The mayoral campaign of Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González draws substantial benefits from a financing loophole the council passed in early 2020. González herself drew up this ordinance, which restricts business contributions to city political races for being “foreign-influenced” while giving a free hand to far-flung union interests.
This unfair setup deprives many local companies of having a role in elections that affect their commercial prospects — and their workers’ living conditions.
It cynically exploits the low-regulation landscape of money in politics created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. The council should enact local policies that ensure every voice with a stake in Seattle’s future gets a chance to participate. Instead, the policy Gonzalez drafted in August 2019, which the council passed 7-0 the following January, presses a thumb on the scale.
It needs reform. Fundraising records from the current mayor’s race indicate that change should come before another city election cycle launches.
The ordinance González named the “Clean Campaigns Act” scare-mongered the outrage over Russian and other foreign manipulation of the 2016 presidential election into local politics. The political alchemy involved is written into Seattle city code as Ordinance 126035. It bans theoretical “corporations with significant foreign ownership” from meddling in Seattle municipal governance, a what-if menace to democracy. After conjuring this civic threat, the ordinance stretches the premise to ban “political spending by foreign-influenced business entities.”
The threshold for “foreign-influenced” is so low practically any publicly traded company can be politically neutered. If any foreign person owns 1% of a company’s stock — or if total American ownership falls below 95% — the company is too “foreign-influenced” to contribute to Seattle political campaigns. That applies no matter how local its controlling owners are, how much business it does here or how many Seattleites it employs.
This eliminated campaigning by companies including homegrown Amazon, which shelled out $1.5 million toward mostly losing district council campaigns in 2019. González hyped the ordinance by saying “the appearance and risk of corruption” from “an epidemic of big money” could finally be solved. Yet national labor causes and other deep-pocketed nonlocal players could still bomb money into Seattle races.
The money backing González’s mayoral campaign tells the story: A pro-González fund for independent campaign spending had collected $996,860 through Tuesday from just 11 contributors. More than $552,000 of that came from labor unions based in New York and Washington, D.C.
By contrast, mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell’s opposing campaign for mayor had drawn about $1.3 million for independent expenditures — from 346 people and organizations, including some unions. Of those, only 14 donors had out of state addresses. Their checks amounted to a meager 4.8% of the pro-Harrell donations for independent expenditures.
González claimed her legislation “closes a loophole.” In fact, it enacted a free and easy one for labor while setting up hurdles for other players. Then she ran an unabashedly pro-labor campaign for mayor. Big national union money flowed in.
That’s either a half-baked reform or a self-dealing one. González needs to explain why she wrote the bill that way, without simply hand-waving toward the 2016 presidential election. Seattle needs leadership that will solve Seattle’s problems, not shameless conjecturing to tilt the playing field.
The endless debate about the relative righteousness of labor unions and business interests has no place in writing rules for who can participate in political discourse. The González approach is antithetical to free speech and fair lawmaking.