Money from outside groups and corporations played an outsized role in last month’s Seattle City Council elections. And nowhere in Seattle more so than in District 3, where challenger Egan Orion was the beneficiary of almost $600,000 in independent expenditures. From the start of the campaign, incumbent Kshama Sawant said she knew money would be the key to the race.
The biggest expenditures were from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee (PAC), but local firefighters chipped in nearly $75,000 and People for Seattle spent over $55,000 in the contentious race to represent Capitol Hill and the Central District.
Independent expenditure spending skyrocketed to over $4 million across the city this year, up from under $700,000 in 2015, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
New legislation is being proposed to fight this wave of outside money. The measure, introduced by citywide council member Lorena González is set to be heard for the first time Wednesday morning.
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“My proposed legislation would send a clear message to those who seek to buy our democracy that our local democratic process is not for sale to the highest bidder,” González said earlier this year in an announcement of her proposal.
Her bill would attempt to attack PAC spending in three ways. First, and possibly most importantly, it would limit contributions to independent expenditure committees, like the Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy. The legislation sets a $5,000 cap on contributions to such committees.
PACs can raise and spend as much money as they want currently, but they can’t coordinate with campaigns. Meanwhile, the maximum an individual can contribute to a council candidate in Seattle is $500, or $250 if they participate in the Democracy Voucher program, which most candidates did this year.
Sawant seems likely to support the legislation, calling her victory in November “a repudiation of the billionaire class, of corporate real estate, and of the establishment.”
Local political consultant Ben Anderstone thinks this cap would have a significant effect on future elections since most PACs are funded by big contributors.
“This would have potentially limited Amazon’s involvement greatly,” Anderstone said in an email. “Depending on who you ask, though, that might have helped Orion!”
The reduced spending might have also cut back on another annoyance from this summer’s campaign race — junk mail. Buoyed by the extra cash, Orion doubled Sawant’s spend on mailers at points during the race.
Jamie Housen, a consultant who worked with the Orion campaign, pointed to polling showing his candidate ahead of Sawant before Amazon’s heavy spending. He said in an email that if this law were in effect during this cycle, “the focus of the election would have remained on the questions surrounding council member Sawant’s governing style, effectiveness, and out-of-city relationships, rather than becoming a national referendum on big corporations buying elections.”
“I think any work to reduce their outsized influence on our local elections and empower the actual candidates’ campaigns would be a step in the right direction,” he added.
This part of the bill would likely face a legal challenge as it contests the United States Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that is credited with opening the door for unlimited spending by independent PACs.
Another aspect of the bill would prohibit donations from foreign-owned companies, defined as businesses with a single foreign owner controlling 1% or more of the business, two or more foreign owners controlling 5% of the business, or a foreign owner participating in decision-making surrounding political activities.
John Bonifaz, president of the Free Speech for People group and a presenter at Wednesday’s hearing, says that companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon would fit under this category because of their foreign investors, according to The Seattle Times. Each of those companies have wide-ranging interests in Seattle politics.
“This may also be intended to preclude involvement from foreign-owned entities with real estate interests,” Anderstone said, noting the influence of such interests may not be a major factor in local races though.
Federal law already prohibits contributions in any American elections from foreign nationals and non-U.S. businesses.
The third gap the bill would look to plug is in requiring that commercial advertisers maintain public records on paid local political ads.
Other presenters for the 9:30 AM hearing in the Gender Equity, Safe Communities, New Americans, and Education Committee include law professors from Harvard and the University of Chicago and Darden Rice, a council member from St. Petersburg, Florida.
St. Petersburg has been the only other American city that has attempted to limit PAC contributions, but it has not yet faced a legal challenge since passing legislation similar to González’s in 2017.
It will probably be a different story here.
“Someone will sue Seattle. I have no doubt. I’m not a betting woman, but I’d be willing to bet my mortgage on that,” city Ethics and Elections Commission member Eileen Norton told Crosscut.