OLYMPIA — The Building Industry Association of Washington, long known for its brass-knuckle tactics and deep pockets for conservative candidates and causes, has muted its political megaphone and even started acting nice to former foes.
Now under new leadership, the group has reached out to people and organizations it used to bash, including Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Department of Labor and Industries. It even made a $250 contribution to the state Democratic Party, although BIAW leaders say it was the cost to attend a party-sponsored business luncheon in Seattle and nothing should be read into it.
With builders struggling in the ongoing housing crunch, the group also isn't bringing in the money it did a few years back, when it spent $6 million to support Republican Dino Rossi's failed attempt to unseat Gregoire, a Democrat, in 2008.
The BIAW for years has served as a counterpoint to union groups that traditionally back Democratic candidates and liberal causes in Washington state.
But state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur says he's not counting on the association to pour money into GOP elections next year, including the governor's race that pits Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna against Democratic U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee.
The BIAW has "changed dramatically," said Sam Anderson, executive officer of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, which belongs to the group.
"BIAW wants to be seen as a player that you'd like having at the table," Anderson said, adding that he doesn't expect the BIAW to return to its big-dollar, hyperpartisan campaigns of the past.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state GOP, said: "It looks to me, and I could be wrong, like they've become a more normal business group. I'm sure they're still going to be active in politics and endorse candidates and write checks, but they no longer see themselves as an auxiliary of the Republican Party."
Said Vance, "What it means is the Republicans have no allies with any real money."
BIAW President Pat McBride says his organization is still a fiscally conservative group, but that it's too early to say what political role it will play in 2012, "other than we intend to be a player."
Changes began after new leadership was installed late last year when the outspoken former executive vice president, Tom McCabe, left to become a consultant. McCabe declined to be interviewed for this article.
During his tenure, the BIAW became virtually synonymous with GOP politics in the state, spending nearly $11 million on conservative candidates and causes from 2002 through 2010.
There are many signs of the association's transformation from an aggressive, in-your-face brawler to something that seems more like a traditional trade organization.
The group, which once compared Gregoire to a "heartless, power-hungry she-wolf who would eat her own young to get ahead," reached out to the governor this year to mend fences.
"We've sat down with the governor and talked with her and she's been very supportive of trying to assist us in getting the (homebuilding) industry back to work," said McBride, who is serving a one-year term as BIAW's president.
The governor's office confirmed Gregoire and her staff have met with BIAW officials and that relations are better.
BIAW also apparently buried the hatchet with the state Department of Labor and Industries, which runs the state's workers' compensation system.
McCabe wrote in a newsletter last year, "I personally yearn for the day when the mammoth state Department of Labor and Industries is closed down, windows shuttered with weeds growing all over its sprawling campus."
Today, McBride says BIAW's "conversations with Labor and Industries have been encouraging and supportive."
The group also made peace with McKenna, who was once labeled "more liberal than a liberal" by the BIAW. His office sued the association in 2008, alleging it failed to properly report political spending that year. The case was settled last fall with BIAW agreeing to pay $242,000 in fines and an additional $50,000 in attorney fees.
McKenna's campaign manager, Randy Pepple, said BIAW's new leaders reached out to the attorney general after the case was settled "and said we want to work together, this is now behind us."
What all this means for the Republican Party and conservative causes in Washington isn't clear.
Art Castle, the group's new, interim executive vice president, said it's premature to count BIAW out.
The BIAW still has significant resources, he said. "I don't know how aggressive and how much we'll participate in. That's to be determined," he said.
Castle, however, said he'd be surprised if the organization plowed $6 million into politics next year like it did in 2008, given the beating homebuilders have taken.
"Our industry has been suffering and our membership has been down. Obviously our revenues are not what they were back then either. I would expect us to be players, but we're not a $10 million to $11 million-a-year operation any longer," he said.
State records show the recession hit the BIAW's largest source of income, a retrospective rating program — known as Retro — that rewards companies and organizations for preventing on-the-job injuries and keeping workers' compensation costs down. The state Department of Labor and Industries runs the workers' compensation system.
The BIAW has a for-profit subsidiary, BIAW Member Services, that administers the largest Retro program in the state, according to state reports.
Under the program, if workers' compensation claims are less than the insurance premiums paid to the state, the surplus goes back to BIAW and its members.
In 2007, a peak year, the state refund totaled more than $51 million. Last year's refund was $5.5 million. The BIAW keeps 10 percent, and the rest goes to companies it represents and to local homebuilder associations.
The BIAW says most of its share goes to things other than politics, such as administering the program. The share is based on three years of refunds. Last year it got around $600,000, down from roughly $5 million in 2007, association officials said.
This year it actually had to give money back to Labor and Industries because of larger than expected claims.
"They just don't have the golden goose anymore," said Anderson, with the Master Builders Association.
"They're going to be like a lot of other entities where if they want to be a big player in the governor's race, they're going to have to go out and ask members to give money," he said.
McBride said he doesn't know if BIAW in the future will play as big a political role as it has in the past, "but we certainly intend to be smarter about how we participate," he said.
"We are going to support candidates who are housing- friendly and we don't care where they come from," he said.
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