Union, Landlord Spending Contribute to Unprecedented PAC Influence in Local Races

UPDATE: As of Friday afternoon, July 24, the total amount spent by independent expenditure groups on six city council candidates–in order of amount spent, Shannon Braddock, Rob Johnson, Kris Lethin, Debora Juarez, Halei Watkins, and Jon Grant–is $215,720, more than Seattle Ethics and Elections director Wayne Barnett said he had seen in council races during his 11 years at the commission. 

A new independent expenditure group has brought the total amount of IE dollars–spending unlimited by state election law–to nearly $200,000, most of it supporting two candidates, Shannon Braddock in the 1st District and Rob Johnson in the 4th. The outsize expenditures from outside groups puncture the notion that switching to district elections would reduce the influence of moneyed interests over local elections. If anything, reducing the number of voters a district candidate needs to win over has only made it easier for big money to target voters: Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett says “it does seem like with fewer voters to influence, $48,000 might have a larger impact in a district race than it does in a citywide race.”

In addition to business-backed PACs, the unions have started putting money behind their endorsements. According to reports filed with the SEEC today, the Service Employees International Union Local 925–which represents child-care and education workers–just spent around $3,000 doorbelling and distributing literature for Seattle City Council candidates Jon Grant (running for citywide Position 8) and Rob Johnson (running in Northeast Seattle’s District 4).

The two men seem like incongruous picks for a single doorbelling drive. Grant is former head of the Tenants’ Union, a lefty group in line with the union’s working-class interests, while Transportation Choices Coalition director Rob Johnson is a middle-of-the-road liberal with a strong interest in progressive transportation policies. I have a call out to SEIU to find out why they chose to focus on these two candidates in particular, but the union backing definitely contradicts the framing by Johnson’s opponents that he is a shill for developers or in the pocket of big business.

As I first reported last week, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the Seattle Chamber’s PAC, spent $44,000 on TV ads for Johnson. (They also dropped a similar amount on Shannon Braddock, who’s a frontrunner in the eight-way race in West Seattle’s District 1). In addition, the Rental Housing Association PAC just contributed $10,000 to both People for Shannon and People for Rob, and the Washington Restaurant Association’s Hospitality PAC has contributed $20,000 to the pro-Johnson campaign.

The new IEs are interesting not just politically but because they disprove a central claim by proponents of district elections (which just went into effect this year): The idea that elections by district would push “big money” out of council races. This year so far, various IE campaigns backed by the Chamber, Realtors landlords, hotels, and tribes have collectively given nearly $200,000 to back local candidates, most of that to boost Braddock and Johnson. In the past, according to Barnett, IEs in all local campaigns have totaled just around $212,000, spread over three campaigns in 2007 and 2009.

The Chamber, restaurant, and hotel PAC contributions to Johnson also represent a big blow to Johnson opponent and council incumbent Jean Godden, who has historically enjoyed the support of Seattle business interests. This time, those folks are all-in for Johnson, who currently seems like the leading contender to take Godden’s seat on the council dais in the newly created District 4 position.

7 thoughts on “Union, Landlord Spending Contribute to Unprecedented PAC Influence in Local Races

  1. Roger is right. No one claimed districts would push big money out, this is a ridiculous exaggeration, just. not. factual and a caricature designed to distort. It was stated districts could reduce the influence of money, by allowing candidates — not ALL candidates — some — an opportunity to fight money with doorbelling. No one said districts guarantee the noninsider would win. just that they could win more. It’s sad when people debate only by raising and flailing at straw men. Also, that more IE is coming in from realtors and CASE may be a reaction to the fact districts have opened the doors to more populist and lefty candidates. At large, they wouldn’t tend to run so much, so realtors CASE et al. needn’t bother with the IEs. One can’t oversimplify and speak in absolutes; many factors are at work, and it was never claimed that districts would push big money out. Nor yield unicorns. Not tune all guitars,nor make oceans lemonade.

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  2. How on earth can you claim that these IEs “prove” anything at all?

    We have no election results yet! Without any data we have no idea the impact of this money.

    This may be the most irrational thing I’ve ever heard.

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    • I’m not being “irrational,” and what I actually said was: The presence of all this big-biz money disproves the notion that districts would drive big money out of council races. That is a far cry from saying, as you imply, that it proves big money will cause specific candidates to win their races.

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  3. Super weird analysis. Yes, Districts “made it easier for big money to target voters.” But, as you point out in the same article without acknowledging its significance, it also made it easier for groups to target voters by doorbelling instead of doing very expensive mailers. This doorbelling to victory strategy was largely impossible in citywide races, and it is being tried in districts across the city this year. Why not acknowledge and analyze that?

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  4. In all the politics I’ve seen in my life if someone gets independent expenditures from two contradictory groups it means that they say one thing to one group and turn around and so the opposite to another group, switching positions in order to collect independent expenditures. That’s why it’s hard for me to trust downtown rob johnson.

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  5. Re your “The new IEs are interesting not just politically but because they disprove a central claim by proponents of district elections (which just went into effect this year): The idea that elections by district would push ‘big money’ out of council races.” Erica, that’s just wrong. We advocates for district elections never claimed that they would “push big money” out of council elections. What we did say is that districts would empower grassroots campaign strategies, which can successfully reach voters at lower cost.

    When voters meet candidates on their doorstep or at the neighborhood coffee bar, they should be less likely to succumb to the carpet bombing of slick mailers from moneyed interest groups. In the case of Braddock and Johnson, we shall see. Hopefully the real grassroots candidates in those races have been doing local, face-to-face campaigning, enough to overcome the big money deluge.

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