In the presidential debate last week, the Democratic contenders were asked how they would get big money from wealthy special interests out of politics. One candidate went all-in for Seattle.
“The answer is to wash the money out, with people-powered money,” said tech executive Andrew Yang.
He suggested the nation follow Seattle’s lead, by giving every voter $100 worth of “democracy dollars” to donate directly to candidates and “drown out the influence of megadonors.”
“This would wash out the lobbyist cash by a factor of eight to one,” Yang said.
Adds his website: “It has been used in Seattle to great effect, and we can take their program national.”
Hoo boy. Message to rest of nation: Copying what we did here will NOT wash special interest money out of your politics.
Because we are seeing a record tidal wave of it — rushing in, not out.
What Yang’s talking about was Initiative 122, which Seattle voters approved in 2015 as an experiment in public financing of elections. Through a property tax it gives every Seattle voter $100 worth of “democracy vouchers” to give to candidates. It also lowered contribution limits and capped campaign spending.
The total effect was supposed to be as described in the 2015 voters’ guide: “Powerful special interests are spending record amounts to influence elections … I-122 keeps Seattle of, by and for the people.”
Yet there has never been a Seattle City Council election so dominated by special interests, big businesses and the superwealthy as this year. As of this week, outside influence PACs — mostly business and labor — have raised more money to pour into the 2019 council elections than was spent by outside committees in all previous council races combined, going back to 1995 (that’s as far back as the city’s online records go).
Put another way: Of the top seven money-raising committees seeking to influence the 2019 city vote, only one is connected to a candidate (Kshama Sawant’s campaign). The other six are special interest PACs, representing business, labor or the wealthy (such as the developer-dominated People for Seattle).
The result is a crazy quilt of campaign ads and themes, some of which aren’t true (like flyers with homeless tents Photoshopped into parks). And none of which is controlled or sanctioned by the candidates themselves.
The PAC names themselves seem designed to obfuscate. Example: Amazon so far has put $450,000 into a downtown business PAC called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (total war chest, $1.73 million).
As a response, liberal activists formed a sort of doppelgänger countergroup, called Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy. Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer has backed it with $125,000, while the home-care union SEIU chipped in $60,000.
All told, these two plus seven other PACs have already raised $3.7 million for the council races (compared to about $2 million donated so far in democracy vouchers from the people).
The most spent by independent expenditure groups on council races before these new rules was $784,000, in 2015.
Is the democracy-voucher system to blame for this? Hard to say — this special-interest money bomb might have exploded anyway. But some experts say the contribution and spending caps in I-122, designed to restrict money’s influence, perversely led special interests to seek a workaround.
“Seattle’s limits on contributions do not restrict how much people can give to electoral efforts; they simply require people to send their contributions to less responsible and more destructive speakers,” Albert Alschuler, a University of Chicago law professor, wrote in a recent letter to Seattle election commissioners. “It’s unfortunate that Seattle now has a system of campaign financing that actively channels funds toward less responsible speech.”
Yeah, that is … unfortunate. Though another word for it would be “predictable.”
“If I-122 passes, more contributions will be pushed into less transparent and accountable special interest independent expenditures, the opposite of what a reform measure should do.” So wrote two former election commissioners, right in the 2015 voters guide for I-122 (the measure won in a landslide anyway).
“I had a pretty cynical take, which is that money in politics is going to find its way,” one of those commissioners, Seattle attorney Bob Mahon, recalled to me Monday.
So where does this leave us? Alschuler, the law professor, says Seattle now ought to cap special-interest PAC donations, before they overwhelm everything. Councilmember M. Lorena González has proposed a $5,000 cap, but there’s concern it may not be constitutional.
Mahon says the democracy vouchers seem to have prompted more candidates to run, which is good. Counterintuitively, though, the city ought to relax the overall contribution and spending limits for candidates. He thinks that could ease the incentive for wealthy interests to go guerrilla outside the system.
But for this year, get ready for a fall political mud storm, maybe like we’ve never seen in local politics. For now we’re stuck with it — hoisted, it seems, by our own liberal petard.