Millions in lobbyist cash pours through surplus-money loophole into tight races
Powerful lawmakers raise bundles for nonexistent campaigns, then launder the money for big infusions to help vulnerable colleagues, promising newcomers
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins raised nearly $300,000 for an essentially nonexistent reelection campaign this year. She spent almost none of it ahead of the August 4 primary in her completely safe Tacoma district, then crushed a fellow Democrat with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
That’s because the money was never meant for her campaign. On Aug. 6, according to filings with the Public Disclosure Commission, Jinkins effectively waved a magic wand over $180,000 as part of a completely legal money-laundering scheme that transforms relatively small checks from lobbyists, corporations, labor unions, Native American tribes and other special interests into much larger checks that can sway close races around the state.
Here’s why this is important: Powerful lawmakers tap an effectively bottomless well of special-interest cash and channel the money strategically to maintain or increase their caucuses in the Legislature, creating loyal, indebted followers, and solidifying their power. It’s another example of how a campaign finance system with theoretically tight contribution limits actually favors big money and entrenched interests. A couple of weeks ago we talked about the party loophole for millionaires and billionaires. This one is for lawmakers themselves.
Here’s how it works: Jinkins can raise $2,000 per donor per election cycle, $1,000 for the primary and $1,000 for the general election. Because she’s Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful people in the state, donors are eager to pay fealty by writing these checks. Here’s her list of top donors, where you can find both sides of most fights in Olympia. If you’re a player, you can’t afford not to be on that list.
Take health care: There’s Premera Blue Cross, one of the state’s biggest insurance companies. And there’s Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant. They don’t get along. There’s that question of how much Pfizer can get Premera to pay for prescription drugs. Or take education: There’s the Washington Education Association, the powerful teachers’ union, and the Washington Charter Schools Association. They really don’t get along. I could go on, but we don’t have all day.
Now that money isn’t particularly useful to anyone in Jinkins’ campaign account. It’s specifically against the law for her to give it directly to another candidate with a more formidable opponent. That might be construed down the road as vote-buying. But, as you’ve probably already guessed, there’s a workaround.
Here’s how it works: On Aug. 6, Jinkins declared that $180,000 “surplus funds” and deposited in the Friends of Laurie Jinkins Surplus Funds Account. Surplus money can be saved for her future campaigns, given to charity, or spent on unreimbursed costs for her office. But most importantly, it can be given in unlimited amounts to the House Democratic Campaign Committee. And on Sept. 14, Jinkins’ surplus account sent $200,000 to the HDCC. Call it the surplus-money shuffle.
Jinkins wasn’t alone. Majority Floor Leader Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, sent $100,000. Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, D-Tacoma chipped in $90,000. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, who chairs the House Environment and Energy Committee, brought $89,000 to the party. In all, 42 House Democrats — the overwhelming majority of the caucus, gave $10,000 or more, for a total of $1.8 million. This is so-called “hard money,” which can be given directly to candidates in hot races.
House Republicans do this as well, as do both parties in the Senate. Rep. Drew Stokesbury, R-Auburn, brought in a cool $130,000 for the House Republican Organizing Committee. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, pushed $160,000 in surplus money into the Senate Democratic Campaign, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville is actually the boss shuffler at $212,000, up from $205,000 in 2016.
House Democrats typically raise the most because a) there are more House members than Senators, and b) the Democrats currently run things in Olympia, so it’s easier for them to raise money. Collectively, the four caucuses raised more than $6 million for the 2020 cycle, overwhelmingly via this surplus-money shuffle.
The caucus committees can then turn around and give individual candidates $1 per registered voter eligible to vote in the election. In the 10th District — think Whidbey and Camano Islands — which features three hot races, that’s north of $100,000. The HDCC has given Angie Homola and David Paul, the Democrats running for the District’s two House seats, $90,000 apiece. That’s 45 times the normal contribution limit. In the hot Senate race in that district, the Republican caucus gave their guy, Ron Muzzall, $101,920, while Democrats gave Helen Price Johnson nearly $100,000.
Washington’s system for drawing legislative districts has the effect of creating a bunch of safe seats for both parties, and a handful of districts where the parties slug it out. That means the caucuses’ $6 million is all pouring into just a few places, on top of all the independent and party money we wrote about last week.
Another loophole helps that happen. The Washington State Democratic and Republican parties can take unlimited money from the caucus committees, and they too can write checks for $1 per voter. The HDCC gave the Democratic Party $885,000 this year.
About a 10th of that money went to Rep. Brian Blake, whose tough reelection race in southwest Washington’s 19th District we’ve written about. Blake, D-Aberdeen, got $80,000 from the caucus and $80,000 from the party. For those of you keeping score, that’s 80 times the maximum contribution for an individual.
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