised $2,875. Challenger Lindy Verhei has not disclosed if she has raised or spent money.

Pos. 4: Bill McKay has raised $10,563 and Christy Watts has raised $6,217.

The two newcomers are battling for the at-large seat being vacated by Bob Parks. Watts is the subject of a complaint to the PDC alleging reporting violations. She denies the allegations and told the Herald that the agency authorized her treasurer to file hand-written reports. McKay has no complaints pending.

Pasco City Council

Pos. 1: Marla Rico has not filed campaign information with the PDC and is the subject of a complaint by Roger Lenk. She has not responded and the PDC is assessing the facts. Blanche Barajas registered as a mini-filer.

Pos. 2: Incumbent Al Yenney registered as a mini-filer. Challenger Ruben Alvarado has raised $1,055, with roughly half from individuals and half from business.

Pos. 3: Incumbent Saul Martinez and challenger Rick Rios registered as mini-filers.

Pos. 4 : Candidates Pete Serrano and Dan Hatch registered as mini-filers.

Pos. 5: Incumbent Rebecca Francik has raised $1,902, with most coming from individuals and $200 from unions. Challenger David Milne has raised $1,220, with more than half coming from business and the balance split between individuals and unions.

Pos. 6: Incumbent Bob Hoffmann and challenger Craig Maloney registered as mini-filers. Maloney is subject of a PDC complaint by Lenk concerning registration documents. The agency is assessing the complaint.

At-large: Matt Watkins is running unopposed and registered as a mini-filer.

Richland City Council

Pos. 1: Incumbent Bob Thompson has raised $3,164. Challenger Rhoda Williams is registered as a mini-filer.

Pos. 3: Incumbent Sandra Kent registered as a mini-filer. Challenger Lloyd Becker has raised $1,768.

Pos. 4: Ryan Lukson has raised $11,421 and Candidate Ginger Wireman is registered as a mini-filer.

Pos. 7: Incumbent Dori Luzzo Gilmour registered as a mini-filer. Challenger Michael Alvarez raised $2,828 and spent $2,628. He has mostly self-funding his campaign.

West Richland City Council

West Richland voters will select a mayor and four council members. Only one candidate has raised money — Kate Moran, candidate for Pos. 6, has raised $5,707.

Port of Kennewick

Pos. 3: Incumbent Skip Novakovich has raised $7,662, with more than half coming from individuals and the balance contributed by individuals and a political action committee. Challenger Rick Reil registered as a mini-filer.

Pasco School Board

Pos. 3: Brian Griffith has raised $1,920, while Steve Christensen has not raised money.

Pasco 5: Jeffrey Peterson has raised $2,375, and Amy Phillips has not raised money.


No candidates for Kennewick Hospital District Board, Kennewick School Board or Richland School Board have raised significant amounts.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell