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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Wealthy Southwest Washington Businessmen Top Donors In Republican Quest For House

This year, a pair of wealthy southwest Washington businessmen have emerged as major donors to state Republicans. Billionaire investor Ken Fisher and developer Clyde Holland are stepping up their contributions as control of the Washington legislature hangs in the balance.

Fisher, 184th on Forbes’ list of billionaires, is a guy who’ll talk presidential elections and their effect on the markets on Fox Business News. But he did not respond to our request to talk state politics, even though he’s an emerging investor in who controls Olympia.

One person Fisher does talk state politics with is Republican state Rep. Liz Pike.

“He’s kind of been a legend in my district for a while,” Pike said.

Pike represents Camas, Washington. It’s a small city on the Columbia River where Fisher chose to relocate his $71 billion investment firm from California. But Pike said her first contact with Fisher as a freshman lawmaker wasn’t about business.

“I get this email from somebody that could be him and it was about fireworks of all things,” she said.

It turns out Fisher is a big fireworks fan and appreciated Pike’s opposition to any state bans on personal fireworks. From there was borne a friendship.

So besides fireworks, what does Fisher care about?

“A predictable business climate,” Pike said. “And he makes no bones that it’s going to be a lot easier for him to leave the state of Washington than it was as a fourth-generation San Franciscan to leave the state of California.”

In fact, in 2010 when a high-earners income tax was on Washington’s ballot, Fisher said there was “no way” he’d make Washington his corporate headquarters if the measure passed. It didn’t and Fisher did make Camas his firm’s headquarters.

But now Washington Democrats are talking about a capital gains tax. Something Republicans call a “gateway drug” to a full blown income tax. Whether that’s motivating Fisher or something else, so far this year he’s given more than $100,000 to House Republicans.

So has Holland, another southwest Washington businessman. He’s Vancouver-based apartment developer with $7.5 billion in projects in the western United States. He also did not respond to requests for an interview.

 

SOURCE: Washington state Public Disclosure Commission and Federal Election Commission fundraising data. Federal campaign data has been filtered for clarity, and donations to candidates outside Washington have been removed. Graphic: KUOW/Abraham Epton

“They are major donors no question,” said Kevin Carns, the strategist behind House Republicans’ quest for the majority. He said the Fisher and Holland money is vital to compete with majority Democrats who currently have a two-to-one fundraising advantage.

Carns recalled a meeting with both men last spring.

“You know these are smart guys, very shrewd,” he said. “And they had already done their homework.”

Carns said Fisher and Holland see that for the first time in nearly two decades the House majority is within reach for Republicans. He said they also know that, “Unequivocally, the 48 members of the House Republican caucus won’t vote for a state income tax, hands down.”

Democratic state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon chairs the House Democrats’ re-election efforts. He has a different take on the Holland and Fisher money.

“For a modest investment of $100,000, they see the ability to buy a majority that will not ask the wealthiest to pay more in taxes to pay for our schools,” Fitzgibbon said.

Holland and Fisher have also been generous contributors to anti-tax activist Tim Eyman’s efforts to make it harder to raise taxes.

Pike said her wealthy constituents are trying to bring some balance to a state that’s seen mostly Democratic rule for the past three decades.

“For me it’s refreshing to have business people, job-creators who actually live in this state, have invested their own fortunes in this state who want to see a better business climate,” Pike said.

Besides supporting House Republicans this year, Fisher has also contributed $100,000 to a political action committee that’s trying to defeat the chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court. And Holland has given more than $400,000 to the state Republican Party. In addition, both Fisher and Holland were listed as hosts of a recent Donald Trump fundraiser in Everett.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Seattle Times.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."