Businesses, unions and other interest groups have started pouring money into Seattle City Council races ahead of the Aug. 6 primary election, using political-action committees that can collect and spend unlimited amounts.
The special independent committees are allowed to accept huge cash contributions and spend as much as they want to support or oppose candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates.
Some have already spent more than the candidates have spent themselves, buying the interest groups major clout.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s committee had reported spending more than $300,000 in the council races as of Thursday afternoon, mostly on three candidates, while a committee run by the hotel-workers union had reported spending nearly $150,000 on a single candidate.
“These committees tend to exist to avoid contribution limits,” said Estevan Munoz-Howard, a Seattle activist for campaign-finance reform. “The spending is driven by smaller groups of people, sometimes by corporate interests and wealthy donors.”
All seven of the council’s district seats are up for grabs this year, and more than 50 candidates are on the ballots being mailed out this week.
Seattle voters in 2015 approved a groundbreaking democracy vouchers program, which allows residents to assign taxpayer-funded vouchers to qualifying candidates.
Meanwhile, outside money appears to be on the rise. Independent-expenditure committees spent an average of $87,183 per race in 2015, when all nine council seats were up for election. They spent $179,447 per race in 2017, when both races were for citywide seats.
With this year’s primary and general elections still to come, independent committees have already reported spending $82,116 per race.
That doesn’t mean the vouchers aren’t working, said Rory O’Sullivan, a Seattle attorney who worked on the ballot measure that established the vouchers program. The vouchers are increasing donor participation and helping grassroots candidates compete, he said.
Though candidates supported by independent spending usually win, they don’t always win because they were backed by outside groups. In many cases, the committees place bets on likely winners, O’Sullivan said.
“In a district race, in a primary, in an off-year, the number of voters is going to be pretty low,” he said. “There are diminishing returns when you door-knock somebody seven times. Maybe these will be smart investments for the Chamber, but I’m a little skeptical.”
A wrinkle in the races could be independent spending on Facebook ads. Multiple committees have reported buying ads on Facebook, which recently settled lawsuits brought by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson accusing the company of violating campaign-finance transparency rules.
Businesses and hotel workers
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s committee is spreading its money unevenly among nine candidates in the seven races.
The committee has reported spending $83,047 to back District 1 candidate Phillip Tavel, $78,613 to back District 2 candidate Mark Solomon and $108,409 to back District 3 candidate Egan Orion. For those candidates, the money is being used to target voters with in-person canvassing, phone calls and text messages and mailers.
The committee has reported spending smaller sums to support Alex Pedersen in District 4, Debora Juarez in District 5, Jay Fathi and Heidi Wills in District 6 and Michael George and Jim Pugel in District 7. For those candidates, the money is being used to send mailers.
The Chamber committee has raised nearly $1 million and its top contributors include Amazon ($250,000), Vulcan ($155,000), the Washington Association of Realtors ($50,000) and Expedia ($50,000).
Other major contributors include companies such as Puget Sound Energy, Comcast, Weyerhaeuser, Alaska Airlines and Boeing, as well as industry groups for landlords and real-estate developers.
“We want to support our candidates and communicate directly with voters,” said Markham McIntyre, the Chamber committee’s executive director. “These district elections are going to be a lot about people-to-people connections … so we’re spending on canvassing and people-to-people connections.”
McIntyre said the committee is spending more on candidates who need more help in advancing past the primary.
A committee run by Unite Here Local 8, a union that represents hotel workers, has reported spending about $148,299 to support District 7 candidate Andrew Lewis. The money is being used to pay for video production and TV and digital ads, including Facebook ads.
The Local 8 committee’s only reported contributor was the union’s national committee. The union cares about the District 7 race in particular because the winner will represent downtown, the location of most Seattle hotels.
“Andrew met with our members. They were impressed and asked the union leadership to support his candidacy,” Local 8 secretary-treasurer Stefan Moritz said in an email.
People for Seattle, a committee led by Tim Burgess, the former mayor and council member, and by Taylor Hoang, a restaurateur, has reported spending more than $17,000 on mailers.
The mailers are opposing incumbent Lisa Herbold in District 1, incumbent Kshama Sawant in District 3 and challenger Zachary DeWolf in District 3, while supporting Tavel in District 1 and Orion in District 3.
The committee has raised more than $250,000 and its top donors include prominent businesspeople such as Andrew Jassy, Tom Alberg and David Zapolsky of Amazon, and Mariners owner John Stanton.
Moms for Seattle, a committee registered by a member of the Speak Out Seattle advocacy organization, has reported spending $69,000 on digital advertising, including Facebook ads, splitting that money evenly to support Pat Murakami in District 3, Pedersen in District 4, Wills in District 6 and George in District 7.
The committee has raised more than $150,000 from about 200 individuals. Katherine Binder, a Bellevue resident and charter schools advocate, has contributed $25,000.
A committee run by SEIU 775, which represents home-health and nursing-home workers, has reported shelling out more than $17,000 for digital advertising, including Facebook ads, to support Herbold in District 1, Tammy Morales in District 2 and Fathi in District 6.
SEIU 775 secretary-treasurer Adam Glickman said most unions are likely to rely more on motivating members than spending cash. Business groups “have unlimited amounts of money,” Glickman said. “We’ll be talking to our members and volunteering for campaigns.”
He added, “Turnout is going to be relatively low, so rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads, we want to communicate one-on-one with members.”
Ferguson, the state AG, sued Facebook and Google last year, saying they had broken the law by not providing the public with the ability to see details about their political ad buyers. The companies settled the suits for $200,000 each in December, without acknowledging guilt, but the law still applies.
Facebook and Google have told the state Public Disclosure Commission that they’re no longer selling any local political ads in Washington and that local campaigns buying ads are violating their policies, “although it appears some ads are getting done,” said Kim Bradford, spokeswoman for the commission.
Seattle campaigns aren’t breaking the law by purchasing Facebook and Google ads and Facebook has a website where the public can view some information about such ads, but the commission is currently investigating a complaint that the companies are still out of compliance, Bradford said.
A committee called Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy hasn’t reported independent spending yet but plans to, representative Rachel Lauter said. The committee was created by the labor-backed Working Washington, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer’s Civic Action and OneAmerica Votes, which advocates for immigrant rights. Hanauer has contributed $25,000.
Progressive groups want to get money out of politics, “But we exist in a world where, if we want to get our message out, we’ve got to play by the rules of the game,” Lauter said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that only Facebook has a website where the public can view some information about the political ads it hosts related to local races. Google’s site tracks political ads in federal races.