Sound View Strategies helped Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan win election and its partners continue to serve as political advisers in her informal kitchen cabinet. Meanwhile, the company has corporate clients and a partner lobbies for large businesses at City Hall.
When Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan ran into trouble last spring on issues including a controversial head tax, she turned to Sandeep Kaushik and Kelly Evans for advice.
They had helped Durkan win election as the lead consultants on her campaign and she valued their input as she pushed behind closed doors for the City Council to repeal the tax on large businesses for housing and homeless services.
“Does anyone have any feedback on this as initial next steps?” Deputy Mayor Mike Fong asked in an email thread with Evans and Kaushik about what to do after the tax was nixed.
Kaushik and Evans don’t draw paychecks from the city. But as the mayor embarks on her second year, the political operatives and their company, Sound View Strategies, have emerged as key players in Durkan’s City Hall.
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The mayor seeks their counsel on some of Seattle’s most difficult problems. They successfully ran the campaign for her $600 million-plus education levy. And her major-initiatives director, office administrator and chief of staff all are former Sound View employees.
Kaushik describes himself and Evans as members of Durkan’s informal “kitchen cabinet,” even as they lobby her administration and advocate for corporate clients such as Comcast, Lyft and Airbnb.
“I’m pretty good at helping to find solutions that respond to the city’s concerns and that also work for my clients,” Kaushik said. “I try to forge a meeting of the minds.”
The mayor downplayed Sound View’s clout, saying she seeks a wide range of opinions. Her ties to the company are known, and the city’s requirements are adequate to protect against real and perceived conflicts, she said.
The city’s elections code allows political strategists to wear both consulting and lobbying hats as long as they report their activities, and Sound View has complied with those provisions.
The company had nearly identical connections to former Mayor Ed Murray, and there are no examples, Durkan’s office said, of her taking action to reward Sound View.
Council members sometimes also enlist campaign consultants for advice.
“My decisions have to be based on what’s best for the people of Seattle,” the mayor said. “I make sure that I’m listening to all voices and particularly listening to those voices that can’t afford to have paid lobbyists. That’s why I’m out in the community.”
Still, Durkan’s close ties to Sound View mean she must tread carefully as she attempts to balance grass roots and business needs on topics ranging from affordability to traffic.
The links between the Durkan administration and the operatives are extensive.
The mayor and Evans have been friends for about 20 years, having worked together against state Initiative 200, the 1998 ballot measure that barred affirmative action, and with Chris Gregoire during her campaigns for Washington governor.
Evans teamed up with Kaushik in 2009 to launch Sound View. They went on to run ballot-measure and candidate campaigns, including Murray’s winning bid to unseat Mike McGinn. As mayor, Murray tapped Kaushik to serve as an informal adviser.
When Murray dropped his re-election bid in 2017, Sound View moved to Durkan’s campaign, earning more than $28,000. Last year, the company earned nearly $20,000 consulting on the campaign for the mayor’s education levy, which included a signature proposal by the mayor to make community college free for every public high-school graduate.
Kully Hall Struble, a political-consulting company run by another Sound View partner, Dan Kully, also was a vendor for those two campaigns.
At the same time, Kaushik is paid to lobby the Durkan administration and the council. He reported earning $186,000 for that work in 2016, $171,000 in 2017 and $114,250 in the first three quarters of 2018.
Kaushik works through proper channels when lobbying, said Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff. There’s no evidence Sound View’s clients have received special treatment, she said, with the mayor appealing Trump-administration rules friendly to telecom giants like Comcast and blocking shareable electric scooters like those operated by Lyft.
Not all of Sound View’s City Hall activity is reported as lobbying, which the elections code narrowly defines as paid work related only to legislation, as opposed to regulations. People who restrict their work for a client to fewer than four days in a quarter also are exempt from disclosure requirements.
But Kaushik does have direct access to the mayor’s office, public records show. His advocacy work last year included contact with deputy mayors David Moseley and Shefali Ranganathan and with Durkan policy staffers.
Though not a registered lobbyist, Evans also was sometimes involved in City Hall advocacy, the records show. For example, though only Kaushik was included in mayor’s office conversations with Lyft about driver-pay data, he and Evans both were included in conversations with Airbnb about short-term rental regulations and with a company called Intersection about bus-shelter advertising. None of Sound View’s communications with the mayor’s own office met the definition of lobbying, the mayor’s office said.
When Kaushik recently set up a meeting with Moseley for the Downtown Seattle Association to discuss construction-permit delays, he didn’t need to report lobbying for the organization. Neither did he need to report volunteer advocacy for supporters of safe drug-consumption sites.
He also connected Moseley with a Microsoft executive when the deputy mayor sought input on the administration’s search for a new information-technology director.
Three Durkan staffers worked with Sound View shortly before joining the city and a fourth staffer is married to Kully: Major-initiatives director Kylie Rolf, office administrator Lyle Canceko and Formas each earn six figures, while Maritza Rivera earns more than $85,000.
The mayor’s office obtained a waiver from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) in February for Rolf to work on matters related to her former Sound View clients. The office said it didn’t initially obtain waivers for the other staffers because their work didn’t pose any conflicts.
The staffers with Sound View links are only four (among 42 in the mayor’s office) and each have long, distinguished careers in government and politics, Formas said.
A writer for The Stranger from 2002 to 2005, Kaushik left journalism to work for King County executives Ron Sims and Dow Constantine.
After consulting on Murray’s campaign in 2013, he helped the mayor pass tax hikes for parks, transportation and housing.
Kaushik also started lobbying. He earned only $20,000 in 2014 but business quickly picked up, topping $115,000 in 2015.
When David Mendoza served as a Murray policy staffer and was told to check with Kaushik about ride-share and retail-marijuana regulations, Mendoza said he pondered who he was talking to.
Murray’s campaign consultant? A lobbyist? An unpaid political sage?
The operative didn’t draw bright distinctions, Mendoza said. “I was never really clear which of his clients (he was representing),” he said.
Kaushik acknowledges his work for Murray and Durkan has helped him as a lobbyist suss out “the lay of the land” at City Hall.
“Through campaign work, you get to know people … I know how to initiate a conversation with the city,” he said.
But he disputes Mendoza’s description of their interactions under Murray and said he avoids conflicts under Durkan.
“Every elected official since time immemorial has had a kitchen cabinet,” Kaushik said. “To the extent that I have clients that might have interests that are different from the administration’s interests, that’s all disclosed. They’re totally aware of it and act accordingly.”
The mayor considers Evans and Kaushik valued advisers. Dealing with the head tax and other headaches, a Durkan deputy asked for ethics guidance on how to communicate with the strategists.
“They asked about having her political people provide input on what was transpiring,” SEEC executive director Wayne Barnett said.
Seattle officials are allowed to seek thoughts from anyone, so Barnett didn’t object. But because Kaushik and Evans are political consultants, Barnett instructed the Durkan administration to use private means to talk city business with them, he said.
He separately instructed the administration to use non-city channels for communications about a possible referendum on the tax.
Fong and Formas subsequently used private email accounts to discuss the head-tax situation with Kaushik and Evans, analyzing news stories about the decision to repeal the measure and sharing the Durkan administration’s new homelessness strategy.
“Media coverage is better than I would have expected. Nice work all,” Kaushik replied. “Why aren’t we talking about legislators?” Evans added.
Kaushik said his head-tax input had nothing to do with his corporate clients at the time, who could have been subject to the tax but who stayed quiet when other businesses publicly opposed it. Sound View would have worked to protect the head tax had a referendum to repeal the measure gone to the ballot, he said.
Involving a company like Sound View can be messy, however. The City Attorney’s Office initially withheld the head-tax emails from public disclosure, contending they dealt with a political campaign. But the messages later ordered released by a judge clearly also discussed policy, including a “four-point plan” on homelessness.
“Jenny and I have been friends and professional colleagues for many years, and Sound View consulted on her election campaign,” Evans said, also mentioning the education levy. “She seeks my advice on political matters from time to time, as she does from a variety of other people as well.”
Mendoza in 2017 proposed Seattle restrict lobbying by campaign consultants, citing Kaushik’s activities.
He was backing Cary Moon for mayor at the time but continued to make his case after the election, asking the SEEC to study the issue. Seattle’s elections code already bars former top city employees from lobbying the city for three years after leaving their jobs.
While Seattle requires campaign consultants and lobbyists to disclose their clients and what they earn, they report those activities separately and differently, so it can be hard to connect the dots.
San Francisco has the most restrictive law, prohibiting campaign consultants and their companies from lobbying the individuals they help elect.
Good-government experts say even the perception of undue influence can corrode public trust.
“Anytime an office holder is indebted to a lobbyist, there’s a conflict of interest that’s worthy of scrutiny,” said Paul S. Ryan, vice president at Common Cause, a national watchdog organization.
Ryan said Common Cause might not recommend a restriction on lobbying by campaign consultants in small cities, where political operatives are in short supply. A restriction likely makes sense for large cities, he said.
“These public officials may not be villains in their own minds. They may believe they can act objectively and not be swayed just because someone worked on their campaign,” Ryan said. “But the social-science research shows us that bias is pretty pervasive.”
Though some SEEC commissioners welcomed Mendoza’s pitch, then-chair Eileen Norton was wary. She said a ban could encroach on First Amendment rights. The SEEC may take another look this year, new chair Brendan Donckers said.
Former Councilmember Nick Licata, who led the push to establish Seattle’s existing lobbying rules a decade ago, said the city should consider additional transparency requirements to point out potentially problematic relationships.
“It’s pretty hard to overcome working for two bosses,” Licata said.
Durkan said she already abides by San Francisco’s standard, allowing Kaushik to lobby her administration but not her. “I would have no problem with that law,” the mayor said.
But Seattle doesn’t need to make a change, she said. “The law as it exists in Seattle is robust enough to both inform the people about what’s going on in government and deter those issues,” Durkan said.
Sound View isn’t the only Seattle company to mix campaign consulting and other work.
Seattle council members used private emails to discuss head-tax polling with consultant Christian Sinderman, who had helped some of them win election and who was working with unions on a campaign to protect the measure. Though he’s not a lobbyist at City Hall, Sinderman has had unions as public-affairs clients.
Interest-group leaders sometimes dispense advice without registering as lobbyists, Kaushik said.
Yet Sound View’s relationship with the Durkan administration is unique, said McGinn’s campaign consultant, John Wyble.
“Most elected officials don’t want that kind of relationship,” Wyble said about consultants who lobby. “They want an unvarnished opinion from their own consultant who isn’t working for all these other interests.”
When Durkan showed little support for public broadband as a candidate, critics pointed to Comcast, which was backing her election.
The mayor said her stance was based on public broadband being too costly, and Kaushik says he’s never lobbied for Comcast on the issue.
But Devin Glaser, who advocates for public broadband with Upgrade Seattle, said, “You have to wonder who has their hand on the scale.”
James DeSarno, a Seattle architect, has been asking the same question since the city declined to license a marijuana-retail project that he was involved with. That happened after Kaushik met with the Finance and Administrative Services department for a competitor.
A judge recently upheld the decision, which Kaushik said was based on the law rather than “anything to do with undue influence.”
Fred Podesta, who led the department at the time, also described the decision as technical. Considering Sound View’s ties, someone like Podesta “should not be taking that call,” DeSarno said.
Durkan now is considering whether to impose tolls on ride-share companies or all vehicles, and her transportation department is promoting discounted Lyft and Uber rides to transit hubs as a way to combat traffic after the shutdown of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Formas said the discounts will keep people moving, and Kaushik said he isn’t directly involved. But walk and bike boosters, who worry about ride-share vehicles contributing to congestion, have mused about Sound View and the partnership with Lyft.
“If the relationship didn’t exist, would that still happen?” asked Ryan Packer, senior editor at The Urbanist and a pedestrian activist. “We don’t know.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly said consultant Kelly Evans had been included in mayor’s office conversations with Lyft about driver-pay data.