Not Necessarily the Best or the Brightest—but Definitely the Richest
By shuffling money from one campaign to the next, unremarkable city officials can scare off election opponents and essentially keep jobs for life. But now the election commission says it's time to stop.
photos by Josh Bis
Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen has $144,000 in the bank for his next reelection campaign—in 2015. Last year, when he was up for reelection, he entered the race with more than $100,000 in the bank. These conspicuously large sums grow out of unspent money from previous campaigns; leftovers from 2007 become 2011's huge war chest, leftovers from 2011 become 2015's huge war chest, and so on.
The major value of being able to roll money over from one election to the next like this is the intimidation of potential challengers.
Rasmussen and several other council members are now doing it to such a degree that, critics say, they are discouraging viable opponents from running at all.
"I think it is an intentional strategy for preserving a place in office," former council member Peter Steinbrueck told the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission at a hearing on the issue on June 7. When a politician has $150,000 on hand before the election season even starts, Steinbrueck explained, "they are immediately seen as the stronger candidate and unbeatable. They don't have to be particularly accomplished incumbents. They can just be really good fundraisers."
For a good case study, let's look at last year's election. Incumbents who started off the race with big money ended up facing no serious opponents, despite the fact that they'd taken a bunch of controversial votes that pissed off critics of all political persuasions (delaying light-rail planning, backing the deep-bore tunnel, mandating sick pay, hiking parking rates). Normally, you'd expect people to line up to challenge them after that kind of term in office, but Rasmussen out-fundraised a long-shot opponent, Dale Pusey, by roughly 250 to 1, while Council Member Sally Clark out-fundraised her opponent by more than $170,000 and won by a mile. Of the five incumbents up for reelection last year, only Jean Godden faced a serious opponent, Bobby Forch, whom she defeated narrowly despite outspending him nearly 2 to 1.
On average, the four candidates who didn't have serious challengers now enter the next election cycle with nearly $93,000 on hand.
Seeing this, the election commissioners unanimously agreed that these rules need reform and made two recommendations last week. The first would restrict fundraising among candidates running for mayor, city council, and city attorney to the 12 months prior to the primary election and six months after the general election (to settle debts). Narrowing that fundraising window would reduce incumbents' ability to collect cash for several years before the election, as Council Member Tim Burgess did. The second proposal would prevent rolling over loads of cash from campaign to campaign. If that proposal becomes law, elected officials could set aside around $5,000 for their future campaigns.
Mike O'Brien, the council member who originally proposed the reforms, intends to introduce a bill this summer that would adopt the election commission's recommendations into law. This could reduce what some believe looks like financial impropriety between elected officials and their donors. And as the commissioners stressed, it ensures donations are spent on the campaign they were intended for.
Most important, these regulations, based on laws approved recently in California and Alaska, would "create a more even playing field when they start," said Toby Guevin, the policy and legislative manager of the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica. He added that the regulations would also provide "a healthy debate in democracy."
But ironically, the final decision will rest with the city council members themselves, who are among the most reluctant to change the rules that help keep them in office with annual salaries of more than $110,000.
"I don't think that we have any indication that there is a need for this legislation," Rasmussen said on KUOW on May 22. "We don't know whether or not there is a problem."
Really? The problems were well documented by the election commission's annual report released in February. In addition to finding that rollovers have reached a "new high," it found other concerning trends: fewer candidates running than any time since 1995, a record average size of contributions, a drop in small contributions, and top donors contributing almost exclusively to incumbents.
While Rasmussen has been a prime example of the problem, he's hardly been alone. Council Members Bruce Harrell, Burgess, and Clark all reported between $64,000 to $85,000 left over from their campaigns last year that will go to future reelection bids. (All four of these council members share the same political consultant, Christian Sinderman, who runs Northwest Passage Consulting.) By contrast, the total amount of left over cash for all five of the positions combined going into the 2003 election ago was around $26,000. That number then climbed steadily heading into 2007 and 2011, jumping to $371,691 for the next election cycle.
But the problem isn't solely with rolling over funds. It's also who elected officials are getting that money from.
Of the top 20 donors to last year's candidates, a dozen maxed out contributions exclusively to the five incumbents up for reelection and gave nothing to challengers. As you might expect, many of them have business before the council.
Among the top donors: Matt Griffin of Pine Street Group, who leads the company managing Pacific Place, which houses a parking garage owned by the city. CleanScapes, which has a garbage-collection contract with the city. And major property owners that required new zoning for their real estate, including Paul Allen's Vulcan, Central District developer Jim Mueller, and other firms.
Of course, council members receive money from all sorts of wealthy interests—that's politics. And sometimes a sitting incumbent is ousted by a newcomer (Rasmussen beat the increasingly controversial Margaret Pageler in 2003). But that's the exception. As long as council members hew to the agendas of well-heeled interests and avoid scandal, the current system gives them an unfair stronghold on their seat for life. The result is that intelligent, qualified candidates—candidates who may be able to do the job better—simply decline the chance to run for office. That's a shame for public service.
This article has been updated since its original publication.