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Olympia master builders can’t move the dial for their members

As per usual, voters received a plethora of printed material from candidates this year. We had a particularly heated race for Port Commissioner, with two positions up for election. In both an incumbent ran, yet they didn’t support one another, and they were supported by wholly different groups. The Port race brought out printed material in the usual vein, as well as some negative campaigning called here ‘the hit piece’.

E.J. Zita was the incumbent from District 3. She’d had a short, 2–year term, since her first election was as a result of the special election called by the Port Commission, as the two men on the Commission un–seated her predecessor, Sue Gunn in 2015. Normally this district Port commission seat would have been up for election in 2019. So due to this circumstance, her re–election bid came at the same time as another incumbent, Bill McGregor, from District 2.

In this election, much like her first, Zita’s support came from environmental groups and individuals, since she is a scientist and espouses environment–friendly positions, like returning Deschutes River estuary. She also had strong support from most local unions: carpenters, education unions, electrical and others. Many local elected officials also leant their support, such as Beth Doglio and Laurie Dolan, and local tribes.

Bill McGregor’s bid for re–election attracted much different support. The vested interests in Port business supported him, as did Olympia Master Builders. His opponent was a younger man, half–hispanic, named Bill Fishburn. Fishburn and Zita’s campaigns ran in tandem in many ways: the two candidates saw eye–to–eye on issues of fiscal policy and accountability to the public.

Zita supporters understood that Bill Fishburn, running as a candidate against Bill McGregor and hoping to unseat him, would give the environmental and social justice community a majority on the Port Commission and an opportunity to shape policy. This race brought out more young people for whom the social justice issues were a big driver.

Ultimately, Bill Fishburn lost the election. It is hard to unseat an incumbent in office. But Fishburn’s campaign drew in great energy; his kickoff event had more attendees than any I’ve ever seen, and his devoted volunteers were out in record numbers.

The Hit Piece

The hit piece, and I call it that because it slammed these candidates, has a sinister looking side and tries to use scare tactics to make its point. It said Zita and Fishburn were “extremists” and that Fishburn is “oblivious”, and Zita “supports anarchists”. The piece was created and mailed by the Affordable Housing Council of the Olympia Master Builders. There were also reports of automated calls, with the voice of a County Commissioner. But if you are curious, and search the Public Disclosure Commission, you won’t find any expenditure for this postcard. Since it was delivered in my mailbox, I also don’t see a postal cost.

Olympia Master Builders (OMB)

It doesn’t take much research to learn a few things about the Olympia Master Builders (OMB). The OMB has given a lot of money to candidates who lost this election. They backed a set of candidates with outright donations and they created the hit piece. Yet despite their efforts, their candidates have done poorly, from Ken Balsley to Max Brown to Gigi McClure.

But one wonders, why these candidates? Why is the organization so clearly running counter to the voting public? Or put another way, what sorts of concerns does the community have that are not shared by the Olympia Master Builders?

To understand why the OMB is so clearly in opposition this year to the will of the people, we need to examine their motivations and concerns. Their members are primarily made up of small business people and all the building trades. These are inherently conservative business people, who seek a voice in government. They typically prefer less regulation and more opportunity to act in their own best interests. But they are also deeply committed to their community, since their livelihood depends on it. Our area has seen a lot of growth, and local builders have had a lot of competition, especially from the large corporate builders. The hit piece likely was not shown to the members before it was drafted and mailed. The members leave it to the board to choose who to support and where to put their dollars. The board sized up the candidates. The board got it wrong.

The hit piece is patently false. The Port Commission candidates they spent money to defeat are business–friendly and are mostly interested in the very things these OMB members are: innovative industries in solar and WIFI, small business growth and opportunity, good fiscal management and possibly even some ideas that have bounced around for years, like a passenger ferry that goes North to Tacoma and Seattle. As Bill Fishburn said in his concession letter: “It’s troubling when the needs of the public are ignored in favor of special interests. It’s a shame when true economic development is ignored in favor of nostalgia and history. It’s perplexing when our hard–earned wages are used to subsidize for–profit corporations whose interests do not align with ours.”

On the face of it, the OMB supported candidates with a bias for ‘change is bad’, in the Port and in the Cities of Thurston County. If they surveyed their members and studied the candidates, we might have seen a much different outlay of their funds. Just now the board of OMB owes some apologies. First to Fishburn and Zita and next to their members.

Zena Hartung has raised two children in Olympia. She is a local property manager and progressive activist since 1980s.



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