When you find out who just broke the record for the richest campaign in Seattle City Council history, it might change your view on whether we really need to get “big money” out of city politics.
Everyone’s for getting big money out of politics, right? So here’s a quick quiz to see how much of an issue this is in Seattle these days.
Who has raised the most money in this year’s City Council campaigns? Is it:
A) The business-backed president of the council.
B) The influential former legal counsel to the mayor.
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C) The socialist.
If you guessed C, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of this city. After less than two years in office, socialist Kshama Sawant has become “the man” — she’s officially the big political money in town.
In fact this week she set a record for the richest Seattle City Council campaign in history. With $362,000 raised so far, Sawant passed the previous record-holder, the aforementioned council president Tim Burgess (who raised $353,000 in 2007.) Sawant also has probably set a record for the most contributors ever (2,600 so far.)
It’s a sign of the times that the socialists are rolling in the dough. Both Sawant here and Bernie Sanders nationally touched a nerve and are attracting oodles of union support and small money backers.
But the reason I bring this up is there’s a Seattle ballot measure, Initiative 122, to levy a $30 million property tax over 10 years to pay for public financing of city campaigns. The premise, quoted from the initiative’s website, is “to protect Seattle’s elections from the influence of big money.”
How much of a big-money problem can we have if a socialist is our all-time top council fundraiser?
Seriously: I am as critical of big money’s warping of politics as anyone (see my periodic rants on the corporate and billionaire buyout of the state citizens’ initiative process). But for as rich as this city is, what’s notable is how little money there is in city politics.
We’ve never had a million-dollar mayoral campaign, wh ich are common elsewhere. The average City Council campaign in 2013 cost barely north of $100,000. Part of this is we have long had one of the lowest contribution limits in the nation.
But there’s also rarely been any major corporate or union independent spending here, as so often infests state and federal elections. Why?
The best theory I’ve heard comes from outgoing city Councilmember Nick Licata. His view is that developers and real-estate interests care deeply about what goes on at City Hall, as the city is heavily involved in zoning. But the true big money around here — Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft — couldn’t care less what the city does. They don’t bother with city politics, as it’s mostly irrelevant to them.
On the other side, the unions don’t get that involved either because every candidate running in Seattle is some strain of liberal. So it usually doesn’t matter that much to them who wins.
The result is some of the cheaper elections around.
If there’s not much big money in our elections, why get it out? I asked the Initiative 122 backers: Why here?
The campaign’s director, Heather Weiner, said it’s to combat voter apathy. The August primary had the lowest voter turnout in decades. Initiative 122 could reverse that, she predicts, as it would give each citizen $100 in taxpayer-financed democracy vouchers that they could donate to candidates.
“We may not see huge amounts of political money in Seattle,” she said. “But what money there is still comes from a tiny percentage of the wealthy elite. There’s still a political-industrial complex.”
Weiner said an insurgent candidate like Sawant is “an anomaly.”
I suppose. Whatever you think of her politics, Sawant got some people excited and so lots of them backed her. That’s the way politics is supposed to work. Who would have guessed a few years ago a socialist could get elected, let alone become the top City Council money-raiser in one of the wealthier places in America?
She seems like an anomaly that proves democracy here isn’t that broken, and so doesn’t need fixing.