The Washington Observer launched last year with a story on the millionaires and billionaires who were giving heavily to the Washington State Democratic Party. So how did those big players do this year in the policy arena? Let’s look at Lisa Mennet, a prominent child psychologist and founder of the Perigee Fund, which advocates for better support for young children and their parents.
Last year, Mennet gave $250,000 to the party’s non-exempt fund, the second-largest donation of the year by an actual human being1, according to the Public Disclosure Commission’s data. At the time, she told me the money was intended for party-building efforts to help Democrats up and down the ticket. As a matter of accounting, the money mostly went to Gov. Jay Inslee’s reelection campaign, because the party had plenty of PAC money to spend on get-out-the-vote efforts and other soft-money tactics.2
When the Legislature convened this year, Perigee was one of the big-monied players behind the push for the Fair Start For Kids Act, the state’s massive expansion of subsidized child care and other early-learning programs.3 That bill did in fact pass this year, along with the capital gains tax intended to pay for it after the gusher of federal pandemic relief money we like to think of as Uncle Joe’s Pile of Cash (UJPOC) dries up. Among Perigee’s efforts was this $157,000 “grassroots” lobbying campaign.
Mennet is also outspoken in support of revamping the state’s tax system, which falls heavily on the poor and lightly on people like herself, as she wrote in this op-ed a couple of years back. Mennet’s spending last year was part of a larger wave of spending by Democratic interest groups that resulted in a subtle shift in the Senate majority caucus that allowed the capital gains tax — and perhaps the early learning bill — to pass.
Those early learning changes will cost taxpayers large and small more than $300 million in the coming two-year budget cycle, and that’s expected to grow to $450 million in 2024-25. Advocates, including many in the business community, argue persuasively that those costs will pay for themselves by recovering economic activity and tax revenue that is currently lost because parents can’t find or afford child care. But it’s still a big pile of cash.
So we definitely put Mennet in the winner column. She didn’t respond to our emailed questions, but she seems happy with the return on her political spending in the sense that she’s doing more of it. She gave the party $300,000 last month, according to the PDC, more than half of the party’s 2021 haul thus far. That’s an unusually large donation, especially for an odd-numbered year. The party is hungry for money to protect its majority in the state Senate, which has several vulnerable seats on the ballot in 2022.
Mennet has also given $50,000 apiece to the Children’s Campaign Fund and to the campaign for Best Starts for Kids, the campaign to renew King County’s local property tax levy funding programs for young children. That campaign has raised more than $320,000, with big checks from a list of prominent Seattle-area rich folks.
- Individuals and party caucuses can give unlimited amounts to the non-exempt fund, which is hard money the party can spend on candidate donations of as much as $1 for every voter eligible to vote in the election. The biggest human donor was environmental philanthropist Roseanne Orr at $350K. We’ll get to her down the road. The House Democratic Campaign Committee gave $885,000 in that legalized money-laundering thing we’ve written about before.
- The party’s exempt account can accept unlimited amounts from corporations, unions, PACs, etc, but can’t give that money directly to candidates. Its largest donors last year included $800K from the Democratic Governors Association and big checks from various labor unions.
- Conflict of Interest Disclaimer: The early stages of this push was the last project that your correspondent worked on in his former life as a strategic communications consultant.