Across the country, campaign contributions are causing a stir. Whether it’s Randy Bryce outraising Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s first district or the Illinois governor’s race that is literally set to break records, everyone seems to be watching everyone else’s money. The politicians themselves try their hardest to be as truthful as possible while uttering the words, “I’m not owned.”
In Washington state, two politicians, Cary Moon and Bill Fishburn, have recently called out their opponents for receiving too much of the wrong kind of campaign contributions.
Olympia Port Commissioner Race
Bill Fishburn is challenging incumbent Bill McGregor for Olympia Port Commissioner. In a press release by the Fishburn campaign, they make a strong claim that the timber industry is attempting to “buy” the election away from them.
“I am out knocking on doors to discuss how the Port can better serve the public,” said Fishburn, age 48, from Rainier. “I am disappointed by the money that special interests are pouring into this race. They are willing to spend big money to stop the Port from returning to the people of Thurston County for the next four years. This is a local public Port and this should be a local campaign.”
Explaining what they are up against, the press release puts their current race into historical context:
Port elections are becoming increasingly expensive. The total funds raised for the 2015 race between George Barner and Joe Downing were $46,000. The race between EJ Zita and Jerry Farmer that year cost $50,000. With the PAC expenditure by Coalition for a Better Thurston, the current race between Zita and McClure has reached $59,000 in cash contributions alone. The cash raised in the Fishburn/McGregor race has jumped to the unprecedented amount of $96,000.
An article by Rolf Boone in The Olympian asserts that the PAC Coalition for a Better Thurston has received $10,000 each from Weyerhaeuser Co., Port Blakely, and the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) in Olympia, all of whom have a business interest in the port and are funding the candidate opposite Bill Fishburn.
Weyerhaeuser is the largest tenant in the port and it leases 24.5 acres as of 2013 and employs over 30 workers. Its chief business in the port is exporting logs to Japan and other Asian countries. Port Blakely has offices at the Olympia Airport and its subsidiary, Pacific Lumber and Shipping, is the second largest shipper of lumber at the port. ILWU contracts with the port for a number of its workers. It’s not hard to imagine why these groups seek influence with the next Olympia Port Commissioner.
Fishburn says, “Even though I have had to raise a lot of money to keep up, my campaign is built on people power. A lot of my contributions are in-kind donations from individuals who are directly involved in the campaign. When you go to the PDC website, it shows that one of my biggest donors is actually the collective contributions of small donors. That’s what a local race should look like.”
“But the fact is, it is hard to compete with cash donations to the incumbent from those with a direct interest in how the Port does its business.”
Seattle Mayor Race
Before we dig too deep into Seattle’s Mayoral race, a little background information on recent campaign finance reforms enacted by the city is required.
…giving more people an opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy; ensuring a fair elections process that holds our elected leaders accountable to us by strengthening voters’ control over City government; banning campaign contributions by City contractors and entities using paid lobbyists; lowering campaign contribution limits; tightening prohibitions on lobbying by former elected officials (the “revolving door” problem); expanding requirements for candidates to disclose their financial holdings and interests; and increasing fines on violators of campaign rules.
However, earlier this week, as reported by Jim Brunner and Daniel Beekman of The Seattle Times, “Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) — the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce — made contributions of $475,000 and $50,000 on Monday to People for Jenny Durkan, an independent-expenditure committee.”
Durkan’s opponent, Cary Moon, lashed out against such campaign contributions:
If big corporate interests want to fund a no-limit campaign for my opponent, they should do so with full transparency and accountability to the voters, and stop using our regional chamber of commerce as a smoke screen.
And on social media:
Much of this corporate cash for our opponent is being funneled through our regional chamber of commerce. pic.twitter.com/QOIgeyFQQU
— Cary Moon (@CaryMoon4Mayor) October 18, 2017
Cary Moon’s complaint about donations being funneled to her opponent through the regional chamber of commerce is understandable. The Chamber of Commerce is not a benign business networking organization, it is a powerful pro-corporate campaign and lobby machine, an organization Alyssa Katz referred to as “The Influence Machine.” While local chambers are independent entities that don’t necessarily subscribe to the U.S. Chamber’s pro-business agenda, donations from corporate telecom juggernauts, like CenturyLink and Comcast, to the candidate who doesn’t support the establishment of a municipal broadband network, is likely not a coincidence.
Our opponent's record-breaking support from big corporate donors. pic.twitter.com/O16II92HVz
— Cary Moon (@CaryMoon4Mayor) October 18, 2017
Among the companies listed that have given to the chamber’s PAC to back Durkan are more than a dozen that would be barred from giving to the candidate directly due to I-122. Unfortunately, while the initiative bars companies that spend money on lobbyists from giving to campaigns, contributions to PACs are unlimited, and lobbyists themselves are not barred from donating. In fact, a dozen or more lobbyists employed by companies covered by the law have given money to Durkan’s campaign.
Former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn weighed in on what these contributions mean for the Seattle business community and essentially where our city is headed if Durkan is elected mayor. Basically, these corporations wouldn’t be putting up the cash for a candidate who won’t help them in kind. For example, given that Durkan has received a substantial amount of money from Comcast and Centurylink we can logically conclude that community broadband would be off the table if she becomes mayor.
— Brett Hamil (@BrettHamil) August 31, 2017
In a recent mayoral debate, Jenny Durkan went on the offensive in regards to Moon’s money, insinuating that Moon only moved on in the primary because of her status as a millionaire and had she not contributed to her own campaign, she would have lost to Nikkita Oliver. A rather eyebrow-raising argument when considering, as Daniel Beekman reported earlier this month, an independent-expenditure committee invested $116,000 leading up to Durkan’s primary election, and $86,000 came from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s PAC.
In the end, it’s hard to see Durkan winning any points with this argument, as both she and Moon have personal wealth, and using Oliver as a political pawn for credibility is forcing a narrative that doesn’t really exist. As we see it, it’s the money behind the candidate that is most concerning, and only one candidate is being courted by big business. In fact, along with Centurylink and Comcast, other companies donating $10,000 or more to the Chamber’s PAC include Amazon, AT&T, Expedia, Starbucks, Boeing, and Vulcan. Amazon alone gave a total of $350,000 to the PAC between July and October. As Moon’s campaign pointed out earlier this week, some of these companies have opposed tax increases for the wealthy, increased minimum wages, and public broadband, and therein lies the problem.
The issue with large donations isn’t that it gives the wealthy and corporations the opportunity to support a particular candidate, it’s that it gives them increased access to politicians and enormous leverage in shaping economic policies, at the expense of the American public. This is the very issue that I-122 sought to prevent. But in the end, corporate/wealthy interests are simply allowed to legally circumvent the law in order to protect their financial interests and promote their pro-business agendas.
In fact, when members of the committee that drafted I-122 complained that some of Durkan’s individual donations violated the rules, their complaints were brushed off by the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission. Executive director Wayne Barnett claimed that the complaints against Durkan were either unfounded or the law was unclear, stating, “The public interest is not served by holding campaigns to a standard of perfection.”
So there you have it, the “purity” argument intended to maintain an overarching pro-corporate agenda in America, reworked to shut down campaign finance reform in Seattle. Needless to say, the consequences of the super-rich, corporations, and banking interests outweighing the public good are all around us. The wealthy continue to pull away from the rest of the country and, as they do, the policies they favor are increasingly at odds with policies that American families desperately need.
Low tax-rates and tax-cuts for the wealthy have led to underinvestment in our communities and our infrastructure. Industry deregulation has imposed a significant risk to the environment and to the communities in which they reside. Tax-loopholes and corporate subsidies have been provided to companies that lobby against living wages, higher taxes, and net-neutrality. Massive political spending from pharmaceutical, healthcare, and insurance companies in the form of lobbying against Single-Payer healthcare, affordable prescription drugs, and legalized marijuana.
All of these are examples of how corporations and the wealthy not only lobby our politicians for policies that directly benefit them, but also actively lobby against policies that benefit American families. As David Koch stated in 2012, “Our main interest is not participating in campaigns. Our main interest is in policy.” Certainly, very few people could rationally argue that policy that benefits a man worth $48.1 billion benefits them as well.
Therefore, as much as Durkan would like to deflect away from the source of her campaign contributions, where the money comes from matters. Wealthy donors shift candidates’ priorities, and their position on policy, away from the needs of constituents. Moreover, once elected, politicians immediately begin to work on raising funds for re-election, which works to perpetuate the quid pro quo relationship between wealthy donors and politicians.
Certainly, the “Honest Elections Seattle Initiative”, and its included taxpayer-funded democracy voucher program, which will give four $25 vouchers to each voter to be used in Seattle campaigns for council, city attorney and mayor beginning in 2021, is a step in the right direction. However, given the ability for wealthy donors and corporations to end-run the initiative and funnel unlimited funds into local elections, it would seem tighter regulations and more reforms will be needed in order for Seattle to achieve a truly enviable democratic system of elections.