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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Meet the Top 20 Donors to Last Year's City Council Races (Surprise: They Have Lobbying Agendas Before the Council and They Like Keeping the Same Faces in Office)

Posted by on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 2:59 PM

A report issued today by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission examines the cash flow behind the city council election of 2011, swept by incumbents who out-raised their closest challengers by at least double and by as much as 250-1. The commission found an uptick in the average size of contributions, despite the recession, and that the 20 top donors all united behind the five winning incumbents. In fact, 12 of the top 20 donors gave exclusively to incumbent reelections with the maximum $700 allowed by law.

You can check out the whole report RIGHT HERE to draw your own conclusions. These are the trends that stood out for me:

First, the average size of contributions reached a record high ($223) while the number of small donations has hit an all-time low (32 percent of all contributions). That trend is partly explained by inflation—average contribution sizes naturally rise with the dollar—but this trend may be particularly sharp. As the commission explains: "In 2001 roughly two-thirds of contributions came from people who contributed less than $100. Ten years later, just one third of the contributions came from people who contributed less than $100." In that same timespan, donations between $100 and $599 have nearly doubled.

Second, the common denominator among the election's winners—aside from outspending competitors and the fact that they were all incumbents, which lends an advantage—was the support of the largest donors.

Most of the top 20 donors last year gave all their contributions to incumbents. Each of these companies, unions, or individuals gave the maximum $700 to only incumbents and nothing to challengers: Amalgamated Transit Union; Robert B. Burkheimer of Burkheimer Mgmt. Co. Real Estate Investment; Cleanscapes Inc; Consumer Fireworks; Safety Assn PAC; Intl Fed. of Prof. & Tech Engineers Local 17 PAC ; Muckleshoot Indian Tribe; David Sabey of the Sabey Corporation; SEIU Healthcare 775 NW; The Seattle Mariners; UA Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 32; Vulcan, Inc; and WA Association of Realtors PAC.

The remaining eight top donors gave the maximum or near the maximum to all five incumbents, while giving money to only one or two challengers, and typically less than they gave incumbents: Matt Griffin of Pine Street Group; Pacific NW Regional Council of Carpenters; James Mueller; NUCOR PAC of WA; HOD Carriers and General Laborers Union Local 242; Builders United in Legislative Development BUILD; John C. Blackman; and Paul Brainerd. There are variations, of course, so see the report for details.

As you would expect, many of these funders have an agenda before the council. For example, Matt Griffin leads the company managing Pacific Place and he has been upset when the council raised parking rates in the Pacific Place parking garage. Cleanscapes has a garbage-collection contract with the city. Many of the others have development and real estate agendas that ultimately need council approval, or they stand to benefit from construction projects (deep-bore tunnel) or new labor regulations (paid sick leave) that provide union revenue.

Naturally, they want to maintain a council majority that has served them well. All the incumbents have proven malleable to most of their lobbying interests (Burgess pushing a panhandling measures for downtown lobbies, Rasmussen leading the charge on an expensive-yet-inefficient tunnel that creates construction jobs, Clark at the forefront of allowing taller buildings in "contract rezones," Harrell and Godden following the pack—to name only a few recent examples).

I hear what you may be thinking: Perhaps they gave to incumbents because the challengers last year were lackluster (and some seemed kinda nuts, to be honest).

But as we've mentioned before, the donors aren't just giving their candidates enough money to win. Tom Rasmussen didn't need $312,130 to beat a challenger with $1,236. The donors are contributing so much money that serious challengers can't afford to run against incumbents in the first place. By deterring challengers who can't raise this sort of cash, incumbents have plenty left over. They can then shuffle leftover cash from one election year to another, ensuring a war chest that scares off viable candidates in the next cycle.

To wit: "Two candidates began the 2011 election cycle with significant funds on hand left over from their 2007 campaigns, and four of the five Councilmembers elected in 2011 had in excess of $60,000 left unspent and unobligated after Election Day," the commission reports. This table shows the leftover cash that incumbents have on hand going into the next election cycle (perpetuating their advantage):


Rasmussen already has a $144,025 advantage when he runs again—once again giving him the upper hand and his council lobbies a reliable freeway-friendly vote whenever they need it.

If these council members are continually willing to be proxies for their largest donors, and largest donors are willing to continually stuff the council members election bank accounts, these incumbents aren't just unbeatable, they're so rich they're unchallengeable.

And that's consistent comfort for lobbies who do business in front of the council.


Comments (13) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Odd to see the chart on page 9 indicate large-donor contributions and overall contributions were below the levels of 2003, 2005, and 2007.
Posted by gloomy gus on February 21, 2012 at 3:15 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 2
@1) Not necessarily odd. I suspect that's because those years included races with two sides raising large contributions (unlike this year, where the large donations went almost entirely to incumbents). For instance, 2007 showed a competitive race for Position 3 without an incumbent, in which Bruce Harrell raised $97,500 in large contributions and Venus Velasquez raised $83,138. That combined sum is far more than the difference in large contributions overall between 2007 and 2011.
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 21, 2012 at 3:25 PM · Report this
@2, I see what you mean. The 2003 and 2005 reports bear that out: hotly contested high-dollar races. Thanks.
Posted by gloomy gus on February 21, 2012 at 3:34 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 4
That's just the non-PAC money you see. I could tell you stories that would make your head spin.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 21, 2012 at 3:36 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 5
@1) I'd add--even though you know this--that one election can't be neatly compared to the next. There are too many variables. The interesting thing is how donors behaved this election, with this council composition, and how these incumbents storm into the next election cycle with $371,961 already in the bank.
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 21, 2012 at 3:37 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 6
@4) I'd like to hear those stories, because that's not what the SEEC found:
a. Independent expenditures fell off a cliff.

The flood of independent spending anticipated in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling failed to materialize in Seattle City Council races. After skyrocketing more than tenfold in the span of four election cycles--from $20,804 in 2003 to $288,197 in 2009--there were no independent expenditures reported in 2011.

Unless it's the absence of outside PAC money that would supposedly make our heads spin... but then they don't sound like terribly gripping stories.
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 21, 2012 at 3:47 PM · Report this
Dominic, I do not take issue with most of your article. It does contain a leap of logic that i can't fathom. Please explain:

"new labor regulations (paid sick leave) that provide union revenue"

Improved sick leave won't generate new money for unions. It will bennefit workers, union and non-union alike. Some thing like this are supported by unions because they are a good thing, not because it will bring in more dues money.

Looking for a new gig with FOX?
Posted by wl on February 21, 2012 at 3:56 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 8
@6 that are required by statute to be measured ... think about the impact of the SCOTUS decision in terms of what is NOT required to be reported anymore.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 21, 2012 at 4:05 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 9
@7) It is a leap, perhaps, but sick leave was a union-backed bill that helps stacks of union workers. The better off the sick-leave regulations are, the more the workers make; and the better unions represent their workers, and the more workers want to join that union and pay dues. If the unions win good policy, they swell and thrive.

FWIW, I supported sick leave and think the SEIU does great work (so I think your Fox News comparison is full of shit). But I'm not going to give them a pass on solely backing incumbents--pretending that there's no motive at all to their lopsided generosity--while calling out these other donors with a stake at City Hall.
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 21, 2012 at 4:06 PM · Report this
@5, it's worth noting $144K of the $371K total is Rasmussen alone, whom the 2007 report notes raised more than $200K in that non-election year also. Kind of a pattern with him. Amusingly, Pageler outspent Rasmussen the year he took her seat away. While he clearly knows the value of a dollar, he is also the living proof money alone can't beat a determined challenger.

We're so lacking in determined challengers as a rule that maybe the incumbent warchests will winnow out our usual consultant-led dilettante challengers, leave the field to someone who actually wants the job.
Posted by gloomy gus on February 21, 2012 at 4:16 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 11
Nobody runs slates anymore. Kind of sad, that.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 21, 2012 at 4:25 PM · Report this
south downtown 12
That base report is wack. It says the Number 1 employer for contributions is "Not Employed". So unemployed people made $172,074.96 in campaign contributions? Or do we just not have people filling out forms completely to conceal affiliations.

It seems to me, that is a story there...
Posted by south downtown on February 21, 2012 at 4:32 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 13
@12, technically, Mitt Romney is unemployed. As in: he has no regular 9:00-5:00 job. Lots of really wealthy people don't work a regular job. They make money off investments. Their money makes money while they golf.

Also, retired people aren't employed either. And older people are the most reliable active voters. If they have a substantial retirement benefit, it is easy to throw a few hundred bucks to a city council race if it is something they care about.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on February 21, 2012 at 5:20 PM · Report this

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