Tag: Elections

Big Business, Labor, and Activist Money Set to Dwarf Individual Spending on Council Campaigns

With ballots landing in mailboxes any day now, independent campaigns representing business, labor, and, vaguely, “moms,” are spending thousands of dollars—sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars—on ad campaigns, mailings, canvassing, and other efforts to influence your vote in the August 6 primary election. The money spent by outside groups threatens to dwarf spending by the campaigns themselves, particularly in District 7 (downtown, Magnolia, and Queen Anne), where labor has spent nearly half a million dollars on a single candidate.

As I reported for Seattle magazine (in a story that went to print long before the latest fundraising totals started rolling in), despite the advent of direct public campaign financing through democracy vouchers, “no amount of tinkering can fix what many reform advocates consider the most troubling trend in recent years: the growing impact of independent spending.”

Here’s a breakdown of the latest independent-money financing, where it’s coming from, and how it’s being spent:

• Moms for Seattle, a new PAC that first announced its existence on Speak Out Seattle’s Facebook page earlier this week, has raised more than $150,000 in just over a month and spent $115,000 of that on consulting and Facebook ads for four council candidates: Real estate consultant Michael George in District 1; neighborhood activist Pat Murakami in District 3 (where Kshama Sawant is the incumbent); former Tim Burgess aide and erstwhile newsletter publisher Alex Pedersen in District 4; and former council member-turned-golf advocate Heidi Wills in District 6. All four candidates also received top ratings from Speak Out Seattle.

The money spent by outside groups threatens to dwarf spending by the campaigns themselves, particularly in District 7 (downtown, Magnolia, and Queen Anne), where labor has spent nearly half a million dollars on a single candidate.

The top donors to the group include Bellevue charter school proponent Katherine Binder ($25,000); Jeannine Navone, wife of hedge-fund manager Dino Christofilis Diane Langstraat, wife of investment manager Brian Langstraat; and numerous other women who list their occupation as “stay-at-home mom” or “homemaker.” Their chief consultant is Western Consultants, LLC, which has a PO box as its local address and has never played in local campaigns before Moms for Seattle started throwing money their way ($69,000 so far) this year.

The group’s other consultant, Seattle-based Clear Path Partners, has not worked directly on local campaigns until this year; however, its founders have. Clear Path’s partners include Joe Quintaña, who started a business-oriented PAC called Forward Seattle a dozen years ago; former Strategies 360 VP John Engbar; and former King County Realtors’ lobbyist Randy Bannecker.

I’ve reached out to Laura McMahon, the woman who announced the group’s creation on Facebook, as well as Speak Out Seattle to find out more about the group and whether they’re connected to SOS, and will update this post if I hear back.

UPDATE: McMahon responded to my message asking about the group (I’ve edited out the part of her response that appeared to be responding to social media speculation about the group by people other than me): “We are moms who have never before been involved in politics, but are deeply disturbed by what is happening to our city. We seek to engage other moms, friends and concerned citizens in funding independent campaigns to elect city councilmembers with the common sense to balance caring for the homeless, addicted and mentally ill with keeping Seattle citizens safe in public areas and green spaces – something the current council seems incapable of doing. … The candidates we are endorsing are experienced leaders who want to make positive change for Seattle and are capable of achieving the balance I describe above. No one wants the status quo as it is NOT working. We have no further comment at this time.”

• People for Seattle, the PAC started by former city council member and mayor Tim Burgess, has raised a quarter-million dollars and spent about $165,000 of that so far—the overwhelming majority of it ($100,000) on direct mail by a Massachusetts-based firm called Daylight Communications. (Another $40,000, as I previously reported, went toward messaging research by the local polling firm EMC Research.) PFC’s candidates include Phil Tavel in District 1, Mark Solomon in District 2, former Capitol Hill Chamber director Egan Orion in District 3, ex-Burgess aide  Pedersen in District 4, and council incumbent Debora Juarez in District 5.

The state Public Disclosure Commission doesn’t break down the $100,000 the group is spending on direct mail by candidate, but the city’s ethics and elections commission lists, so far, negative mailings targeting Herbold, Sawant, and (in an unusual move) District 3 Sawant challenger Zachary DeWolf as well as mailings in favor of Orion and Tavel.

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• I covered spending by the Chamber-sponsored Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) here; since then, CASE has spent another $87,000 on mailings and Facebook ads on behalf of Tavel, Solomon, Orion, Pedersen, Juarez, Wills, Fathi, George, and former police chief and District 7 candidate Jim Pugel, plus overhead expenses to the Chamber.

The state Public Disclosure Commission doesn’t break down the $100,000 former council member Tim Burgess’ People for Seattle PAC is spending, but the city’s ethics and elections commission lists, so far, negative mailings targeting Herbold, Sawant, and (in an unusual move) District 3 Sawant challenger Zachary DeWolf.

• Not to be outdone, perhaps, by business spending, UNITE HERE Local 8, the hotel workers’ union, is spending more than $425,000  $150,000 on cable TV and online ads buys on behalf of former Nick Licata campaign manager Andrew Lewis, who’s running for District 7 with strong union support. (Editor’s note: After this posted, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett contacted me to say the “jaw-dropping” number on the SEEC’s website was the result of a “bug” that had been fixed, and that the actual expenditure was closer to $150,000. This update reflects the SEEC’s corrected information.)

The enormous union push to get Lewis through the primary, which according to Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission reports is being funded through the group’s national arm in New York City, appears to be the only big spend on cable TV in the council primary so far.

• The Service Employees International Union 775, which represents health-care workers, has written checks to two marketing firms (one in Seattle and one in Beaverton, OR) for a digital campaign supporting District 6 candidate Jay Fathi, a physician who has also been endorsed by several other unions as well as the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, the Seattle Metro Chamber’s political arm. They’ve also paid Fuse Washington for digital ads for council incumbent Lisa Herbold (D-1, $3,500) and District 2 candidate Tammy Morales ($1,500).

• Finally, the group District 1 Neighbors for Small Business—funded by a few relatively small donations from the owners of West Seattle businesses like the West Seattle Bowl, Menashe Jewelry, and Nucor Steel—has spent just over $400 on stickers for Tavel.

 

Campaign Crank: O’Brien Robopolls, Pedersen Hits Delete, and Rufo Writes His Own Company a Check

1. City council incumbent Mike O’Brien has not said yet whether he plans to run for reelection, although was behind a robopoll testing support for O’Brien as well as two potential candidates, state Rep. Gael Tarleton and Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson, in December.  O’Brien has not released the results of the poll, but the news was reportedly not great; the embattled incumbent has come under heavy fire over the last year from neighborhood activists who disagree with his opposition to homeless encampment removals, his support for density, and his advocacy for the scuttled $275 “head tax” on large businesses, which would have paid for housing and homeless services. All seven of the districted council positions will be on the ballot this year; so far, three of the incumbents—Sally Bagshaw (District 7), Rob Johnson (District 4) and Bruce Harrell (District 2) have announced that they will not seek reelection.

2. One of the candidates for Johnson’s position, former Tim Burgess aide Alex Pedersen, ran a blog and newsletter for several years focusing on family life and businesses in District 4. But Pedersen also used the site, called “4 To Explore,” to expound on his own political views. Although Pedersen has delated the blog’s archives from his website—which now displays a statement saying that the blog is “on hiatus” and that anyone who subscribed to the site as an email newsletter can “simply search your old e-mails”—the site lives on in the Internet archive, where it’s possible to read Pedersen’s past writings on everything from the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure (which he opposed) to local levies (he supported the housing and preschool levies but opposed Move Seattle because, among other reasons, he thought it included too much for bike lanes) to homelessness (he wanted the city to “Make it clear we will prioritize housing and taxpayer-funded services for Seattle and King County residents” because “Seattle is branded across the country as “a Mecca” for services” and “seems to be attracting homeless from around the nation”). In 2015, Pedersen endorsed longtime anti-density activist Bill Bradburd over council incumbent Lorena Gonzalez.

Pedersen also described the downtown streetcar, which Mayor Jenny Durkan has put on hold, as “incredibly expensive and redundant“; referred to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as “former Mayor Ed Murray’s backroom deal for real estate developer upzones”; denouncedCOUNCILMEMBER ROB JOHNSON’S TWISTING OF THE TRUTH” in a post trashing the city’s decision to allow more density in the University District; and supported impact fees on developers who add density to neighborhoods.

Pedersen’s new campaign website does not yet include an “issues” page.

3. Christopher Rufo, the former District 6 City Council candidate, contributed $10,000 to his own campaign against city council incumbent Mike O’Brien last year. After dropping out of the race in November, and after refunding about $3,700 of the $12,390 he received in contributions, he wrote two more checks—one, for $5,600, to the Union Gospel Mission, and another, for $10,000, to the Documentary Foundation—the California-based nonprofit film company that Rufo runs. In 2017, the Documentary Foundation reported revenues of $123,819 and expenses of $390,065, including Rufo’s $58,285 salary.

Rufo says he gave his contributors the option of getting their money back or having him contribute it to UGM. “After hearing back from donors, I sent checks to everyone who requested a refund, paid down the campaign’s expenses, and sent the remaining $5,600 in donor contributions to Union Gospel Mission (in that order).” Rufo says he gave the rest of the money to the Documentary Foundation “with the goal of continuing to engage on Seattle political issues,” because he could not legally refund it to himself. (Wayne Barnett, the director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, says Rufo could have refunded himself up to $6,000 under state law).

Rufo says he’s now working on a new film, “America Lost,” which, according to the Documentary Foundation’s website, ” shows the dramatic decline of the American heartland through a mosaic of stories including an ex-steelworker scrapping abandoned homes to survive, a recently incarcerated father trying to rebuild his life, and a single mother struggling to escape her blighted urban neighborhood.”

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Morning Crank: The Motion Did Not Include a Plan B

1. Embattled King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober, who has refused to step down after an internal investigation concluded he sexually harassed and bullied his sole employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo, before firing her last month, has called a special meeting of the group’s executive board for March 19 to discuss what to do now that efforts to recruit a five-person panel to do a new investigation into Stober’s conduct as chair have failed. Stober is also accused of misappropriating the organization’s funds; among other things, he reportedly spent $14,000 more on campaign contributions than was allocated in last year’s budget.

At a meeting late last month, the King County Democrats’ executive board decided that an initial investigation by the group’s three vice-chairs was inadequate, and decided to let Stober himself appoint two of the members of a five-member panel to investigate the charges against him. The board also decided to expand the investigation to include an investigation of the original investigation, as well as an investigation into who “leaked” information about the complaints to the media, including me. Two of the five members would be appointed by the group’s vice chairs, and the fifth would be approved jointly by Stober and the vice-chairs, giving Stober himself effective control over the makeup of half the group investigating him for workplace misconduct.

Over the course of the investigation, two of the group’s three vice chairs have resigned, and the third, Orchideh Raisdanai, has apparently been unable to find anyone who will serve on the panel. Several potential members reportedly declined because they did not want to lend credibility to the process.

In an email to the executive board, Stober quoted from a note sent by the King County Democrats’ Democratic National Committee representative David McDonald—a Stober ally who oversaw the closed-door executive board meeting that led to the decision to form a new five-member panel—outlining the purpose of the meeting. (Stober and one of his allies, state committeeman Jon Culver, have begun monitoring and controlling the flow of emails to and from the general executive board address, according to group members who have tried to email the board, so that board members don’t see every email sent to their address and outgoing messages are reportedly monitored and approved by Stober or Culver.) “The motion adopted at the February 27 meeting did not specify a plan B in the event that the requested Committee could not be constituted in the time frame specified,” McDonald wrote. “Accordingly, the Chair was requested to call a special meeting of the Executive Board for the purpose of adopting a plan B procedure or taking other appropriate action in light of the events.” What that “Plan B procedure” will be remains unclear.

Tim Farrell, who chairs the Pierce County Democrats, will oversee the meeting. Last year, the Pierce County Democrats were fined $22,600 for breaking campaign-finance laws by repeatedly failing to properly report donations and spending over the course of three years. The King County Democrats are currently negotiating their own fine over similar charges, and Stober is now the subject of two new, separate complaints charging that he and other party officers concealed the group’s dire financial situation from the public, failed to report pledges and expenditures, and failed to file other reports properly and promptly.

On Wednesday, members of the 34th District Democrats who want Stober to step down will propose a resolution calling on Stober to resign. Several other Democratic groups across King County, including the 43rd, 11th, 45th, and 36th Legislative District Dems, have passed or are considering resolutions withholding funds from the King County Democrats until Stober steps down, but the 34th has not yet done so. The group is chaired by David Ginsberg, a stalwart Stober supporter who told the Seattle Times that he didn’t believe Stober had harassed Koss Vallejo because they had socialized and seemed “chummy” before Stober fired her.  Meanwhile, another group that has been silent so far is the 37th District Democrats; their chair, Alec Stephens, evocatively compared the investigation into Stober to a lynching at last month’s meeting.

An open letter calling on Stober to resign now has nearly 200 signatures from Democratic leaders, precinct committee officers, and elected officials.

2. The Seattle Ethics and Elections commission will release its first postelection report on the Democracy Voucher program today, featuring information about which voters took advantage of the opportunity to allocate public funds to which candidates, and how; how much money the program cost; and how (and when) Seattle residents spent their vouchers.

Some highlights from the SEEC’s report:

• Not surprisingly, most people allocated their vouchers—a total of $100 per registered voter, divided into four $25 increments—just before the primary and/or general elections. In July, prior to the August 1, 2017 primary election, the city received 11,548  vouchers; in October, leading up to the November 7 general election, voters returned 14,288 vouchers to the city. However, quite a few vouchers were returned well before the May 19 deadline for candidates to declare they were running—11,530 vouchers came in between January, when vouchers landed in mailboxes, and April, suggesting that candidates who filed early (like unsuccessful Position 8 candidate Jon Grant) had some success locking down voucher contributions before other candidates had a chance to get in their races. Voters returned a total of just over 72,000 vouchers in all.

• About one in five vouchers came in to the city directly from the campaigns, which solicited voucher contributions from voters; the rest came in through the mail (78 percent) or were emailed or delivered to the ethics board by hand.

• The overwhelming majority—76 percent—of people who returned their vouchers to the city gave them to just one candidate, rather than distributing the four $25 vouchers to different candidates.

• The requirement that candidates secure at least 400 signatures and 400 contributions of $10 or more appears to have been a significant barrier to voucher program participation. Only six candidates ultimately qualified for public funding with vouchers, and one, Hisam Goeuli, has pointed out that it took him so long to collect the required signatures—27 weeks—that by the time he had access to voucher funding, it was too late in the campaign for him to benefit from it. However, the other five candidates who qualified all appeared on the general election ballot, most of them after making it through the August primary.

• In 2017, the voucher program came in about $787,000 under its $3 million budget; under the initiative that authorized the program, unused funds are reserved for spending in future years.

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Conservative Activist’s Complaints Cause Some Democratic Groups to Call It Quits

A version of this story originally appeared on Seattle Magazine’s website.

Is conservative activist Glen Morgan, who has filed hundreds of complaints against Democrats and progressive organizations in the past few years, a good-government gadfly? Or is he a right-wing activist engaged in a partisan vendetta?

Morgan, a self-styled campaign finance reform advocate, insists he’s the former. But his choice of targets has raised questions about whether he’s more committed to reforming campaign finance laws or bringing down progressive candidates and causes.

Morgan, who heads up the conservative Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, has spent the last year and a half filing hundreds of complaints against Democratic candidates and organizations as well as progressive unions and nonprofits, alleging violations of the state’s campaign-finance disclosure law. The complaints range from consequential (failing to file reports of expenditures on behalf of candidates) to mundane (filing a report one day late). More than two dozen of those complaints have been against district Democratic organizations which work to elect Democrats in legislative districts across the state. Morgan has not targeted any Republican or conservative groups.

Morgan, who lives in Thurston County, acknowledges that he became interested in campaign-finance law after “the state Democrat Party”—a pejorative term many conservatives use for the Democratic Party—filed a complaint against him stemming from a series of robocalls against a local Democratic Party candidate for Thurston County Commissioner.

“I was inspired by them” to start filing complaints, Morgan says, but he insists that his only goal is to demonstrate that the current state laws governing campaign finance are “nitpicky” and “confusing” and need to be reformed.  “I wasn’t terribly interested in campaign finance law until I started to experience the joys and wonders of the law myself and I realized that the only way that you could get reform was to demonstrate the need for reform,” Morgan says.

Whatever Morgan’s true intent, his complaints have resulted in settlements, fines, an unprecedented case backlog at the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), and the closure of at least four Democratic political committees, including two in Seattle. Last year, according to PDC spokeswoman Kim Bradford, the agency received 283 citizen action complaints. Of those, 246 were filed by Morgan. “We’re seeing this dramatic growth in complaints and cases, and we don’t have any additional compliance staff to handle them, so it is taking us longer to resolve cases,” Bradford says. The PDC can issue warnings, give guidance, or levy fines of up to $10,000 for violations.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office has seen a similar barrage of “mirror” complaints called citizen actions from Morgan, several of which have led to lawsuits, either by Morgan or by Ferguson himself. According to Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for Ferguson, the number of citizen actions filed at the AG’s office increased from eight in 2015 to 52 in 2016 and to 383 last year; Aho estimates that 70 percent of those were filed by Morgan (about 268 last year alone).

In Seattle the 11th District Democrats and the 43rd District Democrats have dissolved their political action committees, which make endorsements and contribute to Democratic candidates, as the result of Morgan’s complaints. (The complaints also charged the organizations’ volunteer officers with individual violations.) While several other Democratic groups including the 49th  District Democrats in Vancouver, have decided to disband their PACs in response to Morgan’s complaints, others, including Seattle’s 37th and 36th District Dems, have not.

Julie Anne Kempf, the chair of the 46th District Democrats, said she couldn’t discuss Morgan’s case against the group, “as we are in the active litigation phase.” Other district Democratic groups declined to comment.

According to a post on the 43rd District Democrats’ website, titled “FAQ on 43rd District Democrats PAC closure,” the group decided to shutter its PAC and send the contents of its treasury to the state Democratic Party because “[t]he executive board determined that continuing to operate a PAC was not in line with the current goals of the organization and that it was too much risk considering that our only PAC activity was printing a sample ballot.” The 43rd has not contributed funds to candidates in several years, according to the group’s website.

Dmitri Iglitzen, a partner at the firm that is defending many of the Democratic groups Morgan is accusing of violations, says the PDC’s “unbelievably buggy, ancient computer system,” combined with a complicated filing calendar and byzantine rules, makes mistakes by party treasurers (most of whom are volunteers with no professional accounting or campaign experience) inevitable. Before the Morgan era, he says, the PDC could work with organizations to get their books in order. Now, he says, all bets are off.

“It’s an immediate crisis, because these [party officers] are volunteers, and they are scared,” Iglitzin says. “They feel responsible. They don’t know what to do. They don’t have enough money to pay for lawyers.” The end result, he says, is not just that Democratic groups will stop financing Democratic candidates—it’s that ordinary people will stop getting involved in politics at the local level. “This ends one of two ways. One is, it drives volunteers out of the world of political committees.” The other, he says, is a legislative fix.

Legislators are aware of the problem. House Bill 2398, sponsored by 11th District state Rep. Zack Hudgins, a Democrat, would prohibit activists like Morgan from filing complaints with the attorney general for violations involving less than $25,000. It would also give the PDC an opportunity to weigh in before a case is escalated to the attorney general’s desk, and provide more opportunities for groups to fix accidental violations. At the same time, it would increase the amount the PDC can fine a candidate or committee to $50,000.

The bill has bipartisan support, although both Republicans and Democrats oppose the provision allowing increased fines. At a hearing on the bill last week, the chairs of the King County Democrats, Bailey Stober, and the King County Republicans, Lori Sotelo, testified together on the bill. In his testimony, Stober said the PDC had been “weaponized” against political parties. Sotelo added that the two party leaders had taken the “unprecedented action” of appearing together to demonstrate how important it was to reform the state public disclosure law, which was passed by citizen initiative in response to Watergate in 1972 and has not been substantively updated since the mid-1990s.

Morgan testified too, calling the bill an inadequate response to the problems with the public disclosure law. He appeared to agree with both parties on one point, at least: Simplifying the public disclosure law would make it “easier for people to comply, so that volunteers and people new to the political process wouldn’t be so intimidated when they want to participate.”