Money can’t buy votes, at least not directly. But in Seattle City Council races, where interests like business groups and unions are spending record-breaking amounts ahead of the Nov. 5 election, money sure can buy a lot of eyeballs.

For example, here’s what $20,000 is worth, approximately: 300 30-second commercials on cable, texts to countless voters, 45,000 refrigerator magnets, videos that pursue voters from website to website, or visits by paid canvassers to 3,500 doors.

Given that political-action committees (PACs) have together shelled out more than $3.2 million this year on the 14 candidates still running — above the $2 million-plus spent by the candidates themselves — it’s no wonder some voters are experiencing advertising overload. All seven of the council’s district seats are on the ballot, with some races attracting particularly intense spending.

“I’ve been surprised at how inundated my mailbox and email and social media have been,” said Alki resident Don Brubeck in District 1, where business-backed lawyer Phil Tavel is challenging incumbent Lisa Herbold.

“The amount of money being put in by Amazon and other high-tech corporations is out of line. They’re swamping the democratic process,” added Brubeck, 68. “When you repeat something enough, people start believing it.”

Demonstrators gather near the Amazon Spheres for a noontime rally Thursday to protest Amazon’s large donations to local political races. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Demonstrators gather near the Amazon Spheres for a noontime rally Thursday to protest Amazon’s large donations to local political races. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Contributions to council candidates are capped at low amounts. But there are no such limits on contributions to PACs that spend independently.

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Bryant resident Anne Goodchild was surprised to learn that District 4 candidate Alex Pedersen isn’t working with the PACs sending glossy ads to her house praising him.

“I assumed there was some level of coordination,” said the 46-year-old professor, who has been disturbed by mailers stoking fear about homelessness.

Not all voters are repulsed by the $1.45 million that Amazon has contributed this year to help the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s PAC buy ads and pay canvassers. The PAC, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), says the current council is to blame for the city’s homelessness crisis and other problems, like traffic. Four incumbents chose not to seek reelection.

This year’s races are “up to the voters, who are ready to move on,” the PAC said in a recent statement.

Though Betsy Peto was puzzled when a CASE canvasser visited her house near Green Lake to promote District 6 candidate Heidi Wills, she was glad to hear the knock. The 74-year-old, who has had people camping near her home, thinks Wills would take Seattle in a better direction.

“I detest the legal rights that corporations have won for themselves, but I have said before that only billionaires can solve the crisis created by the ideologues” now running the council,  Peto wrote to The Seattle Times.  “I welcome the help.”

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Amazon critics argue CASE is “hiding the ball.” What business leaders actually want is to avoid higher taxes and stop the council from continuing to lead the nation on policies such as a $15 per hour minimum wage, said Aaron Ostrom, executive director at the nonprofit Fuse.

“There’s something much bigger at stake,” he said. “Seattle has been a progressive laboratory, and what Amazon is doing means there’s a real risk this laboratory gets shut down.”

CASE has reported spending more than $1.4 million, boosting Tavel against Herbold, Mark Solomon against Tammy Morales in District 2, Egan Orion against incumbent Kshama Sawant in District 3, Alex Pedersen against Shaun Scott in District 4, incumbent Debora Juarez against Ann Davison Sattler in District 5, Wills against Dan Strauss, and Jim Pugel against Andrew Lewis in District 7.

But Amazon isn’t alone in spending to sway voters. Business executives including  Seattle Mariners owners John Stanton and Chris Larson have helped bankroll a PAC called People for Seattle, which has TV, mail and digital ads touting candidates that CASE is also supporting. Voters are seeing the ads even on dating apps like Grindr.

“Seattle needs a more effective City Council, so the last thing we want is another out-of-touch politician like Mike O’Brien, and that’s the problem with Dan Strauss,” one People for Seattle TV spot says, showing Sawant with outgoing District 6 Councilmember Mike O’Brien.

Former mayor and Councilmember Tim Burgess, who helped start People for Seattle, declined to be interviewed.

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PACs associated with Unite Here, the hotel-workers union, have bought numerous ads bolstering Lewis and have brought members from other states to help canvass in District 7 neighborhoods such as Magnolia, spending more than $50,000 on lodging.

Though Lewis has heard that the Unite Here canvassers are chatting about issues he cares about, like better wages and housing, “It worries me when … I have no control,” he said, noting Unite Here’s PACs have spent more in District 7 than he, and other PACs more than Pugel. “At a certain point, our messages are getting usurped.”

Unite Here also has contributed to Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy (CAPE). Formed to combat CASE, CAPE is spending money from unions and $125,000 from wealthy donor Nick Hanauer to boost Herbold, Morales and Strauss with texts, mailers and digital ads that can target particular areas.

“No wonder people throw up their hands”

When a CAPE video ad portraying Tavel as “Puppet Phil” popped up on his computer screen, undecided West Seattle voter Chris Vincent was blown away by what he considered a revolting attack.

“I wanted to take a shower afterward,” the 60-year-old said.

The experience made Vincent question whether to vote for Herbold, though her campaign didn’t make the ad. The PACs realize such tactics upset some people, he said, “but are betting that most people can be herded like sheep.”

Representatives for CAPE declined to be interviewed.

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Taken together, PACs associated with business interests had reported spending about $2.1 million on council candidates as of Thursday, while those associated with labor unions had reported spending about half that.

Even presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have weighed in on Amazon’s spending here, causing some council candidates and voters to worry about the PAC money overshadowing other issues.

Anna Rudd said the PAC barrage has complicated her vote. She was leaning toward Orion until Amazon upped the ante.

“My sense of agency as a voter … has been stolen by all the PAC money,” said the Capitol Hill resident, 79. “No wonder people throw up their hands.”

Pedersen is backed by CASE but has been talking to voters more about stop signs and land use. In a statement Thursday, he called the PAC spending “absolutely unwelcome and unnecessary.”

Orion issued a similar statement, noting his campaign has a higher percentage of donors from District 3, though Sawant has more total District 3 donors.

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Then again, voters who want a more progressive tax system should beware CASE’s picks, said Jim Street, who served on the council in the 1980s and 1990s. Those candidates have criticized last year’s short-lived head tax on high-grossing businesses for homeless housing and services, Street noted.

Street was upset when a CASE canvasser visited his home. “I said, ‘I have some real issues with the role PACs are playing,’ and he said, ‘I agree, but I need the money,’ ” Street recalled.

Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González, at-large council members not up for election, campaigned against Sawant in August’s primary. But they changed tack during a rally Thursday at the Amazon Spheres, backing Sawant and other candidates with CASE opponents rather than allow Jeff Bezos to “buy” the races.

A rally near the Amazon Spheres in opposition to Amazon’s political spending. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
A rally near the Amazon Spheres in opposition to Amazon’s political spending. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Meanwhile, voters are having trouble tracking who exactly is buying what. People for Seattle is running digital ads that mimic logos used by candidates, while CAPE is sending texts to voters like voter Tom O’Toole, 41, who initially assumed they were from Herbold’s campaign.

“Short attention span,” O’Toole said when enlightened, attributing his mistake to “lazy info consumption.”

Mount Baker resident Karen Daubert said she chuckled when she received a text bashing Orion because it was strangely addressed to “Crystal.”

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PACs big and small

Because TV ads can be targeted only to north or south Seattle, rather than to council districts, and because paid canvassers are very costly, the conventional wisdom before this year was that neither tactic would be used much in 2019.

But CASE and Unite Here have blown away those assumptions. Tavel and Orion are candidates who have also bought TV commercials.

For Unite Here national president D. Taylor, the District 7 race is part of a broader battle. The union has previously invested in San Francisco and this year is also spending in Miami, Taylor said.

“With the amount of growth happening in Seattle, more hotels are going to get built,” and Lewis agrees they should employ union workers, he said.

The race is more personal for Unite Here Local 8 hotel worker Brenda Amolo. Though her husband works in Seattle, rent in the city is too high, so they and their son live in Federal Way. That’s what the 26-year-old tells voters when she canvasses for Lewis while on leave from her job at a SeaTac hotel.

Hotel worker Brenda Amolo, who is being paid by her union’s PAC, knocks on doors on Queen Anne in support of Seattle City Council District 7 candidate Andrew Lewis. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Hotel worker Brenda Amolo, who is being paid by her union’s PAC, knocks on doors on Queen Anne in support of Seattle City Council District 7 candidate Andrew Lewis. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

“We think Andrew is the candidate that’s going to look out for the little people,” Amolo told a voter Thursday on Queen Anne.

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CASE declined a request by The Seattle Times to tag along with a canvasser.

PACs with less money to burn are struggling to grab attention. When West Seattle restaurant owners Dave Montoure and Dan Austin went to buy pro-Tavel TV spots for their PAC, District 1 Neighbors for Small Business, larger PACs had already bought prime slots, they said.

Montoure and Austin had to settle for less desirable times on stations like the History Channel and Animal Planet. “Trying to get our message out is hard,” said Austin, who contends Herbold hasn’t properly supported business owners like them. “We’re not trying to counter the Amazon narrative, but we’re not Amazon.”

Knowing voters would be bombarded with paper mailers, Seattle firefighters decided to send magnets shaped like firefighter helmets with the names of candidates their union has endorsed, Local 27 president Kenny Stuart said.

Local 27 is backing Solomon, Orion, Pedersen, Juarez and Wills because they agree the city needs to clean up unsafe homeless encampments, Stuart said.

The union is spending more on politics than ever, and “magnets were a durable message that wouldn’t go right into the garbage,” he said.

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Local 27 is among PACs that have continued to advertise on Facebook despite the social network’s promise to stop selling local political ads in Washington state.

The race in District 5 has attracted less PAC spending, likely because the incumbent is supported by both business and labor against Sattler. But North Seattle resident Ed Bronsdon did receive a Local 27 magnet for Juarez, he said.

“The megaphone that can come with money is concerning,” the 56-year-old said. “At the same time, each entity should have the means to tell its story.”

Eastlake resident Samir Rahman hasn’t been targeted by PACs at all, perhaps because he moved to Seattle only two years ago and isn’t yet on mailing lists. But the 24-year-old software engineer has “pretty much made up my mind.”

“Rich corporations have too much power,” said Rahman, who intends to vote for Sawant.