The exciting centerpiece of the campaign finance reform initiative on your ballot this fall—officially titled Initiative 122, but also known as Honest Elections—is a first-of-its-kind "democracy voucher" system, which would give you $100 in vouchers to donate to candidates. But the initiative also does a bunch of other stuff that big business isn't going to like. And, in these last couple weeks before the election, they've started to take notice.
It took the "No Election Vouchers" campaign a while to ramp up—and they continue to lag far behind the huge war chest on the pro side—but they have now raised about $45,600 and where it's coming from is telling.
Here's a look at the latest list of who's giving to "No Election Vouchers":
Why might Microsoft and Vulcan feel so invested in stopping Honest Elections Seattle?
Consider this: I-122 would ban candidates from taking money from people or companies that have, in the previous two years, received more than $250,000 under a city contract. The initiative has a similar ban for companies that spent at least $5,000 in the previous year on lobbying the city.
Sightline, the research organization that helped craft the initiative and is supporting the campaign, has laid out its case for such limits on city contractors and uses Microsoft—surprise!—as an example.
Microsoft donated the maximum allowed $700 to Ed Murray during his run for mayor. Then, once he was elected, secured a $46,000 contract to support his transition team. (That transition team, by the way, included Joanne Harrell, a Microsoft director and wife of Council Member Bruce Harrell.) The company gave Murray's predecessor, Mike McGinn, $250 when he ran in 2009.
During that same time, the company was benefitting from city contracts.
According to Sightline's analysis, the company made a total of $2.2 million off city contracts from the beginning of 2013 to the middle of this year. That span covers the last year of McGinn's administration and the beginning of Murray's.
Of course, this doesn't definitively prove anything. The max-out limit in Seattle of $700 isn't that much cash. But, as Sightline's director Alan Durning writes, it doesn't look great.
"Political fundraising from large city contractors such as Microsoft may or may not give undue influence to those contractors in the actual practice of awarding, extending, and evaluating contracts, but it certainly raises questions," Durning writes. "Did the person who awarded that contract know of the company’s generosity to the mayor-elect’s campaign? Did anyone place a phone call? Did anyone put a finger on the scale?"
It's more than just Microsoft, too.
Sightline looked at all of the companies that have city contracts and have donated to candidates for city office. They found 22 businesses that, if I-122 had been in place, would have been limited from giving political contributions. Between January 2013 and June 2015, those companies earned a total of about $84 million from city contracts and donated about $28,000 to city candidates, according to Sightling.
From Sightline's research (emphasis added):
Microsoft gave the most, at $4,600, followed by engineering giants CH2M Hill ($3,400) and HDR Engineering ($3,100). The latter two engineering firms each earned on the order of $18 million from city contracts during the period. Each firm had plum contracts related to sewerage upgrades and the city’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. Both firms demonstrated their ecumenical, give-some-to-get-some attitude by donating near the maximum allowed to both candidates for mayor in 2013: then-senator Ed Murray and then-mayor Mike McGinn.
Again, we'll never know if Murray (or any other mayor) made the connection between who helped him get into office and who he helped once he was there, but these types of close relationships can erode public trust in government. And that can make the public feel like their involvement in politics really doesn't matter, which makes them less likely to vote or otherwise participate.
That's part of why Seattle wouldn't be the first city to create these types of restrictions. According to Sightline, eight other cities, three states, and the federal government all have some sort of restrictions on the political activity of companies making money off government contracts.
I've requested comment from the top three donors—Microsoft, Vulcan, and Sabey, which is a data center company—about why they're opposing I-122. I haven't heard back yet, but I'll update this post if I do.
It's easy to generalize that this fight is just big business trying to make sure regular people don't have a louder voice in local politics because of the "democracy vouchers" (sure, maybe). But it's even more likely that they're freaked out by their own influence being limited. For the drafters of I-122, that's exactly the point.