Legislation being introduced Monday would put both upstart challengers and career politicians on an even playing field at the beginning of election years by banning stockpiles of cash when they start. In the process, it sets up Seattle City Council members to vote for—or against—a bill that could make it harder to keep their jobs.

Sponsored by Council Member Mike O'Brien, the bill seeks to nip a trend identified by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission in a February report: Elected officials were beginning election years with conspicuously large sums of money. Leftover cash from previous campaigns were becoming the next campaign's huge war chest, and so on. The result: Qualified challengers were intimidated from running at all, as I reported in June, leaving well-heeled incumbents virtually unchallenged. Council members had also been fundraising for years while in office, thereby adding thousands more to their campaign war chests, while challengers, of course, were starting with nothing.

This graphic, made by the Seattle City Council, shows the growth trend of average contributions, donations over $100, and rollover campaign money over the last 10 years, and in 10 years if the trend holds up.
  • City of Seattle
  • This graphic, made by the Seattle City Council, shows the growth trend of average contributions, donations over $100, and rollover campaign money over the last 10 years, and in 10 years if the trend holds up.

O'Brien's bill would make two changes to current fundraising rules for anyone running for mayor, city attorney, or city council:

  1. Candidates would be banned from rolling over unspent money from previous campaigns into future campaigns. This would stop the practice used most dramatically—or strategically, depending on who you ask—by Council Member Tom Rasmussen, who started his last election campaign with more than $100,000 in the bank (largely from his 2007 campaign) and ended his reelection campaign last fall with $144,000 (for his next campaign in 2015). Left over money could be returned to donors, given to charity, or disposed of through other avenues already allowed by law.
  2. Candidates could only begin fundraising in the year they are running for office. This would curb the practice employed by Council Member Burgess, for example, who raised hefty sums for years before his reelection bid last year. Some said that created the appearance of conflict, when donors were contributing to campaigns while also lobbying council members on legislation.

O'Brien acknowledges, "This legislation alone isn't going to fix all the problems in our electoral system, but this is an important and meaningful step."

He also acknowledges that the bill could put council members in an awkward position: By voting for it, they arguably hinder their chances of reelection, stripping down the size of their future war chests (on average, the five incumbents who were reelected last year have $74,200 on hand for their next campaign). But the bill has an escape hatch for sitting council members who want to vote for the bill and keep their saved cash: The legislation wouldn't take effect until it's passed later this year, allowing any funds currently in surplus accounts to be transferred to future campaigns. So council members can vote for it without having an impact on their next run for office. Thanks in part to that provision, O'Brien has secured four co-sponsors (Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess, and Bruce Harrell, and Nick Licata), which sets him up to likely get the five votes he needs to pass the measure. The bill will be referred to Burgess's Government Performance and Finance Committee.

"I don't think that we want to live in a city where only people who can write large checks and only people who can attract large donors are going to be successful," O'Brien says. People believe that "any citizens can play that role in public life and city council is a great starting spot."

But lately, average contributions have reached record highs, according to the elections commission's report, while the same handful of familiar donors with business before the city council maxed out contributions to the same set of incumbents. Last year, all five council incumbents were reelected, thanks in part to getting an upper hand by entering the election year with tens of thousands of dollars on hand—and hefty sums from the top big donors—and strong challengers never materialized in four of the races.

The ethics commission unanimously voted in June to support O'Brien's bill, larlgey as a measure to ensure donations are spent on the campaign they were intended for, but not everyone supports the measure. Rasmussen has protested, not surprisingly. And the Municipal League of King County issued a statement on July 17 opposing O'Brien's campaign finance reform bill (the day before the group also announced opposition the library levy). Confusingly, the Muni League said the bill "may further advantage the incumbent," ostensibly by preventing challengers from raising money in the year before elections.

But the Muni League provided no data to back up its claim. In contrast: According to city records, in the year before January 1 of the 2011 election cycle, incumbents raised $375,312 while challengers collectively raised only $175. That's nothing for challengers. This pattern has played out, although somewhat less dramatically, for the last decade.

"I think there is a difference between what the data shows is happening and what people in their gut or intuition think about how things are working," O'Brien says, in response to the claims by the Muni League. "I'm going to be looking at the data we have for how city elections actually work." The Muni League also claimed the bill would expose the city to a legal challenge, a claim that O'Brien again rejects, saying, that consultations with the Seattle City's Attorney's office resulted in a bill that "makes sense for the city and is legal."

Note on August 13: Burgess takes issue with the characterization of raising "hefty sums for years before his reelection bid." He notes that he received only two donations in 2009 totaling $1050 (more than two years before his election bid), and both were unsolicited. That said, throughout 2010, the year before his reelection, Burgess reported more than 80 contributions at the $700 maximum limit. That's more than $56,000 raised—in maximum contributions alone—in the time frame that zero fund raising would be allowed if O'Brien's bill passes.