How those millionaires and billionaires did, Part I
After big Democratic political giving, state devotes $$$ to child care, early learning; Senate Republicans haul in soft money; Remembering Mark Doumit
The Observer launched last year with a story on the millionaires and billionaires who were giving heavily to the Washington State Democratic Party.
Today we begin a series looking at how those big players did this year in the policy arena. We’ll start with Lisa Mennet, a prominent child psychologist and founder of the Perigee Fund, which advocates for better support for young children and their parents.
Last year, Mennet gave $250,000 to the party’s non-exempt fund, the second-largest donation of the year by an actual human being1, according to the Public Disclosure Commission’s data. At the time, she told the Observer the money was intended for party-building efforts to help Democrats up and down the ticket. As a matter of accounting, the money mostly went to Gov. Jay Inslee’s reelection campaign, because the party had plenty of PAC money to spend on get-out-the-vote efforts and other soft-money tactics.2
When the Legislature convened this year, Perigee was one of the big monied players behind the push for the Fair Start For Kids Act, the state’s massive expansion of subsidized child care and other early-learning programs.3 That bill did in fact pass this year, along with the capital gains tax intended to pay for it after the gusher of federal pandemic relief money we like to think of as Uncle Joe’s Pile of Cash (UJPOC) dries up. Among Perigee’s efforts was this $157,000 “grassroots” lobbying campaign.
Mennet is also outspoken in support of revamping the state’s tax system, which falls heavily on the poor and lightly on people like herself, as she wrote in this op-ed a couple of years back. Mennet’s spending last year was part of a larger wave of spending by Democratic interest groups that resulted in a subtle shift in the Senate majority caucus that allowed the capital gains tax — and perhaps the early learning bill — to pass.
Those early learning changes will cost taxpayers large and small more than $300 million in the coming two-year budget cycle, and that’s expected to grow to $450 million in 2024-25. Advocates, including many in the business community, argue persuasively that those costs will pay for themselves by recovering economic activity and tax revenue that is currently lost because parents can’t find or afford child care. But it’s still a big pile of cash.
So we definitely put Mennet in the winner column. She didn’t respond to our emailed questions, but she seems happy with the return on her political spending in the sense that she’s doing more of it. She gave the party $300,000 last month, according to the PDC, more than half of its 2021 haul thus far. That’s an unusually large donation, especially for an odd-numbered year. The party is hungry for money to protect its majority in the state Senate, which has several vulnerable seats on the ballot in 2022.
Mennet has also given $50,000 apiece to the Children’s Campaign Fund and to the campaign for Best Starts for Kids, the campaign to renew King County’s local property tax levy for programs for young children. That campaign has raised more than $320,000, with big checks from a list of prominent Seattle-area rich folks.
Senate GOP raises $ from Big Oil, Issaquah developer
On the other side of the fundraising aisle, the Leadership Council, the soft-money PAC controlled by minority Republicans in the state Senate, is also raking in some sizable checks, including $25,000 apiece from oil giant Phillips 66 and George “Skip” Rowley, whose family business owns big chunks of the leafy King County exurb of Issaquah.
We’ve written about Phillips before. The company, which operates an oil refinery in Whatcom County, was among the biggest donors to Enterprise Washington, which operates a network of business-friendly PACs that spent heavily last year trying to prevent a leftward tilt in the Legislature.
Rowley is the retired CEO of family-owned Rowley Properties, which was instrumental in building and still owns large swaths of the commercial property in Issaquah. Rowley has been an aggressive political donor over the years, giving more than $1.4 million since 2007. Most of his money has gone to Republican Party groups and business-oriented PACs, but he appears to be adapting to the times as the party’s fortunes in King County have waned.
Last year, he gave heavily to the Committee For Proven Leadership, the main PAC dedicated to protecting business-friendly Democratic Sen. Mark Mullet from a challenge from his left. He was notably absent from the lists of donors to the state Republican Party and its nominee for governor, noted grifter Loren Culp. Rowley was also one of the largest donors to the unsuccessful 2020 campaign to repeal the state’s new sex education law.
The Leadership Council is one of four soft-money PACs controlled by the four caucuses of the Legislature. They typically rake in big checks from Olympia’s moneyed interests. The Leadership Council, for example, got $10,000 checks this spring from Amazon, the Washington Association of Realtors, and the Building Industry Association of Washington.
Senate Republicans, as we noted in the June 15 edition, are also stacking cash in their hard-money account via the surplus funds loophole in anticipation of a rough and expensive fight next year over who controls that chamber.
Recommended Reading: A stormy exit from the PDC
Over at Wild West, Eli Sanders has an extended exit interview with former Public Disclosure Commission member Russ Lehman, who resigned last week in protest.
He told colleagues he was resigning because of the commission’s “institutional and bureaucratic inertia” and the agency’s inclination toward, in Lehman’s words, “submission and acquiescence” when faced with pushback from outside critics, “instead of respectful and principled opposition and advocacy.”
You should go read the whole thing, and the rest of Sanders’ deep dive into the state’s fight with Facebook et al over disclosure of online political advertising. But the gist of it gets at the question of whether the PDC should be a more aggressive watchdog — a Doberman for the public’s right to know, pushing for tighter rules — or a more passive repository of information focused more on compliance with the rules as they exist. That’s an interesting question because, as regular readers of the Observer know, most of the real hardball gets played between the lines, at least technically.
Either way, we’ll miss Commissioner Lehman, who brought an entertaining rabble-rousing vibe to the commission’s meetings. But we may not be done with him. At the very end of the piece he teases the idea of a statewide initiative to put not just teeth but fangs into the campaign finance law.
RIP former Senator and forest advocate Mark Doumit
Mark Doumit, who passed away unexpectedly on June 21, was appointed to the Senate in 2002, when your correspondent had an actual seat at the press table in that chamber. We were roughly the same age, and I remember thinking that he was not unlike my high school teammates growing up in Oregon’s timber country.
The Cathlamet Democrat left the Legislature a few years later to lead the Washington Forest Protection Association, which advocates for private timber owners. His bipartisan approach and many contributions to the health and preservation of Washington’s forests have been widely praised elsewhere, and for good reason.
But I remember him as an active member of a small cadre of rural Democrats at a time when the majority frequently turned on a single vote. The Democratic caucus couldn’t reach the majority without those rural members, who would today be described as “conservative,” because Republicans still held many suburban seats. Their values differed significantly from their urban counterparts — then called “liberals” rather than “progressives.” Those liberals frequently chafed at the outsized influence of the rural bloc, which kept many of their priorities from passing. But they needed them.
It’s worth noting on the occaison of Doumit’s passing that the rural-urban tension within the Democratic cacuus has largely disappeared in the past two decades. That subtle shift that happened last year — the one mentioned above in the section on the power of monied progressive donors? That was the Democrats losing Doumit’s old seat in the rural and blue-collar 19th District, and winning a suburban seat in Pierce County with a progresive candidate.
Keep those pets cool this summer
Individuals and party caucuses can give unlimited amounts to the non-exempt fund, which is hard money the party can spend on candidate donations of as much as $1 for every voter eligible to vote in the election. The biggest human donor was environmental philanthropist Roseanne Orr at $350K. We’ll get to her down the road. The House Democratic Campaign Committee gave $885,000 in that legalized money-laundering thing we’ve written about before.
The party’s exempt account can accept unlimited amounts from corporations, unions, PACs, etc, but can’t give that money directly to candidates. Its largest donors last year included $800K from the Democratic Governors Association and big checks from various labor unions.
Conflict of Interest Disclaimer: The early stages of this push was the last project that your correspondent worked on in his former life as a strategic communications consultant.