During her campaign announcement Thursday, Kshama Sawant said she supports the “progressive” Seattle program but won’t be participating in the city’s Democracy Voucher in the race for her District 3 seat on the City Council. Her opponents are questioning the campaign’s explanation.
“The Democracy Voucher program ensures every Seattleite gets a voice in our elections,” candidate Beto Yarce said in a statement Thursday. “Public financing of campaigns means community needs comes first—not special interests.”
Under the program, total spending on a participating campaign is limited to $150,000. But if a candidate raises more or Political Action Committees start writing big checks to push a candidate above the limit, all bets are off and the cap can be lifted.
Candidates participating in the Democracy Voucher Program must honor the following spending limits for each office. These limits include contributions from Democracy Vouchers and monetary contributions.
A candidate may be released from the spending limit by appealing to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. If released, the candidate will only receive Democracy Voucher dollars up to the spending limit but will then be able to collect monetary donations beyond that.
Yarce said Sawant’s decision “raises questions about the extent” that Socialist Alternative “influence will play in the form of outsized and out-of-state campaign contributions.”
Following her announcement Thursday, Sawant’s campaign explained the decision as concern about a “loophole” in the program that could allow a well financed Sawant opponent to swoop into the race, leaving their candidate scrambling for permission to raise funds above the Democracy Voucher cap.
Boosted by a huge advantage in the number of individual contributions, Sawant scored a relatively easy victory in her 2015 campaign against challenger Pamela Banks — the city’s most expensive race that election season. Banks received just under half the number of contributions as Sawant but Banks’ donations were on average about double the size of the Socialist Alternative council incumbent. Meanwhile, Sawant raised nearly three times as much as Banks did from outside the city.
The Yarce campaign, meanwhile, announced Thursday it has submitted signatures and donations to qualify for the Democracy Voucher program. Yarce says he submitted the requisite 150 signatures and 150 donations of $10 or more. At least half of the signatures and donations came from District 3 as required by the Program.
The other candidates vying to oppose Sawant, Logan Bowers and Pat Murakami, said they also intend to be part of the program.
“I’m taking Democracy Vouchers, so are other contenders, which means if Kshama participated, we’d all be limited to $150,000 in spending,” Bowers said via Twitter. “By rejecting public funding, she’s bringing in the big, out-of-city money. Her financing says she’s representing someone, but it isn’t us.”
UPDATE: Murakami has also weighed in with harsh words for Sawant’s decision and her spending in the previous campaign:
The amount she spent on her last campaign was obscene. Many of her supporters are struggling to survive. The Democracy Vouchers allow them to contribute a decent amount without a further impact on their finances. I consider her fear of developers funding a candidate with a million dollars is unfounded. If that does come to be the case, I’ll help her expose the problem. I’m not taking a dime from developers.
Earlier this month, CHS examined internal documents that showed how Sawant’s Socialist Alternative political organization’s structure determined her votes on City Council actions like the confirmation of Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, set her policies, and determined what she will say about her decisions in the council chambers, and who works on her city payrolled staff. Sawant has not refuted that she is “democratically accountable” to Socialist Alternative and said her work for D3 is not at odds with her “long-standing and publicly declared commitment” to the political organization.
Thursday, Sawant said Socialist Alternative will play a major role in her reelection campaign. “Socialist Alternative and the larger movement that has been behind every election campaign and every victory that won for the ordinary people in the city, will be playing a role together because we have seen that, the victories that we’ve been able to win, it’s not because one person got lucky because they have great qualities,” Sawant said, “but it’s because that person got elected and stayed true to a movement that has continued fighting.”
In 2015, Seattle voters approved the Democracy Voucher program, a first-of-its-kind local election law that enacted a property tax levy to fund a voluntary public financing system of giving eligible residents four $25 democracy vouchers that they can then give to candidates. In January, registered voters began receiving their vouchers in the mail. Seattle residents who are at least 18 years old and are a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawful permanent resident can apply online for vouchers. Each voucher has the election year, resident’s name, a voucher identification number, plus a voter ID number and barcode to help with signature verification. All contributions are public information.
The system launched limiting the program to only the candidates running for Seattle City Council and City Attorney. The mayoral race will not be eligible for the program until 2021 as the voucher fundraising limits are higher and the program needs more time to accumulate funds.
In his statement, Yarce also said he won’t be accepting corporate contributions “because this is a campaign for the people, by the people, and paid for by the people.”
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