Opponents of campaign finance reform have frequently predicted that lower contribution limits will lead to an increase in independent expenditures—unlimited spends on behalf of a candidate without that candidate’s direct approval or participation—but it’s unlikely that any of them could have predicted that the first big local IE beneficiary would be an obscure candidate in a far-northeast Seattle district who entered the race just before filing deadline and had only raised a little over $10,000 two weeks before the primary.
But that’s exactly what happened this afternoon, when the National Association of Realtors dropped a $48,000 bombshell on District 5 candidate Kris Lethin’s very long-shot campaign for city council. Reported as a IE for “electioneering communications,” the 48 grand went toward “mail, calls, and online ads” on Lethin’s behalf.
If I was surprised at the Realtors’ largesse, imagine how Lethin felt when he found out–which he did this evening, when I called him to ask how the expenditure had come about. Literally, that was the first he’d heard of it.
“Holy shit!” Lethin shouted when I told him, followed by, “I didn’t have any idea! That’s awesome. That’s amazing. Wow. Seriously, I had no idea.” He added: “Wow. I feel like I just had a kid or something.”
“Dude,” he continued, “I have been running my entire campaign by myself from my living room, with no campaign staff, no campaign manager, no campaign treasurer. … That’s like three times the amount of money I’ve raised myself.” (Four, actually.) It was also more than Lethin says he earned in real-estate commissions last year.
Lethin said that although he has no idea why the Realtors singled out his campaign, other than the fact that he’s “definitely the only guy in Seattle that has said no to rent control and this linkage fee,” a now-moribund proposal to tax new development, “I am completely grateful. Frankly, this has been so hard. It’s encouraging that they think enough of my effort” to spend the money, he said. “I hope I don’t owe them anything. … I hope the Realtors are perceived as good people in Seattle.” (I can’t speak for Seattle, but I’d say they’re perceived as a conservative business group along the lines of the Seattle Chamber, and make of that what you will.)
Speaking of the Chamber, Lethin says he’s going back to interview with the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the Chamber PAC, to talk about a possible endorsement. (CASE did not endorse in District 5 for the primary).
Lethin, whose father in Anchorage has given generously to Republican candidates over the years, calls himself an independent and says he won’t declare himself a Democrat now just because he’s running for office. “Hopefully, average people who aren’t really concerned about party [affiliation] will see me as just a local guy who cares,” Lethin says.
I have calls out to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the Realtors and I’ll update with any response from them tomorrow.