Corporate cash largely absent in Seattle mayoral race
Contribution ban sponsored by González helps unions that support her; Plus other pre-primary campaign cash news
Four years ago at this time, an independent political committee1 somewhat mendaciously named People For Jenny Durkan was busily throwing money around ahead of the primary in an open race for mayor of Seattle.
There were very few actual people involved in People For Jenny Durkan2. The PAC got more than two-thirds of its money from the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the political arm of the Seattle Chamber and formerly the Big Dog, at least money-wise, in the city’s politics. That committee got its money in five- and six-figure checks from a list of corporate players including Amazon, Centurylink, Comcast, Alaska Airlines, Puget Sound Energy, and Expedia. In the end, Durkan’s “People” spent $835,000 helping her get elected, 33 times the amount spent by a committee supporting her opponent, Cary Moon.3
Today, that kind of corporate politicking is illegal in Seattle, thanks to a law quietly passed by the Seattle City Council last year at the behest of Councilmember Lorena González, currently a favorite to finish in the top two in Tuesday’s primary to replace Durkan. The law technically bans political spending by “foreign-influenced” companies, but the definition of that term was written so that it covers pretty much any company with widely traded stock. So all those name brands are on the sidelines this year.
Regardless of where you come down on the free-speech rights of giant corporations, here’s why you should care about this: Taking a million dollars of political money out of a campaign is going to help somebody. The interesting questions are who, and why.
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González's back-door ban on corporate money was sparked by Amazon’s disastrous attempt to sway the 2019 Seattle City Council races with a showy million-dollar donation to CASE in the waning days of the campaign. The tactic backfired badly. Nearly all of CASE’s candidates lost, including three with realistic chances to win. The Big Dog has been curled up in its lair licking its wounds ever since. Earlier this year, the Chamber disbanded CASE and quit endorsing candidates.
That’s part of a radically changed landscape for political money in the city. As we reported in June, most of the money given directly to candidates came from the taxpayers via the city’s democracy voucher program, which essentially gives every registered voter $100 to give to municipal candidates. In prior elections, candidates got most of their money from individuals wealthy enough — and interested enough — to open their own wallets.
Who the ban on corporate money helps most: Labor unions
Among the other big-money players in those 2019 campaigns was UNITE HERE, a labor union that represents workers in hotels and restaurants. The union spent more than $500,000 on a single Seattle City Council race that year, helping Andrew Lewis defeat CASE’s chosen candidate in the district that includes the city’s core and most of its hotels.
This year, UNITE HERE is the driving force behind Essential Workers For Lorena, the independent committee backing González. It provided $350,000 of the $450,000 the PAC has spent promoting her candidacy thus far, according to its latest filing with the Public Disclosure Commission. The rest comes from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which mostly represents grocery story workers. With CASE and its corporate sponsors out of the picture, the PAC is ahead of Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, the committee backing the nominal candidate of the business community.
But here’s the thing about UNITE HERE: The union doesn’t have many members hereabouts, just 5,000 in Washington and Oregon combined. Unionized hotels are rare here, and the list of union restaurants on its site is quite short. So why are they dropping so much cash — money that came out of the union dues of housekeepers, line cooks and bartenders in places like New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco — on Seattle politics?
Well, UNITE HERE ignored our questions, but luckily your correspondent knows some relevant people and things, so we can sketch you a little outline.
For the most part, unions care about two sets of things:
Getting better pay, benefits, and working conditions for their members.
Getting more members by unionizing more workplaces.
Gonzales and the rest of the city council have been helpful on a citywide level with Point 1. Workers in Seattle in recent years have won a high minimum wage, protections against onerously variable work schedules, and paid family and medical leave.
Ironically, that might make Point 2 more difficult. Unionization can be a tougher sell if the protections normally negotiated into collective bargaining agreements are already baked into the city’s code.
But there are other ways to unionize a workplace, especially a big workplace like a hotel. Building a new hotel, or even significantly renovating an existing hotel, involves a great deal of regulatory cooperation from the city. Significant permits need to be issued. Sometimes the project requires a zoning change, or for the city to give up an alley or other public property, a process called “vacation” that typically requires a vote from the City Council. In a truly union-friendly City Hall, such cooperation might not be forthcoming without a promise of union workers in the hotel.
Wealthy individual picks up the slack
Corporations may be on the sidelines this year, but rich individuals are very much in the game. The committee supporting Harrell is currently getting its money almost exclusively from wealthy individuals, many involved in commercial real estate in Seattle. Thus far that PAC has spent about $250,000 supporting Harrell.
Among other mayoral hopefuls, former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell also has a rich-benefactor PAC, Seattle United for Progressive Change, fueled by money from a handful of politically active rich progressives led by billionaire philanthropist and rabble-rouser Nick Hanauer. That committee has spent about $100,000 boosting Farrell so far.
A smaller PAC called New Generation Leaders supporting Colleen Echohawk’s run for mayor has spent about $30,000 thus far, with big donations from Steve Trainer, one of the founders of downtown real estate developer Seneca Group, and Tod Leiweke, CEO and president of the Seattle Kraken hockey team. On Friday, the committee spent $4,000 on 225,000 Facebook impressions.
Will the business money really stay out?
One of the arguments against aggressive regulation of political spending boils down to this: Money always finds a way in.
Just because Amazon and other corporations can’t directly write checks doesn’t mean the might of their wealth has been entirely smitten down. They could flout the law and take the city to court on free-speech grounds. And there’s nothing to keep company founder Jeff Bezos or any number of wealthy executives at Amazon or other companies from writing big personal checks to a new PAC.
Meanwhile, some of the bigger players from CASE are either local and regional business groups or privately held companies not subject to the ban. For example, Vulcan Inc., the real estate empire founded by the late Paul Allen, was the second-biggest donor after Amazon. Thus far most of those players seem reluctant to throw good 2021 money after the really bad 2019 money. Will they get back in after the primary? Thus far we’ve only heard from the Washington Association of Realtors, as we reported earlier this week.
Conservative PAC spends to unseat Seattle city attorney, protect Lambert on King County Council
Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State has dropped nearly $20,000 into the normally low-profile race for Seattle City Attorney. We wrote about the committee, which is bankrolled by a handful of wealthy individuals, last year when they targeted a handful of close races for the Legislature. It has raised $100,000 thus far this year, mostly from founder Steve Gordon, who owns a bunch of truck dealerships.
The money is supporting challenger Ann Davison, who’s coming at incumbent Pete Holmes from the right, and attacking Holmes. Holmes is something of a lightning rod in the city because his office generally declines to prosecute low-level crimes related to homelessness.
Davison ran for lieutenant governor last year as a Republican, finishing third in the primary behind state Sen. Marko Liaas and then-U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, the eventual winner. She unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Debora Juarez for her Seattle City Council seat in 2019.
Holmes also has a challenger from the left in Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender, who wants to get rid of most misdemeanor prosecutions in the city.
The two challengers split the major editorial endorsements, with Davison getting the nod from The Seattle Times and Thomas-Kennedy the recommendation of The Stranger. Jim Brunner of the Times reported this week that Holmes and his camp are worried he’ll run third.
The PAC has also spent more than $17,000 supporting Kathy Lambert’s bid for a sixth term on the King County Council. The council’s technically a nonpartisan office now, but Lambert was originally elected as a Republican in 2001.
Lambert has two viable challengers in the race, most notably Sarah Perry, a prominent player in Democratic politics in East King County. Lambert’s district in the northeast part of the county, which includes Redmond and Issaquah, has been trending blue in recent elections. Perry has raised nearly $150,000 for her race, almost twice as much as the incumbent.
More real estate money hits Spokane City Council race
Digging around on the Realtors’ political spending got us interested in some hot races for the City Council in Spokane.
A committee called the Spokane Good Government Alliance dropped about $6,500 on digital ads supporting Mike Lish, who’s also one of the Realtors’ chosen candidates, in a race for an open seat on the council. The PAC has raised some $82,000 so far this year. The biggest chunk comes from real estate developers Walt and Karen Worthy, who are responsible for much of Spokane’s skyline, including the restoration of the historic Davenport Hotel.4
Other donors include the Building Industry Association of Washington, the political arm of the state’s homebuilders, and the BIAW’s local Spokane affiliate. As we’ve noted before, local elections are frequently about land-use policy, something builders and real estate developers care deeply about.
The alliance spent nearly $350,000 on Spokane politics in 2019, mostly to help now-Mayor Nadine Woodward defeat Ben Stuckart.
Like all the committees referenced in this piece, People For Jenny Durkan was an independent expenditure committee. Such committees, sometimes called SuperPACs, can raise and spend money without limits provided they don’t coordinate with the candidate.
Conflict of Interest Disclaimer: In September 2017, when your correspondent was a strategic communications consultant and a card-carrying member of the political establishment, he wrote Jenny Durkan’s campaign a check for $250.
To be clear, Moon was an absolutely terrible candidate and would have lost anyway. But getting brutally outspent didn’t help. Not that we’re bitter about losing a bet or anything.
Your correspondent was last in Spokane about a decade ago on some hush-hush consulting business. He learned two things: 1) The richly decorated lobby of the Davenport is a truly baller place to take a high-stakes meeting. 2) They play some political hardball out there.