Four years ago at this time, an independent political committee¹ somewhat mendaciously named People For Jenny Durkan was busily throwing money around ahead of the primary in an open race for mayor of Seattle.
There were very few actual people involved in People For Jenny Durkan². The PAC got more than two-thirds of its money from the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the political arm of the Seattle Chamber and formerly the Big Dog — at least money-wise — in the city’s politics. That committee got its money in five- and six-figure checks from a list of corporate players including Amazon, Centurylink, Comcast, Alaska Airlines, Puget Sound Energy, and Expedia. In the end, Durkan’s “People” spent $835,000 helping her get elected, 33 times the amount spent by a committee supporting her opponent, Cary Moon.³
Today, that kind of corporate politicking is illegal in Seattle, thanks to a law quietly passed by the Seattle City Council last year at the behest of Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, currently a favorite to finish in the top two in the August 3 primary to replace Durkan (who chose not to seek re-election). The law technically bans political spending by “foreign-influenced” companies, but the definition of that term was written so that it covers pretty much any company with widely-traded stock. So all those name brands are on the sidelines this year.
Regardless of where you come down on the free-speech rights of giant corporations, here’s why you should care about this: Taking a million dollars of political money out of a campaign is going to help somebody. The interesting questions are who, and why.
Gonzalez’s back-door ban on corporate money was sparked by Amazon’s disastrous attempt to sway the 2019 Seattle City Council races with a showy, million-dollar donation to CASE in the waning days of the campaign. The tactic backfired badly. Nearly all of CASE’s candidates lost, including three with realistic chances to win. The Big Dog has been curled up in its lair licking its wounds ever since. Earlier this year, the Chamber disbanded CASE and quit endorsing candidates.
That’s part of a radically changed landscape for political money in the city. As we reported in June, most of the money given directly to candidates came from the taxpayers via the city’s democracy voucher program, which essentially gives every registered voter $100 to give to municipal candidates. In prior elections, candidates got most of their money from individuals wealthy enough — and interested enough — to open their own wallets.
Among the other big-money players in those 2019 campaigns was UNITE HERE, a labor union that represents workers in hotels and restaurants. The union spent more than $500,000 on a single Seattle City Council race that year, helping Andrew Lewis defeat CASE’s chosen candidate in the district (Jim Pugel). That 7th district includes the city’s core and most of its hotels.
This year, UNITE HERE is the driving force behind Essential Workers For Lorena, the independent committee backing Gonzalez. It provided $350,000 of the $450,000 the PAC has spent promoting her candidacy thus far, according to its latest filing with the Public Disclosure Commission. The rest comes from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which mostly represents grocery story workers. With CASE and its corporate sponsors out of the picture, the PAC is ahead of Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, the committee (of individuals, not companies) backing the nominal candidate of the business community.
But here’s the thing about UNITE HERE: The union doesn’t have many members hereabouts, just 5,000 in Washington and Oregon combined. Unionized hotels such as the Westin are rare here, and the list of union restaurants on its site is quite short. So why are they dropping so much cash — money that came out of the union dues of housekeepers, line cooks, and bartenders in places like New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco — on Seattle politics?
Well, UNITE HERE ignored our questions, but from other sources I can sketch a little outline. For the most part, unions care about these things: 1) Getting better pay, benefits, and working conditions for their members. And also: 2) Getting more members by unionizing more workplaces. Gonzales and the rest of the city council have been helpful on a citywide level with Point 1. Workers in Seattle in recent years have won a high minimum wage, protections against onerously variable work schedules, and paid family and medical leave.
Ironically, that might make growing union membership more difficult. Unionization can be a tougher sell if the protections normally negotiated into collective bargaining agreements are already baked into the city’s code.
But there are other ways to unionize a workplace, especially a big workplace like a hotel. Building a new hotel, or even significantly renovating an existing hotel, involves a great deal of regulatory cooperation from the city. Significant permits need to be issued. Sometimes the project requires a zoning change, or for the city to give up an alley or other public property, a process called “vacation” that typically requires a vote from the City Council. In a truly union-friendly City Hall, such cooperation might not be forthcoming without a promise of union workers in the hotel.
Corporations may be sidelined this year, but rich individuals are very much in the game. The committee supporting Bruce Harrell is currently getting its money almost exclusively from wealthy individuals, many involved in commercial real estate in Seattle. That PAC has spent about $250,000 supporting Harrell. Among other mayoral hopefuls, former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell also has a rich-benefactor PAC, Seattle United for Progressive Change, fueled by money from a handful of politically active rich progressives led by billionaire philanthropist and rabble-rouser Nick Hanauer, for whose think tank Farrell has been working in recent years. That committee has spent about $100,000 boosting Farrell so far.
A smaller PAC called New Generation Leaders is supporting Colleen Echohawk’s run for mayor and has spent about $30,000 thus far, with big donations from Steve Trainer, one of the founders of downtown real estate developer Seneca Group, and Tod Leiweke, CEO and president of the Seattle Kraken hockey team. On Friday, the committee spent $4,000 on 225,000 Facebook impressions.
One of the arguments against aggressive regulation of political spending boils down to this: Money always finds a way in. Just because Amazon and other corporations can’t directly write checks doesn’t mean the might of their wealth has been entirely negated. They could flout the law and take the city to court on free-speech grounds. And there’s nothing to keep company founder Jeff Bezos or any number of wealthy executives at Amazon or other companies from writing big personal checks to a new PAC.
Meanwhile, some of the bigger players from CASE are either local and regional business groups or privately held companies not subject to the Gonzalez-led ban. For example, Vulcan Inc., the real estate empire founded by the late Paul Allen, was the second-biggest donor after Amazon. Thus far most of those players seem reluctant to throw good 2021 money after the really bad 2019 money. Will they get back in after the primary? Thus far we’ve only heard from the Washington Association of Realtors, as we reported last week.
- Like all the committees referenced in this piece, People For Jenny Durkan was an independent expenditure committee. Such committees, sometimes called SuperPACs, can raise and spend money without limits provided they don’t coordinate with the candidate.
- Conflict of Interest Disclaimer: In September 2017, when your correspondent was a strategic communications consultant and a card-carrying member of the political establishment, he wrote Jenny Durkan’s campaign a check for $250.
- To be clear, Moon was an absolutely terrible candidate and would have lost anyway. But getting brutally outspent didn’t help. Not that we’re bitter about losing a bet or anything.