We had an excellent story in this paper over the weekend about how big business is fed up with city politics and is ready to throw its weight around.
Headlined “Business lobby sees opportunity to unseat Seattle City Council’s progressive majority,” the story detailed how the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has already amassed a $700,000 war chest.
It’s an impressive figure, fueled by Amazon’s $200,000 pledge. It’s also only May — the candidate sign-up period doesn’t even close until this Friday. In the last municipal campaign with district voting, in 2015, the same business group spent less than $500,000 for both the primary and general elections.
So business is fired up. But there’s something else going on out that’s arguably even more interesting — which is that, so far, they’re being outgunned.
By … the socialists?
I kid you not. As of Tuesday afternoon, three out of the top four money-raising candidates in the city are socialists or socialist-leaning.
Take, for instance, Shaun Scott, a 34-year-old Democratic Socialist candidate for the 4th District, which is centered on the University District, Ravenna and Wallingford.
He’s raised enough money — more than $118,000 — that he’s already exceeded city spending limits for the August primary ($75,000) and is closing in on having raised the limit for the general election, too.
Scott is the city’s number one recipient to date of democracy vouchers, those $25 contributions paid for by taxpayers and mailed out, in groups of four, to every city registered voter. He’s collected 4,066 of them, totaling $101,650 — $12,000 more than anybody else.
To hear him tell it, he did it by hitting the streets with the hardiness of a postal carrier.
“It’s not luck, it’s us out there in the rain, sometimes in the snow, being as relentless as possible in this campaign,” Scott says. “It’s by being super visible, and super organized.”
The number two fundraiser (number one, if you count donations of his own money), is a relative moderate named Alex Pedersen, a former City Council aide who is also running in District 4. But then number three is Tammy Morales, a community organizer who previously said she was a Democratic Socialist, but has dropped the label and is running an anti-corporate campaign as a progressive in the south end’s District 2.
Socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant is fourth in total fundraising, though she is not taking democracy vouchers because she didn’t want to be restricted by that program’s campaign spending limits.
Money is just one arbiter of whether a campaign is clicking. But in a year some political pundits keep saying the council is surely overdue to swing to the center, this is an early sign that there may be even more energy and activity buzzing on the far left.
“We are seeing tremendous interest, in justice for renters, in climate policies like the green new deal, in the way people are being priced out of the city,” said Scott, the Democratic Socialist candidate.
Turning those kinds of appeals into campaign cash, without backing from business, is nothing new for Sawant. She holds the record for most money ever raised in a Seattle City Council campaign, $464,000 in 2015. But Scott said the democracy voucher program has been a game-changer.
“It’s been our campaign’s foot in the door,” he said.
Already more than 54,000 vouchers have been returned, totaling $1.36 million, from some 14,000 individual “donors” (I put that in quotes because, remember, the money comes from a public fund). It’s spread across dozens of candidates. But still it’s twice as much money in the system as business has stockpiled in its political-action committee.
The wild card is that if business uses its war chest for an expensive independent ad campaign, the spending limits for the voucher-receiving candidates can be raised. And so far, it’s the lefty candidates that seem the best at rounding up those vouchers.
It will be fascinating to watch this play out. But there’s no question the democracy voucher program, if it survives a court challenge, has tilted Seattle’s political playing field.
The socialists are literally giving big business a run for their money.