The National Association of Realtors Fund, a Chicago-based organization, has made a $75,000 independent expenditure in support of East Side real estate agent Chris Wall's primary challenge to state Senator Gayle Goldin (D-Providence).
The Realtors Fund's spending in support of Wall is more than twice the amount that Goldin ($14,814) and Wall ($18,943) had on hand in their most recent campaign finance filings.
A filing with the state Board of Elections shows how the Fund last week spent $75,000 in support of Wall's run against Goldin: paying $60,000 to the Ardleigh Group in Washington, D.C., and $15,000 to an entity listed as "Assoc Campaign Consulting + Election Serv," also of Washington, D.C. It's not immediately clear how the money will be spent, although it could pay for a combination of advertising and field efforts in support of Wall's campaign.
Jenny Werwa, a spokeswoman for the Realtors Fund, declined comment on how the group's independent expenditure is being spent. She says the expenditure was requested by the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, and that state-based groups typically decide how such requests are spent.
In response to a request for comment, Wall emailed to say he did not request the spending by the National Association of Realtors Fund, "and I have no control over it."
Wall adds: "I am going to continue spending my time going door to door speaking with my East Side neighbors about the “kitchen table” issues that matter most to them: revitalizing our economy and creating jobs, improving our public schools and ending the insider government corruption that holds us all back. But if my sister and brother Realtors, with their record of advocating on behalf of middle class taxpayers, homeowners, renters, affordable housing and homelessness issues and green construction has chosen to support my candidacy, I would welcome their support in my fight for change and reform and restoring hope and opportunity for all Rhode Islanders."
Wall says on his professional Web site that he's been a Realtor for 10 years, the president of the board of directors of the Greater Providence Board of Realtors, and a board member of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. He was previously a reporter for WJAR-TV and worked for former secretary of state Edward Inman.
Goldin, who won the seat formerly held by longtime senator Rhoda Perry in 2012, expressed surprise at the level of spending on Wall's behalf by the National Association of Realtors Fund.
"I don't know that we've seen this level of independent expenditure in a General Assembly race in the past," she says, "and this is certainly a surprising amount of money to go into a state Senate race."
Goldin works as the strategic initiatives officer for the Women's Fund of Rhode Island. She may be best known for helping to pass a paid family leave law.
Kate Coyne-McCoy, a supporter of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo, last year formed a super PAC to make independent expenditures on Raimondo's behalf. Yet the Democratic candidates for governor later struck a so-called "People's Pledge" meant to limit the influence of outside spending in the race, and independent expenditures have received little attention since then in Rhode Island's 2014 campaign season.
John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause of Rhode Island, says the $75,000 independent expenditure by the Realtors Fund "dwarfs any other reported independent spending we have seen in a General Assembly race. To put this into perspective, the largest reported expenditure in the governor's race is approximately the same amount."
Marion adds, "We have been concerned about outside spending for quite some time because it is not limited like donations to the candidates. The result is often more negative advertising because the candidate does not need to stand by the advertisements. That's why we worked in 2012 to pass a strong independent disclosure law that helped reveal this spending. This sort of spending is also why Common Cause pursued a People's Pledge in the Democratic gubernatorial primary."
Goldin says there are significant policy differences between her and Wall on issues involving the real estate industry.
"There are a whole host of things that the real estate industry has been up at the Statehouse opposed to, including affordable housing and supporting homeless families and some of the work on fair housing for veterans," Goldin says. "Certainly, there were opposed to my support of the conveyance tax, which changed the way we create affordable housing and sustainable housing for homeless individuals and does lead abatement."
On its Web site, the National Association of Realtors explains how it operates a separate political action committee, RPAC, which was created in 1969, adding, "The purpose of RPAC is clear: REALTORS® raise and spend money to elect candidates who understand and support their interests. The money to accomplish this comes from voluntary contributions made by REALTORS®. These are not members’ dues; this is money given freely by REALTORS® in recognition of how important campaign fundraising is to the political process. RPAC doesn’t buy votes. RPAC enables REALTORS® to support candidates that support the issues that are important to their profession and livelihood."
The groups paid by the Realtors Fund on Wall's behalf don't have a significant public profile, although they appear to be involved in supporting field efforts and ad placement for candidates.
In 2011, the National Association of Realtors PAC spent $6.5 million on what Politico called "a bipartisan slate of 103 pro-Realtor candidates." Sixty-six won their elections.
"The notion of a rise of well-funded, sector-based, business groups could add powerful new players into political system," Politico reported, "conjuring up the specter of an “Ethanol Party” or a “Utilities Party,” which could pool resources and operate without any of the typical party loyalty tests."
In light of the five-figure spending by the out-of-town Realtors Fund, Goldin says plans to remain focused on her message for voters. "I think the people of the East Side value somebody who's up there in the Statehouse advocating on their behalf and really talking about what's going on within our district and what is important," she says, "including a clean environment, affordable housing, and caring for families in our state." (Clarification: This story initially reported that the National Association of Realtors Fund is a political action committee. The Realtors Fund operates a separate PAC, but the independent expenditure referred to in this story was made by the Realtors Fund.) This post has been updated.