The Building Industry Association of Washington has spent far more money supporting Dino Rossi for governor than the State Republican Party has spent on all races in this election. What does the BIAW want, and why is it working so hard to beat Gov. Christine Gregoire?

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The Building Industry Association of Washington is a bigger force in this year’s election than the state Republican Party.

The builders group has spent far more supporting Dino Rossi for governor than the party has spent on all races this year. And with $6.3 million sunk into its political-action committee — $3.8 million just this week — the BIAW has thrown more into the race than any other interest group.

That money has bought ads attacking Gov. Christine Gregoire on issues such as sex offenders and the loss of the Seattle Sonics — issues that have nothing to do with BIAW’s agenda. The organization now faces three lawsuits over its fundraising and political work.

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So what does the BIAW want, and why is it working so hard to beat Gregoire?

Its agenda is simple, says Tom McCabe, who in the past two decades has led the group from one room and two employees to a renovated Olympia mansion with 45 staffers.

The group, which represents 13,000 home-building contractors, wants lower taxes and fewer regulations, particularly environmental ones, McCabe says.

And it wants to be a counterweight to unions and their allies that have helped keep the governor’s office in Democratic hands since the 1984 election.

This year’s BIAW spending — the most it has ever bet on a candidate — is meant to outpace a new union-funded campaign committee, Evergreen Progress, that has raised $5 million, McCabe says.

Opponents say the BIAW is extreme and incendiary. They point to columns in its newsletter that have likened environmentalists to Nazis and Gregoire to a “power-hungry she-wolf.”

The state attorney general accused it last month of illegally concealing $584,000 in campaign donations, critics note.

Rossi’s spokeswoman, Jill Strait, says the BIAW hasn’t asked Rossi for anything, and she wouldn’t speculate on why the group is spending so much on his behalf.

McCabe, 51, remains steadfast about BIAW’s role in state politics and dismisses the investigations and lawsuits by foes as political harassment.

“In the bluest of blue states, in what’s going to be a Democratic year, we have a chance to elect the first Republican governor in 28 years,” McCabe says.

Small guys ignored

Recent Democratic governors have been good for big corporations like Boeing, but not so much for plumbers, drywallers and other small businesses, McCabe says.

The state keeps adding to workplace regulations, he says. And concerns about climate change and Puget Sound pollution help environmentalists push for new restrictions on carbon emissions and stormwater runoff.

“We’re trying to create a regulatory climate good for affordable housing. But those arguments don’t work with this governor,” says Brian Minnich, BIAW’s legislative-affairs director. “Anytime we go into negotiations with state agencies, they don’t give anything. We’re seeking balance, not unbridled development.”

This compels the BIAW to back Rossi, a commercial Realtor who consistently sided with the group when he was a state senator. McCabe says the BIAW has spent so much “because there is no one else” representing small business in the electoral arena.

Washington needs the BIAW because no other group advocates as fiercely for small business, says Troy Nichols, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents 8,500 small employers in the state.

John Carlson, who ran for governor in 2000 with the BIAW’s support, says the group’s conservative influence in state politics is rivaled only by the National Rifle Association.

“They both play politics the way Democrats play,” he says. “They’re constantly on offense, and when someone throws an elbow they throw one right back.”

“Retro” political power

The BIAW’s firepower comes from money in its “retro” program. The program allows the BIAW to collect workers’ compensation insurance premiums from members, pool them and promote job safety. If claims are less than premiums at the end of a year, the group has a surplus.

Most of that is refunded to members. The BIAW keeps 20 percent to run the insurance program and pay for political work.

The group spent almost $1 million backing Rossi in 2004 and almost $1 million on conservative Supreme Court candidates in 2006.

The BIAW’s foes have tried for years to kill this funding source.

The Washington State Labor Council took a shot in 1997 with a complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). But the state’s campaign watchdogs cleared the BIAW.

A few years later, Gov. Gary Locke tried with an administrative rule. The BIAW sued and a judge overturned the rule.

In 2005, Democratic lawmakers pushed a bill to cut the retro refunds, but it died.

Last year liberal attorney Knoll Lowney filed a lawsuit, still pending, that argued the BIAW used retro refunds for politics without members’ permission. Lowney followed up this year with a PDC complaint, claiming the builders group hid political contributions. He also sued this month alleging the BIAW and Rossi illegally coordinated their campaigns.

The PDC and attorney general agreed the BIAW broke campaign rules by not reporting $584,000 in contributions that came in through the retro program. The Attorney General’s Office sued the BIAW last month over the contributions.

Lowney said he hopes his lawsuits will taint the BIAW to the point that candidates will “be returning their money.”

Environmental lobbyist Clifford Traisman says the BIAW is unlike other business groups in Olympia.

“They are to the far right of most business in Washington state,” Traisman says. “They believe the free market should rule supreme.”

State Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, used to run a trade association for nursing homes and said he understands BIAW’s use of overheated rhetoric. “You try to make yourself relevant to members and conjure up a world where everything would be worse without you,” he says.

But the problem, Williams says, “is they conjure the image of a bizarro world where jackbooted thugs from the government would be stepping on your neck but for the BIAW.”

Critics zero in on two comments in BIAW’s newsletter. In one, Mark Musser, BIAW’s stormwater field representative, stressed that Nazis were environmentalists and “expressed many of same ecological refrains we hear today.”

Another piece focused on a teary moment for Gregoire and asked if it was “Gregoire’s new plan to revamp her Hillary Clinton-esque image as a heartless, power-hungry she-wolf who would eat her own young to get ahead?”

Erin Shannon, editor of the BIAW newsletter, defended both pieces. “We never said environmentalists were Nazis. This was a historical comparison we found interesting and thought it might be interesting for readers,” Shannon said.

As to the “she-wolf” comment, Shannon said she wrote that as a “tongue-in-cheek commentary.”

Program voluntary

Concerning Lowney’s lawsuit over the use of retro refunds, McCabe says the retro program is voluntary. Competition exists between groups with retro pools. If members don’t like BIAW’s politics, he says, they can switch to another program.

He adds membership has swelled from 2,000 to 13,400 during his tenure. “I always say it’s because we stand for something.”

McCabe maintains the BIAW did not intend to conceal the $584,000 in contributions that led to the attorney general’s lawsuit. He says it was an attempt to save affiliates on taxes by not returning all of the retro refunds only to have affiliates send the money back when needed for campaigning.

He notes the BIAW had disclosed more than $2 million in contributions at the same time.

The bottom line for McCabe: Political adversaries should be allowed to duke it out in the free market where voters can decide who has the best ideas.

The idea of letting voters ratify or repudiate BIAW’s agenda sounds good to Williams.

“But the problem is they’re not sharing their agenda with the public in advancing Dino Rossi,” he says.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com