Campaign Fizz: The Case of the Carbon-Copy Mailers

1. Elliott Bay Neighbors and University Neighbors, two independent expenditure groups funded by local real estate developers and Republican donors, including Trump 2020 contributor George Petrie, sent out mailers supporting District 1 city council candidate Rob Saka and District 4 candidate Maritza Rivera. The identically worded mailers include the same factual errors about the history of homelessness in Seattle.

One one side, the Saka/Rivera mailers both promise “[Saka/Rivera] is endorsed by people you know and trust,” followed by a quote from a supporter (Community Police Commission member Harriett Walden and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, respectively) and a snippet of the Seattle Times’ endorsement for that candidate.

On the flip side, both feature the headline “After years of failure on homelessness…” followed by a list of six points in time (plus “2023: UTTER FAILURE”) that are supposed to represent that failure.

The timeline—whose only job is to be a timeline—includes two dates that are wrong. Mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness emergency in 2015, not 2016, and the JumpStart payroll tax (“additional taxes for housing”) passed in 2020, not 2021. Perhaps more substantively, Murray’s declaration, King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness; the “failure” of that plan; and the establishment of the original Nickelsville encampment have nothing to do with the city council; they were the responsibility of Ed Murray, King County, King County, and a group of unsheltered people, respectively.

Although the mailer describes JumpStart as “additional taxes for housing,” the fund was (pretty famously) crippled in its first few years as former mayor Durkan and current Mayor Harrell used it to backfill shortfalls in other spending areas, and does not exclusively pay for housing.

According to campaign finance reports, the mailers were designed by a consultant in Wisconsin.

Direct campaign donations are limited in Seattle, but independent political committees can spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing candidates and ballot measures. Two of the chief supporters of the pro-Saka and -Rivera campaigns, George Petrie (and his wife Alyssa) and John Goodman, contributed a total of $190,000 to a pro-Bruce Harrell campaign and $100,000 to Compassion Seattle, the unfunded shelter and encampment-clearing mandate that a judge struck from the ballot for going beyond the scope of a local initiative.

2. Stephen Brown, the founder of Eltana Bagels and a candidate for City Council Position 1 (West Seattle), reported spending $33,577 to reimburse Eltana for billboards and mailers that appeared to promote Brown’s campaign. The mailers read “Seattle Deserves Better…—Stephen Brown” on the outside and opened to reveal an offer for $25 in free bagels. Brown maintained that the billboards and mailers, along with a Youtube video that concluded, “Stephen Brown fixed the bagel problem in Seattle—who knows what’s next?” had nothing to do with his campaign.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission disagreed, sending Brown a list of questions about the ads and warning him that his campaign could no longer access public funding if he did not “resolve this issue.”

Had Brown not resolved the issue by paying for the ads, the ethics commission could’ve added his official campaign mailers to the pile of evidence suggesting the Eltana ads were meant to support his campaign. The design of the Vote Stephen Brown ad is extremely similar to the Eltana ad, from the fonts to the striking deep-purple-and-yellow color scheme to the photos of bagels to the choice of fonts.

3. Saka, who is one of Brown’s competitors, has asked the elections commission to lift spending limits for his campaign, arguing that Brown understated the true value of the ads and mailers and has actually spent more than the $93,750 limit for candidates using the city’s democracy voucher program. The ethics commission will hold a meeting tomorrow to consider his request.

UPDATE: Turns out our prediction (that the commission wouldn’t grant Saka’s request because they had already accepted a $33,000 estimate for the Eltana billboards and mailers) was wrong: The commission voted to grant the request on Thursday, agreeing with Saka’s campaign that the Brown campaign should have included the full value of all the money Eltana spent advertising bagels/Brown citywide, and not just in District 1.

During a lengthy discussion, commission director Wayne Barnett argued that it wouldn’t make much sense to advertise a West Seattle campaign in, say, Ballard. Commissioner Zach Pekelis, an attorney at Pacific Law Group, countered that ordinarily “we don’t think of campaign expendtures being discounted based on the efficacy or the inefficacy of the campaign expenditure,” and noted that if a District 1 campaign directly spent money on ads in another district, it “would definitely count” as a campaign expense.

3 thoughts on “Campaign Fizz: The Case of the Carbon-Copy Mailers”

  1. As a D1 resident I got the mailer discussed in item 1. I have to say I feel a little better about him knowing it’s from an IE. That was the worst mailer I’ve ever seen, someone needs to stay in Wisconsin. Also I got a cryptic email from the Saka campaign say something to the effect that because of the actions of another candidate he can accept more contributions. However, there was little further explanation so I appreciate the coverage in item 3.

  2. Once again, Publicola implies that the candidates are at fault with those carbon-copy mailers that are paid for via an INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURE CAMPAIGN. It really does not matter who else the donors to that IE have contributed to in the past. There is no coordination between those donors and the candidates, by law. And, BTW, of course developers who do their work building housing in Seattle may have an interest in which potential city council members may be elected.

    It’s also rather fascinating how obsessed Publicola is with Stephen Brown, who has zero traction in the District 1 race. The news there is that somehow Rob Saka, who has hoovered up all the major endorsements (except for, natch,The Stranger and Publicola) is threatened by Stephen Brown, who’s likely to come in 5th.

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