Washington State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz held a press conference this afternoon calling out gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna's in-kind contribution from from Honda Auto Center of Bellevue—a Honda Pilot for his campaign—as an unacceptable conflict of interest.

Ever since the Seattle PI's Joel Connelly broke the story on the auto center's in-kind contribution Sunday, the Democrats have sunk their teeth into the story. The Democrats have continued to pounce on McKenna the for so-called "freebie," even though, as PubliCola first reported this morning, Democratic governor and former attorney general Christine Gregoire also got a car donated and  has accepted contributions from auto dealers during her past campaigns. The Republicans told us the Democrats were working from a double standard.

The press conference was held in a cool spot in the shade at Denny Park in South Lake Union. Dwight Pelz, who stood in front of a white minivan plastered with a picture of Rob McKenna and a snarky one-liner ("Come on ... and take a free ride"), read from an official press release. Pelz consistently highlighted Mckenna's actions as an "ethical lapse" and said it was evidence of a "cozy relationship" with the auto industry that Attorney General McKenna is supposed to regulate.

Pelz emphasized that McKenna is "specifically, at this time, negotiating settlements with eight auto dealerships" (the Honda Auto Center of Bellevue is not among the eight), a point that Pelz returned to repeatedly to sidestep several questions, including how McKenna's actions differed from Gregoire's and what he would think if if the Honda dealership had made a cash contribution rather than in-kind contribution of wheels. [pullquote]"We're not contending that [McKenna] did not correctly disclose the donation," Pelz said. "We're contending that that this was an ethical lapse."[/pullquote]

Republicans have fired back at these accusations of ethical wrongdoing by slamming US Rep. Jay Inslee, McKenna's opponent in the 2012 governor's race, for not disclosing the sources of "35 percent" of contributions to his "state campaign account." The account in question includes $391,000, of which $200,000 are from the Democratic Party Committee and $191,000 in donations rolled over from Inslee's 2010 congressional run. (Publicola has reported on the latter controversy)

The Washington State Republican Party sent out a press release this morning framing the accusations against McKenna as an attempt to "distract" voters from the murkiness of Inslee's campaign contributions. In the press release, WRSP Communications Director Josh Amato had this to say:
I am curious how they can pretend to be very concerned about impropriety, all the while the Inslee campaign is taking their sweet time disclosing the contributors involved in the $191,000 transfer from his Congressional account to his state account. We’re not accusing them of doing anything illegal, yet, but they’ve had enough to time get this figured out. What is taking so long, do they need more staff? So much secrecy. Will Dwight Pelz reveal who donated the $200,000 that he’s transferred to Inslee? Was any of that money donated to the State Democrats with the promise that it would be passed along to Inslee?”

When asked to comment on the issue of Inslee's contributions, Pelz simply remarked he was not an "expert on the specifics of Inslee's campaign" before bringing the attention back to McKenna.

"We're not contending that [McKenna] did not correctly disclose the donation," Pelz said. "We're contending that that this was an ethical lapse."

Pelz concluded the press conference by taking a swing at McKenna's core campaign message. "Rob McKenna is setting out to run for governor and sending the message that he's a different kind of politician, and yet we're finding that he has run to the side of the industry he regulates," Pelz claimed. "His rhetoric doesn't match his message."
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