More than $2.6 million has been shelled out by donors to influence the 2013 Seattle mayoral race, setting a city record.
Thanks largely to the nine-person primary in August, the mayoral election has set a high-dollar mark with more than $2.1 million in contributions to candidate campaigns through Thursday, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
Additionally, there has been a surge in independent expenditures by political-action committees that are not subject to contribution limits. Groups backing Mayor Mike McGinn and his challenger, state Sen. Ed Murray, have raised more than $500,000 — substantially more than any other year on record with the commission.
Those totals are sure to rise in the final days before ballots are counted starting Tuesday.
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When adjusted for inflation, some past mayoral races come close to this year’s level of spending by candidate committees. But the surge in PAC spending has been a relatively new development.
“I think the trends are — I don’t what to say troubling — but we are seeing a lot of money pouring into the mayor’s race from independent sources,” said Wayne Barnett, executive director of the elections commission.
In 2009, the previous high point, contributions to mayoral candidates reached nearly $2 million, with $154,000 more in independent expenditures. In 2001, mayoral candidates raised $1.7 million, with $92,000 in independent expenditures.
Murray’s campaign has pulled in the most campaign cash — $722,000 as of Thursday, according to the city commission. That outpaces McGinn’s $448,000.
Neither has matched telecommunications executive Joe Mallahan, who raised $840,000 for his unsuccessful 2009 mayoral bid, including more than $322,000 of his own money.
Much of this year’s record amount went to candidates who did not make it past the primary — including City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who dropped out at the filing deadline despite having raised nearly $250,000.
Murray and McGinn have received their largest share of donations due to their current jobs.
Murray’s top donors are state employees (including legislative colleagues) who have given nearly $22,000. McGinn’s top backers are city employees, including his own staff, who have given more than $36,000.
Despite the record-setting year, campaign spending in Seattle remains relatively restrained by the city’s strict contribution limits.
Individual donations to Seattle city candidates are capped at $700 for the entire election cycle — including the primary and general elections.
By comparison, mayoral and city-council candidates in other cities and towns in Washington can receive up to $1,600 per donor. Legislative and statewide candidates can accept up to $3,600.
No limits on PACs
Independent expenditures by political-action committees are under no such limits, which helps explain the rise in spending by such groups in recent elections.
“When your limits are so low, the money is going to go in some other direction,” said Dean Nielsen, a Seattle political consultant helping run two PACs backing Murray in the mayoral race. “There is always a way for money to get through.”
Nielsen said most donors would prefer to give greater sums directly to candidates and that such a system might be more transparent.
One of the pro-Murray PACs, People for Ed Murray has been funded largely by business groups and spent $127,000 before the primary. Its largest donor, the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, was fined $1,500 this week for failing to disclose a $15,000 donation from Vulcan that was earmarked for the mayoral race.
Another donor to the Chamber PAC was Comcast, which gave $5,000 in February, a couple of months after McGinn announced a city deal with another company to bring high-speed fiber to some neighborhoods.
A trade association largely backed by Comcast also gave $5,000 to People for Ed Murray in July.
A second PAC, People for a New Seattle Mayor, has raised nearly $95,000 for ads attacking McGinn over a reorganization that eliminated the city’s domestic-violence office as a stand-alone division.
That group, which has been advised by former deputy mayor and lobbyist Tim Ceis, has received its biggest donations from the Seattle police and firefighters unions.
Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest has added $14,000 to support Murray.
McGinn, meanwhile, has received his biggest independent expenditures from two labor-backed PACs that support his controversial efforts to block some nonunion hotel and grocery-store proposals over wage complaints.
The hotel-workers union, UNITE-HERE Local 8, has put more than $100,000 into the race, largely for pro-McGinn mailers.
And Working Families for Mayor McGinn, bankrolled largely by the grocery workers union, UFCW Local 21, has raised nearly $120,000 for its pro-McGinn efforts. The union’s contributions came after McGinn signaled this summer he’d back their efforts to block a proposed new Whole Foods in West Seattle.
Concerns over money in Seattle politics led some activists to place a public-financing initiative, Proposition 1, on the November ballot.
That proposal would offer public matching funds to City Council candidates, paid for with a small property-tax increase.
But the initiative would not apply to the mayoral race. Nor would it halt independent spending by PACs.
Longtime Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, who supports the measure, said there is only so much the city can do to rein in political spending, given court rulings that have protected political donations as free speech.
“It’s not unique to Seattle. We would need a drastic overhaul of our electoral laws, not just on a state level but on the federal level, to get elections that reflect the unadulterated will of the people,” Licata said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner