Spokane Journal of Business

Chris Cargill: Furthering free market

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-—Linn Parish
Chris Cargill, Eastern Washington director for the Washington Policy Center, says the organization’s membership here has tripled in five years.

Five years ago, Chris Cargill traded in his spot behind the news desk at KXLY-TV for a position on the forefront of Washington state politics. 

As the organization’s Eastern Washington director, Cargill has led this outpost of the free-market-backing think tank as it has tripled its membership and raised its profile on this side of the Cascade Mountains.

We sat down with Cargill to talk about the organization and the current state of affairs. 

Journal: Washington Policy Center recently celebrated its five-year anniversary in Eastern Washington. Tell me how the organization’s presence here has evolved over that five years.

Chris Cargill: About five or six years ago, we decided to embark on the process of opening an Eastern Washington office. We had an Eastern Washington advisory board for quite a long time that was made up of a lot of the region’s top business leaders. We didn’t have a full-time Eastern Washington presence, so our staff was coming over from the West Side of the state. 

The board of directors decided we needed a full-time Eastern Washington presence, so we opened the office in late 2009. It’s really amazing how far the office has come. 

It’s really a mobile office. We’re in a different citys every day, speaking to different groups or meeting with elected officials. We’re not just stationed in Spokane or the Tri-Cities. We’re all over the place. I just returned from Wenatchee.

Our presence and the office has grown substantially. When we first opened the office, we had a couple hundred Eastern Washington supporters. That has more than tripled. We were speaking to groups on an occasional basis. We ‘re doing it on almost a weekly basis now. The amount of coverage we’re getting in the media, whether that be radio, TV, newspaper, what have you, has just gone through the roof. In January alone in Eastern Washington, we were featured in more than 100 media pieces. 

Journal: What was the impetus for opening the Eastern Washington office?

Cargill: Well, the organization realizes we’re not a state that is centered in Puget Sound. We’re truly a statewide organization. It was time to get rid of this Cascade curtain and open up an Eastern Washington office. 

Journal: Were you involved with the organization before the Eastern Washington office opened?

Cargill: No, I was not. In fact, I worked in TV news in Spokane for almost 10 years before I made the switch over to Washington Policy Center. I was vaguely familiar with some of the things Washington Policy Center had done, because we had covered them in TV news stories before. 

But I wasn’t involved in the organization. I was told of the position, and someone suggested I apply. I applied, the rest is history. 

Journal: Were you a reporter?

Cargill: No, I was a producer. I was producing the newscasts, and that gave me great training for what I’m doing now. 

My background is in political science. I have a political science minor from Gonzaga, with a broadcast communication major, so this is something I’ve wanted to do. What I enjoyed the most in TV news was covering political stories. That really caught my eye.

Journal: So are you spending more time in front of the camera now than you did when you were working in TV?

Cargill: (laughs) I think so. Other than the fact that the KXLY newsroom is set up so the newsroom is always in the background. 

But yes, I spend a lot of time meeting with media, TV, newspaper, radio. Some of that is on camera. Some of that is just helping reporters understand an issue.

Oftentimes, it’s difficult to keep up to date on everything that’s happening. We’ve had 1,500 bills introduced in the last few weeks, since the legislative session began. We’re spending time looking at bills and saying, ‘What exactly is this thing? What does it do?’ And then we try to explain to reporters what some of these things would do. We even have trouble keeping track some of that stuff, because there’s so much of it. We’re there as a resource.

Journal: You’re a membership-based organization, correct?

Cargill: Yes. We’re a 501(c)3, so people can be part of the organization. They can join the organization, or they can just donate to the events, or they can just come to the events.

We like people to donate. We appreciate their donations. But, really, we’re there as a resource.

Journal: Do you still describe the organization as nonpartisan?

Cargill: We are nonpartisan. We’re a 501(c)3 so we have to be. 

But there’s a difference between being nonpartisan and nonideological. We certainly have an ideological perspective. We’re a free-market organization. We’re a free-market think tank, but we don’t endorse candidates. We don’t endorse Republicans or Democrats. All of the funds that come into the organization, fund the organization. We don’t contribute to anybody’s campaign or any issue’s campaign. 

So, we take a look at things from a free-market perspective, and some people consider that more of a conservative-type approach. As I tell people, you can be a liberal or you can be a conservative and still believe in the free-market, accountable system.  

Journal: What are some of your biggest initiatives right now?

Cargill: I think there’s a couple of things. One is this issue of remote testimony. That’s specifically important to us in Eastern Washington. For years, the people of Eastern Washington have had to travel long distances or buy a $300 plane ticket and stay overnight in a hotel to testify for a minute or two the next morning. What we’ve suggested is that the Legislature take advantage of the technology that we have, the video conferencing technology, and allow people to testify without having to travel to Olympia. 

That means setting up a remote testimony location like they have at Spokane Community College, like they have a Columbia Basin College in the Tri-Cities. They tested it just this morning. This gives people the opportunity to tell their legislators how they feel about an issue without having to make a trip to Olympia.

This is especially important during weather situations. But also, because of the way the legislature has done its business in the past, where information is put out there about a public hearing with four hours’ notice. Nobody in Eastern Washington has the opportunity to go over to Olympia and testify. Basically, Eastern Washington folks are cut out of the process when that happens. 

Journal: What kind of traction have you made on that so far?

Cargill: So, the Senate is testing it on a trial basis. The House is still trying to see how it goes. I would suspect that within a year or two, the House will be doing it as well. 

There are certainly technical issues that you have to get worked out. How many people do you allow to testify from a remote location versus the people who show up? So, there are those types of bugs that you have to get worked out. 

Overall, it’s about getting people involved in the process.

Journal: So, do you think it’s more a matter of getting the bugs worked out, or is there a group that’s against it?

Cargill: I think there are some interests in Olympia who like it the way it is. They have their folks. They have their lobbyists. They can come in with their one- or two-minute testimony and be done with it. Some of them are uncomfortable with the idea that we allow more people the opportunity to be part of the process. 

But it is the people’s government. The people are in charge of the Legislature. We really believe they should have the opportunity to be involved in the process.

Journal: Are there any Spokane-specific issues that you’re working on?

Cargill: Yes, one of the issues right now is this electric trolley that the Spokane Transit Authority is working on. This is something STA has been working on for some time now. It’s this idea to have a $72 million, six-mile-long electric trolley line that would go from Browne’s Addition through downtown to Gonzaga, then all the way to Spokane Community College. 

When you think about transportation and public transit in particular, the point should be to move people from point A to point B efficiently and safely as possible. From our perspective, the electric trolley would do nothing more than add to the cost of that.

Part of the cost is the cost to build that. $72 million. Now, part of that would come from federal matching funds, if they get the right system. But some of that would come from a pretty major increase in sales tax in the STA service area. 

Let’s say you push that aside, and you look at the operations cost. Operation costs for this thing are $4.1 million a year. They’re estimating about 880,000 trips per year on this thing. So if you do the quick math, you’re looking at a per-trip cost of $4.65. Average STA bus trip is under $4. What do we get for that? It’s about $1 more per trip to move people from point A to point B on this electric trolley.

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Editor Linn Parish has worked for newspapers and magazines since 1996, with the bulk of that time being at the Journal. A Montana boy who has called Spokane home for some time now, Linn likes Northwest trails, Deep South foods, and lead changes in the ninth inning.

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