Seattle mayoral candidates raise nearly $2 million thanks to taxpayer-funded vouchers

Senate Republicans, Realtors, WEA reload campaign war chests

Candidates for Seattle mayor have raised nearly $2 million thus far, most of it from the taxpayers via the city’s democracy voucher program. And the early fundraising leader is a longshot whose campaign appears particularly adept at harvesting the vouchers.

For review, that program, approved by Seattle voters in 2015, sends every registered voter in the city four $25 vouchers that can be contributed like cash to qualified candidates. The money comes from a small increase in the property tax that raises about $3 million per year, or about eight bucks a year from the average homeowner.1 To qualify, candidates must pledge to abide by a spending limit. In this year’s wide-open mayor’s race, that limit is $400,000 for the primary and $800,000 for the entire cycle.

Virtually all of the serious candidates for mayor have embraced this bargain, a sharp contrast from four years ago when Jenny Durkan swept into office on a wave of maximum contributions from the city’s moneyed establishment.2

Andrew Grant Houston, an architect who works as a policy advisor to City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, is unlikely to advance past the August primary, but he’s currently ahead in the money race with nearly 14,000 vouchers worth almost $350,000. Houston has raised more than $550,000 overall, according to his filings with the Public Disclosure Commission.

Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, has brought in some 12,500 vouchers for more than $312,000. Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez has brought in more than 8,500 vouchers for $213,900. All told, more than $1.3 million in vouchers had been redeemed as of last week. Most of that money is flowing into the mayor’s race, although about $250,000 has been raised by three candidates running for Gonzalez’s open council seat. Check out this handy table put together by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

When the voucher system was just starting up, your correspondent, then a strategic communications consultant with a keen interest in the upcoming city council elections, posed this question to some younger people of his acquaintance who were in the grassroots canvassing business3 (think the fresh-faced folks in pink T-shirts who stop you on the street and ask you to contribute to Planned Parenthood):

“You people are pretty good at shaking people down for actual money. How do you think you’d do asking for pieces of paper with no cash value to their owners?”

The consensus among said young people was that harvesting vouchers would be easy money. Fast forward a few years, and that particular form of campaign fundraising has indeed become something of a cottage industry in Seattle.

Houston’s campaign, a hyper-progressive affair clearly aimed at the kind of young activists who might canvass for democracy vouchers, has spent nearly $200,000 of the money they’ve raised thus far, an unusually high burn rate. Their filings with the Public Disclosure Commission indicate that most of it went to canvassers and canvassing consultants.

Echohawk, who’s considered a more viable candidate and has received substantially more attention from our sisters and brothers in the news media, has spent less than half what Houston’s campaign has burned through.

Democracy vouchers were supposed to democratize campaigns and blunt the power of the city’s monied classes, who for many years dominated political fundraising in city races. But it’s possible they’ll help create a perversely status-quo result.

The sparse polling on the race thus far indicates that former city councilmember Bruce Harrell — who was mayor for a hot minute at the end of the Ed Murray fiasco — is the favorite to finish first in the primary as the recognizable moderate “grownup” in the race. The second slot in the general election figures to go to Gonzalez, Echohawk, or Jessyn Farrell, the former state lawmaker who finished out of the money four years ago. Farrell has gathered almost 2,900 vouchers for more than $72,000, while Harrell has about 4,600 vouchers worth more than $113,000.

That all makes sense because it’s early days, when name recognition rules. Harrell has been a leading figure in the city for many years, and Gonzalez has the benefit of being on the city council, which gets near-daily news coverage. In theory, other candidates have time to raise their profiles.

But the $400,000 limit means none of the candidates will really have the means to advertise aggressively ahead of the primary. That will tend to make the race more about existing name recognition, voters’ pamphlet bios, endorsements from The Seattle Times and The Stranger4, and whatever independent money flows in late.

If two of Harrell, Gonzalez, and Farrell make it through to November, then the recipients of more than half of the democracy voucher money will likely be out of the race after the primary.


Senate Republicans reload campaign $$$ with surplus shuffle

Elsewhere in weird loopholes in the campaign finance law, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee reloaded its war chest with $176,000 in May, largely due to a $100,000 contribution from Majority Leader John Braun.

Braun’s largesse was part of the surplus shuffle we wrote about last year. That’s money he raised in $2,000 chunks for his nonexistent re-election campaign in his totally safe Republican district down in Lewis County. The money came from lobbyists, corporations, and other major players in Olympia. Braun has apparently taken over as the Republicans’ boss shuffler from his predecessor, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who moved about roughly a million bucks through the loophole over the years.

Now that the money’s in the GOP caucus’ hard-money account, it can be spent in roughly $100,000 chunks on individual races in next year’s campaigns, where it will likely swamp ordinary fundraising. Look for the GOP to help challengers to Senate Democrats Emily Randall over on the Kitsap Peninsula and Mona Das in southeast King County, who both won narrowly in 2018.

The loophole was written into the ballot initiative that created the current campaign finance limits in the 1990s with the idea that leaders in the Legislature would have some degree of influence over which candidates run and win.

Majority Democrats in both the House and Senate do the same thing. For example, House Appropriations Chair Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, dropped $45,000 of surplus money into the House Democratic Campaign Committee on June 1.


Realtors, teachers’ union begin to recharge their PACs

Two of the state’s biggest political players are gradually refilling the free-spending campaign accounts they use to reward friends and punish political enemies.

The Washington Association of Realtors political action committee raised about $100,000 in May. The money comes from the many politically engaged Realtors around the state who look to the state organization’s political and lobbying arms to keep the business of buying and selling property humming.

The PAC spreads money around aggressively and isn’t afraid to play hardball when crossed. In May it wrote $10,000 checks to the Kennedy Fund, the Leadership Council, the Truman Fund, and the Reagan Fund, which are the soft-money PACs controlled respectively by Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans, House Democrats, and House Republicans. That kind of four-way bet is reserved for Olympia’s most serious and well-heeled players. The PAC finished the month with nearly $1.8 million in hand.

It’s also heavily involved in races for local offices, where many land-use and taxation decisions of interest to Realtors get decided. For example, the Realtors cut $1,000 checks to Reagan Dunn, Kathy Lambert, and Pete Von Reichbauer, the remaining Republicans5 on the King County Council, all of whom face well-funded challenges from the left.

Money likewise flowed into the Washington Education Association’s PAC, which pulled in about $95,000 in May, leaving them roughly $740,000 in hand. The teacher union’s strength lies in numbers. As we wrote last year, about half the WEA’s members — some 42,000 people — belong to the PAC, giving as little as $2.25 monthly, which adds up to make the union the highest single roller in state politics, generally allied with Democrats.

The union was quiet on the spending side last month, apparently content to let the money pile up for next year when you can expect aggressive spending to defend the Democratic majority.


More from our recent road trip

Your correspondents, human and canine, are recently returned from a road trip to see family and friends. The popular Photo of Milo section is featuring choice images from that journey. If you’re really here for Milo — and we know some of you are — check out the sneak preview for Ragtop Dog, coming soon to an inbox near you.

1

That number is a little misleading, as much of Seattle’s property tax base is in its commercial buildings. But no matter how you slice it, the program is a fairly aggressive exercise in wealth distribution with the seriously rich and merely affluent picking up nearly all the tab for the political spending of the entire city.

2

The democracy voucher program was in place in 2017, but the initiative that created it specifically carved out the mayor’s race for that year.

3

This is kind of an exploitative racket in which college students and other young people are recruited with the promise that they will Make A Difference by raising small donations from regular folks. The actual goal is usually identifying supporters of whatever cause hired the canvassing firm. Most of the canvassers get summarily fired after a few days or weeks because asking strangers for money is difficult and frequently soul-killing.

4

It’s hard to imagine the Times endorsing anyone but Harrell in this race. The Stranger, which has been struggling because the pandemic shut down most of its advertisers, is a much more open question. As we noted in our fanciful piece about how Seattle politics might be different under ranked-choice voting, a weird internal struggle in 2017 led them to endorse Cary Moon, who ran a disastrous campaign and lost badly to Durkan.

5

Yes, we know it’s a technically nonpartisan office. Whatever.