Concerns build over ‘short-circuiting’ of Seattle’s fundraising rules for mayoral campaigns

Mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

While Seattle mayoral candidates have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through individual contributions and Democracy Vouchers, independent political action committees — which caused a stir among voters in 2019 — are again leading to concerns over the city’s rules regarding fundraising.

4 candidates continue to pace field in Seattle fundraising for mayoral race

Seattle’s 2019 election saw hundreds of thousands of dollars of outside money pour into city council campaigns across 16 registered independent expenditure committees (IECs). And while Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program was originally designed to limit the presence of large-scale outside dollars in political campaigns, IECs have significant latitude to skirt around those guardrails.

“Since IE committees function independently of candidates, there aren’t special rules applicable to candidates who may benefit from IEs,” Seattle Elections and Ethics Commission Executive Director Wayne Barnett told MyNorthwest.

That means that IECs can raise and spend large sums of money in support of whomever they choose outside the spending limits imposed by Democracy Vouchers, provided that candidates aren’t directly involved or soliciting money on behalf of committees.

That saw Amazon donate $1.4 million in a 2019 bid to support council candidates the company viewed as more business friendly. Ultimately, just two of the seven candidates supported by that money won their respective elections.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the race for Seattle mayor has taken on something of a different tone regarding IECs. Despite there being 15 total candidates, just two (Bruce Harrell and Lorena Gonzalez) have committees registered in support of their campaigns, while several others have taken a strong stance against the use of IECs.

For Harrell, the city’s mostly hands-off approach to limiting IEC spending is already working in his favor, thanks to a committee in support of his campaign — dubbed “Harrell for Seattle’s Future” — registered with the city on May 5. That committee has raised nearly $100,000 over roughly six weeks, largely on the strength of contributions ranging between $1,000 and $10,000 each. Comparatively, direct contributions to mayoral campaigns made by individuals are capped at $550 each.

A separate IEC registered as “Essential Workers for Lorena” has yet to report any donations.

The fact that the IEC supporting Harrell has raised significant funds over the last month-and-a-half hasn’t gone unnoticed among other candidates, including leading Democracy Voucher fundraisers Colleen Echohawk and Andrew Grant Houston.

Both Echohawk and Houston have already hit the the $400,000 individual contribution limit for mayoral fundraising in the primaries, and have since levied criticism against the way that IECs are able to operate outside of those limits.

“Seattle passed landmark legislation with the voucher program in 2015 and I think it’s a shame that special interest groups are short circuiting the citizen based voucher program we have in place,” Echohawk told MyNorthwest.

“Our campaign does not need or believe in PACs,” a spokesperson for Houston’s campaign agreed. “By participating in this program, we committed to not taking big corporate money, reached the cap first, and did so with the highest voucher-to-cash ratio of our peers. (Houston) has a $0 net worth in a field of candidates like Mr. Harrell (who is worth millions) who have inherent ties to big money in our city.”

Fields now set for Seattle mayor, council, and city attorney elections

Jessyn Farrell — who’s currently fifth in fundraising among mayoral candidates — expressed a similar sentiment, with spokesperson Will Casey noting that her campaign is “concerned that special interests like those supporting Bruce Harrell continue to sidestep the intent of the Democracy Voucher program by forming this PAC.”

“By having their paperwork filed already, Bruce’s PAC is sending a clear signal that the same business interests he supported during his time as City Council President are lining up to support his bid for mayor,” Casey added. “Voters really need to pay attention to who is funding the advertising they’ll start to see in a few weeks.”

Addressing her own stance on IECs, Gonzalez said in a written statement to MyNorthwest that “corporate-funded PACs are why Seattle has a homelessness and affordable housing crisis.”

“It’s why economic inequality continues to worsen,” she continued. “I’ve spent my legislative career working to eliminate the influence of corporate money and money from foreign-owned corporations in our elections by passing the Clean Campaigns Act. My campaign is funded by working people because that’s who I’m going to be fighting for as Seattle’s next mayor.”

That said, Gonzalez’s campaign also drew a distinction between the “Harrell for Seattle’s Future” committee and the recently-registered “Essential Workers for Lorena” IEC.

“Bruce Harrell has stood with big business executives who have an outsized influence at city hall his entire career,” her campaign manager Alex Koren clarified. “Lorena has always stood with essential workers and labor unions, and she is proud to have their support.”

Harrell has not responded to multiple requests for a comment on his own campaign’s position on IECs.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]