Council May Push to Regulate PACs, Which Spent As Much As $18 Per Vote in August Primary

Big spenders: Moms for Seattle’s pro-Murakami push cost $7 per vote.

1. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission expressed skepticism yesterday about a long-shot effort by council member and state attorney general candidate Lorena Gonzalez to stem the influence of political action committees on local elections by imposing new contribution limits and disclosure requirements on such groups. Commissioners said they supported the idea of limiting corporate campaign contributions as a policy, but questioned whether it was a good idea for the city to pass a law that would be subject to immediate legal challenge.

“I support the legislation, but I am also incredibly pragmatic [and] I’m not sure I support Seattle paying for this lawsuit,’” SEEC commissioner Eileen Norton said.

Gonzalez’ legislation would prohibit companies with foreign ownership (such as Uber) from contributing to independent expenditure campaigns; cap contributions to PACs at $5,000; and require PACs to maintain detailed, publicly available records about their contributors and how they spent their money. Currently, there are no caps on how much a person, company, or organization can contribute to a PAC, and no requirement that PACs detail where their money is going.

The proponents’ legal theory rests on the hope that the Supreme Court, or an en banc panel of the entire federal Ninth Circuit District Court, will overturn previous rulings (by a D.C. circuit court and a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, respectively) concluding that local governments do not have the authority to regulate PAC contributions. In the Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on corporate spending on the grounds that corporations have the same rights to free “speech” as individual citizens.

“I’m not a betting woman, but I think I would be willing to bet my mortgage on [a lawsuit].”—Seattle Ethics and Election commissioner Eileen Norton.

Predictably, corporate spending ballooned across the nation, including in local races like Seattle’s mayoral and council elections. PAC spending on this year’s seven city council races has already outpaced total independent spending in the 2015 election, when all nine council seats were up for grabs; in every case, the candidate supported by corporate or (in one case) labor spending made it through to the general election.

The contribution limit would be the most significant shift, and the one most open to legal challenge. This year, for example Amazon contributed $250,000 to the Seattle Metro Chamber’s PAC, while Bellevue charter-school proponent Katherine Binder poured $25,000 into Moms for Seattle, a group that targeted liberal incumbents with Photoshopped images of playgrounds taken over by homeless encampments, graffiti, and trash. And UNITE HERE Local 8, a New York City-based union, spent $150,000 on TV ads promoting Andrew Lewis in District 7.

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John Bonifaz, an attorney with the group Free Speech for People who helped draft the legislation, said yesterday that Long Beach, FL is the only other US city that has passed similar regulations. So far, that law has not been subject to legal challenge. In Seattle, there is little doubt that someone will sue to stop Gonzalez’ proposal from taking effect. “I’m not a betting woman, but I think I would be willing to bet my mortgage on that one,” Norton, the SEEC commissioner, said.

2. Speaking of unfettered campaign spending, here’s a quick-and-dirty look at how much this year’s three most active (and largest) campaign PACs—Moms for Seattle, People for Seattle, and the Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy—spent promoting their candidates (or tearing down their opponents) on a dollars-per-vote basis. These numbers are rough (and probably a little on the low side) because these PACs chose not to itemize many of their expenditures, and because more expenditures will show up on future reports as the campaigns pay off rolling debts. (In lieu of an exact breakdown, I’ve divided the total amount of non-itemized expenditures by these groups and added it to their itemized expenditures on specific candidates, except in the case of Moms, whose record-keeping is almost completely opaque.) Despite those caveats, the numbers are a way of measuring how much these groups are willing to spend to influence your vote.

CASE spent more than $80,000 on each of three men running against female incumbents or candidates: Phil Tavel (running against incumbent Lisa Herbold in District 1), Mark Solomon (running against Tammy Morales in District 2) and Egan Orion (challenging incumbent Kshama Sawant in District 3).

Here’s how much they spent, per vote, on each of their candidates. The names of candidates who made it through the primary are in bold.

Phil Tavel (District 1): $11.35

Mark Solomon (District 2): $17.67

Egan Orion (District 3): $11.50

Alex Pedersen (District 4): $4.73

Debora Juarez (District 5): $3.90

Jay Fathi (District 6): $9.83

Heidi Wills (District 6): $6.10

Michael George (District 7): $17.63

Jim Pugel (District 7): $6.45

Same information and format for People for Seattle, the negative-ad PAC formed by former city council member Tim Burgess. People for Seattle overwhelmingly focused its spending on opposing council member Kshama Sawant (as well as one of her primary challengers, Zachary DeWolf) and supporting Egan Orion.

Phil Tavel (District 1): $3.56

Mark Solomon (District 2) : $3.93

Egan Orion (District 3): $6.05

Alex Pedersen (District 4): $1.55

And finally, Moms for Seattle’s numbers:

Pat Murakami (District 3): $6.87

Alex Pedersen (District 4): $2.82

Heidi Wills (District 6): $4.18

Michael George (District 7): $12

 

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