Tag: city council elections

Fueled by Unprecedented Spending, Seattle City Council Elections Defy Easy Interpretation

Another glamorous campaign forum in the election Amazon and other companies spent millions to influence.

So was it an anti-incumbent election? An Amazon backlash election? A pro-“accountability” election? A status quo election?


Although only a fraction of the ballots were counted Tuesday night, two out of three incumbents running for reelection appeared headed for victory, the other incumbent seemed likely (though not yet certain) to lose, and voters appeared to be supporting a mix of other council candidates from across Seattle’s ideological spectrum‚ only one of them backed by the Amazon-funded Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s PAC, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, spent unprecedented millions on independent expenditures to influence Seattle’s local elections this year, including nearly $1.5 million from Amazon, a company that earlier this year threatened to disinvest in the city over a tax that would have amounted to a rounding error in the company’s budget. (Amazon has been valued as high as $1 trillion; the tax would have cost them $20 million a year.).

The results defied easy interpretation. The incumbents who appear to be headed for victory—Lisa Herbold in District 1 (West Seattle) and Debora Juarez in District 5 (North Seattle)—vote differently on many issues and were not supported by the same factions. CASE spent around $300,000 to defeat Herbold—backing attorney Phil Tavel, who also ran in 2015 and lost in the primary— but came up short. However, the Chamber also backed Juarez against a more conservative candidate, Ann Davison Sattler, and helped push her to reelection. Both Herbold and Juarez were probably helped by their reputations as good retail politicians who pay attention to their districts. It’s hard to believe the worst about your district council member when you see her at meetings around the neighborhood and can easily get her on the phone.

The same can’t be said of District 3 incumbent Kshama Sawant, who doesn’t have a district office and is the subject of frequent complaints from district residents about her inaccessibility and focus on national issues—criticisms that would have followed her even if the Chamber, backed by $1.5 million from Amazon, had not poured an unprecedented $750,000 (and counting) into the effort to defeat the socialist firebrand. After the first ballot drop, Sawant was trailing Orion by 8.4 percent—more than the margin she made up during the August primary, when she gained more than 6 points over Orion between election night and the final ballot count.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

In District 2 (Southeast Seattle), Seattle Police Department crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon’s Chamber-backed campaign wasn’t enough to quash the momentum of popular second-time candidate Tammy Morales, who nearly beat incumbent Bruce Harrell in 2015. In District 4 (NortheastSeattle), which includes the University of Washington but also some of the city’s wealthiest and least diverse single-family areas, neighborhood activist and former Tim Burgess aide Alex Pedersen’s lead over Democratic Socialists of America candidate Shaun Scott was boosted by about $66,000 from the Chamber and more than $105,000 from Burgess’ People for Seattle PAC.

In District 6 (Northwest Seattle), where Chamber-backed former city council member Heidi Wills was running against Dan Strauss, an aide to retiring District 7 city council member Sally Bagshaw, the gloves really came off in the final week, when Strauss’ campaign sent out mailers accusing Wills of “still selling out” and reminding voters about Strippergate, the 16-year-old zoning scandal that led to Wills’ ouster in 2003. Wills was trailing Strauss by more than 5 points at the end of the night despite half a million dollars in Chamber support. Given that late voters tend to support candidates who are perceived as more liberal (Strauss is backed by a number of lefty groups and the Stranger), Strauss looks like the winner.

Finally, in District 7 (Magnolia, Queen Anne, downtown) former police chief Jim Pugel narrowly led assistant city attorney Andrew Lewis on election night, but that lead is unlikely to hold as late ballots come in. Pugel may have actually been hurt by the more than $325,000 the Chamber spent boosting his campaign, given that neither Pugel nor Lewis was obviously a “Chamber candidate” and that both campaigns were respectful, cordial, and generally positive, unlike those in Districts 3 and 6.

This was Amazon’s election to win or lose, not only in District 3 but in all the other council districts where CASE distributed the anti-tax behemoth’s garish $1.45 million contribution. One lesson from this election may end up being that the big spend backfired with voters who were offended at the idea that a huge, widely reviled company could thought it could waltz in and buy Seattle’s city council. On the other hand, there’s always the possibility that Amazon and the other companies filling CASE’s coffers will look at this year’s local election results and decide that they just didn’t spend enough to get the results they wanted.

Election results will be updated again on Wednesday between 4 and 4:30 pm.

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. Continue reading “Council May Push to Regulate PACs, Which Spent As Much As $18 Per Vote in August Primary”

Morning Crank: “Housing First, Indeed.”

1. Unified Seattle, a group that has created a series of  slick videos opposing “tiny house villages” (authorized encampments where residents sleep in small eight-by-12-foot buildings with locks on the doors, electric light, and heat) has spent between $10,000 and t $50,000 putting those ads on Facebook and targeting them at Seattle residents. However, since the aim of these ads isn’t explicitly related to an upcoming election—the latest ad vaguely blames the “mayor and city council” for “forests of needle caps,” “drug shacks,” and  “rampant prostitution” to—the people funding them don’t have to report their activities to the state and local election authorities. The Freedom Foundation, the libertarian-leaning think tank that funded a lawsuit to stop a temporary tiny house encampment on a piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union, has declined to comment on whether they’re funding the ads, but the rhetoric is certainly consistent with the argument the Freedom Foundation makes in their lawsuit against the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute, which claims that allowing the encampment will “encourag[e] loitering and substandard living conditions” in the area.

2. Speaking of the Freedom Foundation lawsuit: Since the group filed their lawsuit back in June, the original four-week permit for the tiny house village has expired. That, the city of Seattle argues in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed earlier this month, renders the original lawsuit moot, and they filed a motion to dismiss it earlier this month. LIHI still plans to open the encampment, on Eighth and Aloha, in late October.

3. In other news about unofficial campaigns: Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s Burgers founder Dick Spady and one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat the head tax, doesn’t have to file election-year paperwork with the city and state elections commissions, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Spady, who runs an ad agency called Cre8tive Empowerment, has been soliciting money for a campaign to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy and take on several city council incumbents; has has also reportedly been meeting with council candidates and taking them around to potential donors. Ordinarily, that kind of electioneering would be considered campaigning. However, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Spady hasn’t managed to raise a single dime since September 11, when he sent out an email seeking to raise “$100,000+ in the next month” to defeat the education levy and  “shift the Seattle City council in much needed moderate direction in 2019.” If he does start raising money to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures this year or next, Spady will be required to register his campaign at the state and local levels.

4. One campaign that isn’t having any trouble raising money (besides the pro-Families and Education Levy campaign, which has raised almost $425,000) is Neighbors for Safe Streets, the group that formed in opposition to a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between the Wedgwood and Ravenna neighborhoods. The PAC, led by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association government affairs director Jordan Royer, has raised more than $15,000 so far for its effort to, as the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter put it last month, “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda has argued that people of color don’t need bike lanes, which only  “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.”


(Meanwhile, far away from the North Seattle enclaves that make up Save 35th Avenue NE,  neighborhood-based bike groups in the Rainier Valley have spent years begging the city to provide safe bike routes for people who live and work in the area—even holding protests to demand modest traffic-calming measures on Rainier Ave. S., the deadliest street in the city). Neighborhoods for Smart Streets has not identified which council candidates it will support next year, when seven seats will be up; so far, only a handful of contenders—including, as of last Friday, former (2013) mayoral candidate Kate Martin, who also headed up a 2016 effort to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct intact and turn it into a park. Martin joins Discovery Institute researcher Christopher Rufo in the competition for the District 6 council seat currently held by Mike O’Brien.

5. As I reported on Twitter, George Scarola—the city’s key outreach person on homelessness, even after an effective demotion from homelessness director to an obscure position in the Department of Finance and Administrative Services—resigned on October 9. In an email to city staff, Scarola praised the city’s Navigation Teams, groups like LIHI that are working on tiny house villages, and “the outreach teams, shelter operators, meal providers and the folks who develop and manage permanent supportive housing.” He concluded the email by noting that the one area where everyone, including opponents of what the city is doing to ameliorate homelessness, agree is that  “we will not solve the crisis of chronic homelessness without more mental health and drug treatment services, coupled with safe housing. Housing First, indeed.”

In a statement, Durkan said Scarola’s knowledge on homelessness was “key to the continuity of the City’s efforts and helped ensure strong connections throughout the community. Altogether, George participated in hundreds of discussions around homelessness – from public meetings to living room chats – and took countless phone calls and emails, always willing to engage with anyone who had a concern, a complaint or a suggested solution.”

Away from the watchful eye of the mayor’s office, which he usually was, Scarola could be surprisingly candid—once asking me, apparently rhetorically, whether people protesting the removal of a specific encampment were “protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions.” On another occasion, Scarola pushed back on the idea, very prevalent at the time, that money spent on emergency shelter and short-term interventions was money wasted, because—according to homeless consultant Barb Poppe—every available resource should go toward permanent housing.  “Her overall view is absolutely right—she wants stable housing,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get there without going through steps A, B, C, and D”—meaning solutions like tiny house villages, authorized tent encampments, and services that address the problems that are keeping people from being able to hang on to housing in the first place.