Socialist council member Kshama Sawant, who frequently uses her council podium to rally her supporters around causes beyond the council’s reach, spent nearly $50,000 in city money on a public relations consultant to rally support for pet causes such as rent control, and to meet with individuals and groups who were not among Sawant’s allies, among other duties. The consultant, hired as a “strategic public relations expert,” went on to work on Sawant’s campaign and had previously worked on the 15Now campaign closely associated with the Socialist council member.
Between April 17, 2014, and December 31, 2014, Sawant’s office spent $46,000 on an unusual contract with Jeff Upthegrove, who also served as treasurer to the Sawant-affiliated 15Now campaign in 2014 and went on to be one of Sawant’s paid political advisors. The contract was unusual both because of its size (according to city contracting records, it was one of just four contracts over $40,000 with the legislative department signed that year), but because of its purpose: To advise Sawant prior to council meetings, serve as a proxy for Sawant in meetings with constituents, and mobilize stakeholders—supporters—to show up at Sawant events and rallies like the one she held at City Hall in support of rent control. Council contracts for other offices were typically related to research and analysis work in complex policy areas, such as a $246,000 contract with the University of Washington to study the impacts of a $15 minimum wage, or $43,000 for a “Seattle Gang Needs Assessment” from Arizona State University.
Upthegrove says his role was basically that of an adjunct, non-political staffer, a way around the limitations the city places on council members’ budget. Every year, each council members gets a set budget for office expenses, including staff, which the council member can divvy up as he or she pleases. Traditionally, council members have divided up their staff budget between two or three staffers, or occasionally four, who do the core work of advising he council member and running her office. The problem with just hiring Upthegrove outright, according to Upthegrove, was that although salaries come out of a council office’s budget, health care doesn’t, and hiring so many staffers would have put a strain on the legislative department’s benefit pool.
It’s worth taking a step back here to point out that this story was being shopped around before the election by Sawant opponents, which shows you how badly they wanted to see the popular member go down to defeat November 3. As we know, that didn’t happen. But the story of how and why a council member came to spend so much city money on a PR and outreach consultant remains interesting, because it’s extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, for a council member to hire a consultant who also happens to be a political advisor to serve as a de facto staffer.
An analogous example, one council observer argues, would be if Christian Sinderman set up shop in Tim Burgess’ office and met with constituents on his behalf. And in fact, none of the other five-figure contracts with the council are remotely similar. Most are consultants—firms or individuals—hired to advise a council member, or the council, on specific complex issue areas, like how to implement universal preschool, or the pros and cons of a municipal bank. Hiring a consultant to do the work staffers would ordinarily do, like interacting with constituents and setting up meetings, is unusual, according to council staff.
Obviously, that doesn’t happen (nor does Sandeep Kaushik set up a laptop and card table in the mayor’s office.) And Upthegrove says he did abide by the rules, signing in when he came to brief Sawant before committee meetings and spending “most of my time working at home to follow the rules laid out for contractors.” The council sign-in sheets shed little light on what Upthegrove was up to when he visited Sawant; a typical visit is marked as “discussion” or sometimes “housing” or “City Light issues.” Most days, Upthegrove’s contract said he clocked in for 6 to 8 hours doing things like “meeting prep, and “post meeting debrief.”
The unusual arrangement kept Upthegrove out of the office, organizing turnout at events like Sawant’s July forum on rent control at City Hall and meeting with constituents in Sawant’s place. Critics, including her campaign opponent Pamela Banks, frequently complain that Sawant doesn’t meet with people who don’t agree with her, while people who are Sawant advocates insist she’s extremely accessible, including to those with whom she disagrees.
Sawant did not return a call for comment. But Upthegrove confirms that he did meet with Sawant’s political opponents, including “folks who didn’t have a great relationship with Sawant, like [developer lobbyist] Roger Valdez. I would meet with Roger occasionally—not to insulate her, but so I could introduce his point of view.” Upthegrove says he also “met with a lot of people she did like to meet with as well. … I didn’t just meet with people that she didn’t want to meet with. I met with people who were her allies or sometimes people that she didn’t have time to meet with.” Upthegrove’s invoices do not generally detail who was at the meetings he held, only that they were generally with “stakeholder groups.”
Upthegrove says “the notion of folks who can’t get meetings with her,” promulgated most recently by Banks, who said she couldn’t get Sawant to meet about expanding the CareerBridge jobs program, isn’t accurate. “That was a function of the volume of people that wanted to meet with her and the choices she made. She would pick and choose based on what was most important or what staff believed would add the most value to her policymaking, so some people didn’t get meetings and were upset about it.” He says Banks sent a single email seeking a meeting to Sawant’s intern, and “it was lost amongst hundreds of other emails that came in on a daily basis. … I don’t think those kinds of decisions were ever based on political malice or wanting to exclude political enemies or exclude people who disagreed with Kshama.”
After a brief period as an official (though temporary) Sawant staffer, Upthegrove returned to his consulting firm, Sound Consulting. According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, she paid him $2,500 this year for campaign consulting services.