Seattle voters have seen their mailboxes stuffed not only with brochures from City Council candidates in the Aug. 6 primary election but also with negative ads and slick pamphlets from independent political-action committees (PACs) with names like People for Seattle and Moms for Seattle.
Some candidates are decrying mailers sent by the PACs taking large contributions from wealthy donors. The ads have warned voters that certain candidates will perpetuate City Hall dysfunction and have used Photoshop to show homeless tents at a playground. Moms for Seattle’s leaders stayed publicly anonymous for weeks while injecting more than $131,000 into the races.
The PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates, and a number of them are using mailers in addition to digital ads to influence Seattle’s election.
“I think people have been pretty upset to see this happening,” District 4 candidate Emily Myers said. “One thousand percent of my effort right now is talking to voters in person. Once you meet somebody, the mudslinging doesn’t have the same impact.”
PACs associated with labor-union allies and with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce are also using mail, though the Chamber is spending mostly on canvassing, phone calls and texts.
The PACs collectively have reported spending more than $863,000 to support and oppose candidates, with all seven of the council’s district seats up for grabs.
The Chamber’s PAC, called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, has spent the most by far — drawing on donations from businesses like Amazon — followed by a PAC associated with the Unite Here Local 8 hotel-workers union, Moms for Seattle and People for Seattle.
Endorsements by the Chamber’s PAC, People for Seattle and Moms for Seattle overlap in several races, while Local 8 is backing Andrew Lewis in District 7 with video ads.
PACs called Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy and District 1 Neighbors for Small Business have spent smaller amounts, as has a PAC associated with the SEIU 775 home-health workers union.
The candidates themselves have raised $2.87 million, led by District 3 incumbent Kshama Sawant’s $248,000 haul.
People for Seattle
People for Seattle has sent mailers slamming incumbent Lisa Herbold in District 1, Tammy Morales in District 2, Zachary DeWolf in District 3 and Myers, comparing each to Sawant, whom the PAC also has attacked.
Former Seattle politician Tim Burgess and restaurateur Taylor Hoang started People for Seattle in May to support “progressive, practical” candidates over the council’s left wing. The PAC has sent mailers backing Phillip Tavel in District 1, Mark Solomon in District 2, Egan Orion in District 3 and Alex Pedersen in District 4.
The PAC’s negative fliers have grabbed more attention, however. A People for Seattle mailer recently urged voters to reject “the failing City Council” by booting Herbold. It knocked her for championing last year’s “disastrous, job-killing” head tax and for other stances.
The mailer also linked her to the Move Seattle transportation levy not living up to promises.
“I am saddened that the very same opponents who complain about ‘divisive politics’ are themselves choosing division and lies,” Herbold wrote to supporters with a nod at Burgess, who in the past has called for more civil politics.
Herbold ultimately voted to repeal the head tax on high-grossing businesses, which would have helped address homelessness. When Burgess was at City Hall, he also supported Move Seattle.
Another recent People for Seattle mailer told voters, “If you like extremist Kshama Sawant, then you’ll love Emily Myers,” citing the candidate’s support for safe drug consumption sites, among other stances.
Myers called the rhetoric “Trumpian … in painting the mainstream as the extreme.” Research has shown such sites can save lives, she said.
“Positions I’m taking are supported by the majority of the council and some are supported by the mayor,” Myers said. “They’re also supported by data.”
In District 4, People for Seattle is backing Pedersen, who once worked for Burgess. Pedersen has condemned the outside ads.
“No matter the source, negative ads are unnecessary and unwelcome,” he said. “I hope voters ignore these mailers.”
Burgess stood by the ads. “We think it’s very appropriate and fair to point out candidate positions,” he said.
People for Seattle has about 350 contributors, including $5,000 donations by prominent businesspeople, such as multiple Amazon executives.
Though many Seattle voters dislike independent spending, the United States Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United has dictated the game, Burgess said, adding, “This is American politics today.”
Tavel expects to benefit from the anti-Herbold mailers but also has received calls from voters angry about them.
“I say, ‘Please don’t hold it against me’ … There’s the world of the candidates and the world of the PACs,” he said.
Moms for Seattle
Celeste Garcia Ramberg, Jeannine Christofilis, Laura McMahon and Betsy Terry-Losh had Moms for Seattle registered in May, they said, after attending candidate forums hosted by the advocacy group Speak Out Seattle, which has opposed the head tax and safe-consumption sites.
They knew each other partly through their children attending the same private school, and their PAC has sent mailers backing Pat Murakami in District 3, Pedersen, Heidi Wills in District 6 and Michael George in District 7, arguing new leadership is needed to help homeless people and clean up the city.
“We don’t believe what is happening on the streets of Seattle is compassionate. We find it highly disturbing,” Garcia Ramberg said.
The Moms for Seattle founders are working with veteran Seattle political consultants from Clear Path Partners and Strategies 360, as first reported by The Stranger.
The PAC has attracted criticism partly because the founders didn’t make their names public. They say they were worried about harassment and their families.
“It’s vicious out there,” Christofilis said.
The PAC has about 250 contributors, including $25,000 from charter-schools advocate Katherine Binder and $8,000 from businessman John Meisenbach.
Moms for Seattle’s founders have donated at least $5,000 each, and major contributors also include Sheri Schultz, who’s married to Starbucks chairman emeritus Howard Schultz, and other wealthy people.
“Yes, we have big donors. We have medium and little donors, too” McMahon said.
District 6 candidate Jay Fathi spoke against the PAC. “When it’s hard to figure out who they really are, that’s when we have a problem,” he said. “When I think about moms for Seattle … I don’t think about people who aren’t moms and people who live in Bellevue.”
Moms for Seattle also has stirred controversy with its mailers, using Photoshop to show homeless tents in sites such as Cowen Park, as reported by independent journalist Erica Barnett and Patch Seattle. One piece showed an empty toddler swing there with the message, “This isn’t how people should be living or where children should be playing.”
The founders say they had photos taken showing homelessness in parks but decided those would be insensitive because they had people in them.
Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, Working Washington and OneAmerica created Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy, which is sending mailers backing Herbold and Morales against their opponents. The PAC also has shared its candidates rankings on social media in comic-book style, as well, blessing high-rated candidates with phrases like “ka pow” and “disappointing” candidates with phrases like “zoink.”
District 1 Neighbors for Small Business is supporting Tavel, while SEIU 775’s PAC is spending to boost Herbold, Morales and Fathi.