Big money is a problem in Seattle City Council elections, say proponents of Proposition 1, a measure on the November ballot.
Large campaign contributions make average voters less important, discourage good candidates from running and give donors more access to council members, contend Prop. 1 advocates.
The solution, they say, is to fund council campaigns largely with property taxes. It’s the best chance for candidates to run “without being beholden to special interests,” said Rory O’Sullivan, a spokesman for Prop. 1.
That’s misguided, counter critics of the measure, which would collect up to $2 million next year in property taxes for candidates.
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Seattle Ethics and Elections Commissioner Bruce Carter called Prop. 1 a “remedy in search of a problem.” And if there is a problem with big money, Prop. 1 is not the solution, opponents say.
Jordan Royer, a former council candidate, is skeptical because the City Council put the measure on the ballot, in a unanimous vote. Prop. 1 would benefit incumbents more than startups, Royer said. “It’s an incumbent-protection act,” he told the Municipal League of King County in a presentation on the measure.
Endorsers include Democratic Party groups, labor unions and civic groups including the League of Women Voters and Hempfest.
Opponents have no organized campaign and no contributions. Royer has served in some forums as the voice of opposition because he critiqued Prop. 1 for Crosscut, a news website.
Prop. 1 would work like this: Candidates would have to raise donations of at least $10 from a minimum of 600 Seattle residents to qualify. Once they hit that mark they would receive a match of $6 in public funds for every $1 raised from private contributions of $50 or less. At most, candidates could receive $210,000 in public funds. In turn, they’d agree to cap their spending at $245,000.
If an opponent raises more in private contributions, taxpayer-funded candidates can do the same.
The measure would cost the owner of a $400,000 home about $6.60 a year. Roughly 15 percent of the public cost would go to administer the program.
The measure would apply only to council candidates running citywide. If a separate ballot proposal to elect seven council members by geographic district passes, then only the two citywide races would be eligible for taxpayer-financing.
Here are some of the points of contention in the Prop. 1 campaign.
Is big money a big problem?
Seattle’s last campaign-finance scandal was 2003’s Strippergate, in which strip-club owners seeking a zoning change were accused of political money laundering. The owners funneled thousands in contributions to three council members from donors who were friends, relatives and business associates. The owners then illegally reimbursed the donors to skirt contribution limits. The owners were prosecuted and paid hefty fines. Two of the three council members were ousted in the November election.
Prop. 1 spokesman O’Sullivan said he can’t point to any egregious violations in recent campaigns.
But blatant corruption isn’t so much the problem, he said. Virtually every day, he said, council members make decisions on issues like zoning changes and towing-company contracts. And they often receive campaign contributions from companies seeking contracts and variances.
It’s almost inevitable that such contributions influence council members, O’Sullivan said. “Every day elected officials have to think about their ability to fund their next campaign. This proposition is able to get us away from a system where candidates have to worry about that.”
Data, however, doesn’t confirm that big money’s grip on City Hall is growing stronger.
Seattle limits contributions in council races to $700, far less than the $1,800 limits facing Metropolitan King County Council and state legislative candidates. The average contribution to City Council members in the 2011 election was $223, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), the city’s watchdog group.
While that average has increased over time, it hasn’t climbed every year. In 2009, the average contribution dropped to $178 from $213 in 2007. There were more contributions under $100 in 2009 city races than in any election since 2001, the SEEC reported, and fewer contributions over $600.
SEEC staff members believe the 2009 numbers were driven downward by the recession.
Still, total contributions to council candidates in an election year have never topped the $1.95 million collected in 2003. To date this year, the total amount is $795,000.
Problems in public financing
The Portland City Council adopted public financing in 2005. Voters repealed it five years later.
In the first year a City Council candidate cheated. Emilie Boyles reported fake donations and then spent $96,000 of taxpayer money on items such as marketing services from her 16-year-old daughter before fleeing to Montana, according to Willamette Week newspaper.
Seattle can learn from Portland’s mistakes, O’Sullivan said, by making sure candidates’ small contributions are verified, and by imposing strict rules on how taxpayer funding can be spent.
Less dialing for dollars?
Viable candidates spend a lot of time calling potential donors. One council candidate, Casey Corr, even chronicled his task in 2005, saying he made 4,577 fundraising calls. Only once, Corr noted, did a potential donor ask for something improper, a pledge on a zoning vote. Corr said he refused the pledge.
There seems to be little disagreement Prop. 1 could give candidates more time to talk with voters instead of donors. Then again, the rules change if an opponent of a taxpayer-financed candidate exceeds the $245,000 spending cap. The taxpayer-funded candidate then could raise additional private contributions, which means phoning donors.
More competition, diversity?
O’Sullivan points out that today’s City Council is less racially diverse than it was in the 1980s, when Seattle had a form of public financing — albeit a voluntary checkoff system on utility bills. Taxpayer-funding would attract more candidates, increase the competitiveness of council races and make the council more diverse, say Prop. 1 advocates.
The chief obstacle for potential candidates, O’Sullivan said, is that generally a council campaign costs more than $200,000, a threshold too high for some “with community roots but not necessarily connections” to big donors.
But in a letter to the council, the SEEC’s executive director said “there is little academic support for the proposition that public financing increases competitiveness.” Pointing to research by University of Wisconsin Professor Kenneth Mayer, the letter said public financing can attract more diverse candidates, but the races themselves do not appear to become more competitive. Incumbents still tended to win by large margins, Mayer found.
Prop. 1 would favor incumbents, Royer said, because it will be easier for them to collect 600 small contributions. Council members could send an email to their existing donor lists asking for $10 and quickly qualify for taxpayer funds, he said.
Although it’s rare to beat an incumbent, it’s been done recently in Seattle — and by challengers with less money than incumbents.
In the wake of Strippergate, three challengers in 2003 — David Della, Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen — ousted incumbents Heidi Wills, Judy Nicastro and Margaret Pageler. In each race, the challenger raised less money than the incumbent.
In 2009, challenger Tim Burgess unseated Della, raising more money than the incumbent. Another rookie candidate, Mike O’Brien, won an open seat although he raised roughly half as much money as his general-election foe, Robert Rosencrantz.
Royer contends there are better ways to attract candidates than by forcing taxpayers to finance campaigns. Term limits is one, he said. Spending limits and voluntary public financing is another. Still another option is on the ballot along with Prop. 1. It’s a proposal to elect seven City Council members by geographic district and two citywide.
District elections would allow candidates to do more doorbelling and chatting with voters, Royer said. It also could reduce the cost of elections because candidates would not have to appeal to voters citywide through costly TV ads or brochures.
O’Sullivan maintains that public financing is the best option. District elections wouldn’t get money out of politics, he said, and “we’re trying to create a system that allows elected officials not to consider where they get money from.”
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org