Cascade Bicycle Club leaders are weighing a change that would make the influential Seattle-based group a less political organization.
Bicyclists using Seattle’s leafy Burke-Gilman Trail have pedaled a more colorful route recently, zipping past bright orange signs stamped “SaveCascade.org.”
The signs are part of a campaign by some Cascade Bicycle Club members to slam the brakes on a potential change in how the 45-year-old organization is structured.
Cascade, which manages the wildly popular annual Seattle-to-Portland bike ride and which boasts more than 15,000 members, has been a muscular player in local politics.
But its board of directors is considering this month a move to switch to a single charity organization, which would curb the club’s ability to endorse and campaign directly for electoral candidates.
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For a number of years, Cascade has managed three entities: a 501c3 charity nonprofit, 501c4 political and social-welfare nonprofit, and a political action committee (PAC).
The club’s leaders say becoming a single charity organization would simplify its operations. Because the three entities have different tax-exempt statuses, various Cascade funds and activities must be handled separately.
That’s become more difficult as the club’s horizons have expanded. Cascade has a multimillion-dollar budget and just opened a roomy new clubhouse in Magnuson Park.
Executive Director Elizabeth Kiker, hired by Cascade in late 2013, has sought to bolster the club’s education programs while adding more rides for seniors and kids.
“We’re looking at how the club has grown,” Kiker said in an interview. “We want to be the strongest advocacy and riding club in the country, and part of that is our tax status.”
Kiker and board President Catherine Hennings assured other members at a meeting Wednesday that Cascade will press on with its political work regardless of how the club is structured.
Charity nonprofits are barred from endorsing individual candidates and from contributing directly to individual candidate campaigns, but they can distribute candidate score cards and questionnaires and can endorse ballot measures, the leaders noted.
Members against the potential change have been making themselves heard.
The website SaveCascade.org, with matching Twitter and Facebook accounts and a blog, had drummed up nearly 200 petition signatures, as of Friday.
The people running SaveCascade.org aren’t identified on the website.
The petition urges the club to “Keep your current legal and financial structure that allows Cascade to endorse candidates” and “Deepen your work in elections to elect pro-bike candidates, including field organizing and donating to endorsed candidates.”
It also asks Cascade to resume lobbying in Olympia. For a time, Cascade employed its own state Legislature lobbyist, but it now relies on Washington Bikes, a statewide group, club spokeswoman Anne-Marije Rook said.
Bicyclists opposed to the change say the 501c4 nonprofit and PAC give Cascade the firepower to make lawmakers pay attention.
The club pushed Seattle to complete the Burke-Gilman Trail through Ballard, opponents of the change note.
It helped Mike McGinn become the city’s mayor in 2009 and has provided key support for bike-friendly suburban lawmakers.
In 2012, Cascade and other groups successfully lobbied the Legislature to enact a law fining negligent motorists for seriously injuring or killing bicyclists and pedestrians.
Endorsements matter, according to Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who had Cascade’s support when he first won election in 2009.
“I’m not saying other tools are irrelevant or not valuable. But when I send out a lit piece, it’s got the Sierra Club and the bike club and the Washington Conservation Voters logos on it,” O’Brien said. “I know people in Seattle will recognize those logos and realize, ‘This guy’s my guy.’ ”
Kiker’s predecessor as executive director, Chuck Ayers, is one signer of the petition. The club was founded as a 501c4 nonprofit, he noted, saying Cascade stepped up its political work under his watch to increase its influence.
“We took a page from the NRA,” said Ayers, who was fired and rehired in 2010 as members battled over the club’s approach to advocacy. “The NRA is incredibly powerful because they dive into electoral politics. That’s what we needed to do.”
With the Seattle City Council moving to district elections and fewer people voting in each race, Cascade has an opportunity to make an even greater impact, Ayers said.
“You just want to ride bikes? Fine. But advocacy work makes your riding better and makes riding available to more people.”
How the club evolves will affect a lot of people, said Jack Tomkinson, a Cascade member since 1981. Tens of thousands of people, many not members, participate in the club’s rides and care about the issues Cascade deals with.
“The number of people commuting by bike here has just exploded,” said Tomkinson, who favors the club’s current structure.
The club’s board hasn’t made up its mind, Kiker and Hennings said. There’s a second meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Bellevue.
Even if the board were to vote at its March 18 meeting to change Cascade’s structure, the club bylaws would need to be altered, which likely would require a membership vote at a later date.
“The deeper we go, the more we’re seeing some ways we can continue (with the 501c4),” Kiker said.