Congressman Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, is one of the big PAC men in our state's congressional delegation. Sixty percent of Smith's campaign donations in the current election cycle are from political-action committees (PACs). Only two other members of the delegation collect a greater share of PAC money.

Share story

WASHINGTON — As a freshman in Congress, Adam Smith made a one-year vow to shun money from all special-interest groups to focus on his new job.

Since that pledge expired in 1998, the Tacoma Democrat has become one of the lawmakers most heavily reliant on special-interest money to get re-elected in this state. And by far the biggest share of that money is coming from defense companies, a sharp change from support from labor groups that propelled Smith’s earlier victories in his blue-collar district.

Nearly 60 percent of Smith’s campaign donations in the current election cycle are from political-action committees (PACs). Only two other members of the state’s congressional delegation collect a greater share of PAC money: Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen of Lake Stevens and Norm Dicks of Bremerton. Larsen and Dicks each have gotten two-thirds of their campaign cash from PACs. (Dicks is not running for re-election.)

The remaining seven members of the delegation draw a majority of their contributions from individual donors. The same is true for a typical incumbent in the House.

Smith defended his fundraising, saying he collects comparatively less from individual donors simply because he doesn’t hit them up for money as much. Money from PACs, on the other hand, often flows on its own to lawmakers who hold influential posts, as Smith does as the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Smith rejects the notion that PAC money inherently carries more potential for undue influence than money from individuals. Corporations, unions and other groups can’t dip into their treasuries to make PAC contributions. Instead, the money is donated by executives and employees.

At the same time, large donations from individuals, too, can come from those with vested interest in the lawmaker. For example, since January 2011, 10 executives and consultants with the Seattle lobbying firm Denny Miller Associates have given Smith’s campaign a total of $11,000.

“I don’t see that PAC money is any more of a problem than money from individuals,” Smith said. “I maintain a very strong independence. I want people to give me money because they think I do a good job.”

Since winning his eighth term in November 2010, Smith has collected nearly $700,000 for his re-election. Donations from individuals accounted for 41 percent of Smith’s current war chest, with the rest from PACs.

More than a quarter of Smith’s PAC money came from defense-related interests, Boeing chief among them. Based on combined PAC and individual donations, Smith’s heaviest support came from defense, technology, labor and lobbying firms, in that order.

He faces no serious challenger this year in the 9th District, which was redrawn by the redistricting commission and includes northeast Tacoma, Federal Way, Mercer Island, southeast Seattle and Bellevue. It is the state’s first majority-minority district. Challengers are Republicans Jim Postma and John Orlinksi and Democrats Dave Christie and Tom Cramer.

In 2011, Smith won a perch as the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. He also created a leadership PAC, called ADAM (American Defense & Military) PAC, to dole out campaign cash to fellow lawmakers. Virtually all of the $51,000 raised by ADAM PAC so far has come from defense contractors and lobbyists.

But Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the largest military base on the West Coast, will be spun out of Smith’s district next year. Smith said he intends to stay on with the committee, saying he will continue to represent many defense firms along the Bellevue-Kent corridor. Microsoft’s biggest customer, he noted, is the Pentagon.

“You can work on whatever you want to work on” regardless of committee assignments, he said.

Small donors giving $200 or less made up just 4 percent of Smith’s current campaign total.

In recent years, wealthy individuals and PACs have increasingly displaced small donors in congressional elections. During the 2008 elections, House incumbents received an average of 45 percent of their re-election funds from PACs, compared with 42 percent in 2000, according to The Campaign Finance Institute.

The share of individual donors giving $1,000 or more to House incumbents grew even faster, to 34 percent in 2008, up from 24 percent.

Donors giving $200 or less made up 6 percent of the total raised.

In a year awash with unlimited and anonymous spending by “super-PACs,” even advocates of campaign-finance reform could muster only muted outrage about Smith’s financial dependence on PACs.

“In an ideal world, we would have all members of Congress get all the contributions from small individual donors,” said Mary Boyle, a vice president with Common Cause, a citizens lobbying group in Washington, D.C. “But members of Congress take their money wherever they can get it.”

Common Cause has unsuccessfully pushed for the Fair Elections Now Act, which would provide matching federal dollars for candidates who forgo large donations from PACs and individuals. The measure had more than 200 co-sponsors in the last Congress, including Smith; Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle; and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Boyle, however, sees an even bigger threat from super-PACs, independent groups that can sink unlimited dollars from corporations and individuals into campaigns for or against any candidate.

“There was a day when the PAC was the bad guy,” Boyle said. But super-PACs “really changed the playing field.”

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or