Money in politics is booed, but we also vote for whoever has the most just about every time. Now one candidate is trying to get elected without the mother’s milk of politics.
At a recent cattle call for the Seattle mayoral candidates, it was clear what the least popular thing was.
Money. Sinful money.
The folks vying to run the city were asked if they’d taken campaign cash from any corporations, developers or donors who don’t live in the city. Most checked at least one of these boxes, and then proceeded to hem, haw and cop a plea to the crowd like the guilty before Judge Judy.
The top money-raiser, former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, got flat-out booed when she claimed she didn’t really know who donated to her $190,000 war chest.
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“It was so awkward — I just loved it,” one candidate told me later. “I was up there with a big grin on my face.”
The grinner is Bob Hasegawa, a state senator who lives on Beacon Hill. It’s up to you voters to decide if he’s smiling because he’s principled, or because he’s crazy. Maybe a bit of both.
Hasegawa is the sole major candidate for mayor who hasn’t received any money, in big or small packages, from anyone. And he probably won’t by the time ballots are mailed out in mid-July for the August 1 primary.
He’s trying to do what conventional wisdom says is impossible: win a campaign in a district of 700,000 people with no money.
“I went around to the political consultants in town, and they all said it would take at least $500,000,” Hasegawa laughs.
That’s what former Mayor Mike McGinn spent last time — to lose. The current mayor, Ed Murray, spent nearly $900,000.
So far Hasegawa has spent just $274 — to make blue duct-tape stickers to retrofit his old “Hasegawa for State Senate” yard signs so they’ll read “Seattle Mayor” instead.
Durkan has outspent him 160 to 1 so far, almost all on political consultants — or as Hasegawa calls it, “the political-industrial complex.”
Because he’s in the state Senate, Hasegawa is barred by a 25-year-old citizen initiative from raising money while the Legislature is in session (which at this point might be forever.) The law’s purpose was to stop the shady practice of legislators raising campaign cash at night from the same lobbyists who appeared that day before their committees.
Money is mother’s milk for politics, and this “session freeze” on it is so chilling for lawmakers seeking other offices that state Rep. Jessyn Farrell quit midterm to make her run for mayor. In the two weeks after, she raised $44,000.
When I visited Hasegawa at his campaign office — actually his dining and living rooms — he cast his “finance-free campaign” as an experiment, a sort of democracy stress test.
“It can’t be that money always wins,” he said. “If it does, then we might as well accept we’re a benevolent dictatorship.”
OK, then money’s just about the king. In federal races the moneyed candidate wins more than 90 percent of the time. The better-financed do sometimes lose (Hillary Clinton springs to mind) but there are almost no examples of what Hasegawa is trying. The most famous dates to 1982, when the late Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin won re-election after spending only $145.10. But he was a 25-year incumbent.
A truck driver and former Teamsters union boss, Hasegawa insists he can do it — at least in the primary. He loaned his campaign $6,000 for supplies and also will fundraise if the session freeze ever thaws. But lacking any ability to advertise before the Aug. 1 vote, his plan is twofold. One, shake the leftover Bernie Sanders network for votes (Hasegawa was a Bernie delegate.) And two, he’s enlisted 300 union and Asian-community volunteers to doorbell the city and buttonhole Seattleites at festivals and farmers markets.
“We’re going old-school,” he said. “I’m trying to flip the organizational structure of the campaign, which puts the donor class at the top. We don’t have any donor class — we don’t have any donors, period! So we’re going to do this the Teamster way, from the bottom up.”
Crazy? No crazier than the current mayor maybe running a write-in campaign to try to win his job back. Don’t put anything past Seattle politics these days.