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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.

Not Necessarily the Best or the Brightest—but Definitely the Richest

photos by Josh Bis

CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS Burgess, Godden, Clark, Rasmussen, and Harrell all won reelection last year after out-fundraising their opponents by $125,000 to $310,000.

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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. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.

 

Comments (23) RSS

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1
Here's my idea to jerk this bunch back to reality: An initiative to the voters to roll back City Council pay and perks to 1995 levels. That's the last time their pay reflected pretty much what the rest of the city's wage earners took home. (The median 2011 Seattle income dropped to $49,000.)

These clowns pull down $117,000 a year, plus perks and parking privileges. (No $4 an hour meters for them.) "Representatives" whose incomes are more than double that of the people they purportedly represent cannot possibly have a clue what their constituents' economic realities are like, let alone in the worst depression in 80 years. If they had to live on what the rest of us do, they might change their tune. Or better yet, leave public service. Remember...it's called public SERVICE, not public trough-feeding or public gouging.

According to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seattle_Cit…

"The Seattle City Council is the second highest paid in the country. As of September 28, 2010, council members Bagshaw, Conlin, Licata and O'Brien earn $117,533.52; council members Godden, Harrell, Burgess, Clark and Rasmussen earn $113,587.20. These figures represent increases from $94,000 in November 2005, and $104,000 for members elected November 8, 2005. In 1995, all council members were paid $71,000.

"The current top rate represents a 65.5% pay increase over 1995. Among the nation's 40 largest cities, only Los Angeles pays its council more (Seattle Times). Seattle ranks 23rd in population, according to the Census Bureau."

So you tell me...has your income gone up 65% since 1995? Or even 25% since 2005? Are you better off now than your City Council member has become in the last six years? Do you really think any of these bums are worth what we're paying them?
More...
Posted by Brrrrzap! on June 13, 2012 at 9:37 AM · Report this
2 Comment Pulled (SockPuppetry) Comment Policy
3
District elections.
Posted by David Miller on June 13, 2012 at 12:21 PM · Report this
4
This is a solution looking for a problem. Constitutional muster aside, limiting candidates ability to raise money openly will only push it underground. And limiting the time that candidates have to raise money (one year) will hurt challengers, more than incumbents, who need that extra time to build a viable campaign.
Posted by attagirl on June 13, 2012 at 12:22 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 5
@4) You are wrong. The data contradicts your claim that "limiting the time that candidates have to raise money (one year) will hurt challengers, more than incumbents."

According to city records, in the year before January 1 of the 2011 election cycle, incumbents raised $375,312 while challengers collectively raised only $175. That's nothing for challengers. This pattern has played out, although somewhat less dramatically, for the last decade.

The simple truth is this: Incumbents raise money for years and challengers don't raise until the year of the election. Narrowing the fundraising window limits the extended advantage incumbents have to collect cash and has little impact on challengers.
Posted by Dominic Holden on June 13, 2012 at 12:34 PM · Report this
heavyhebrew 6
Fucking bureaucrats.

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."

The pathetically sad part of it all is we put up with it.

Posted by heavyhebrew on June 13, 2012 at 5:22 PM · Report this
7
I like the proposed changes. Alas, they'll just funnel that money into a Super PAC, Citizen United-style.
Posted by therearenonamesavailable! on June 13, 2012 at 7:10 PM · Report this
8
Term limits would be another useful tool.
Posted by Kate Martin on June 14, 2012 at 7:37 AM · Report this
9
They do not get parking privileges. That was done away with in 1999. (Look through Stranger archives) And hey have always had to pay the meter like everyone else.
Posted by Historian on June 14, 2012 at 8:25 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 10
How about an across the board maximum on how much can be spent for a campaign?

Smaller amounts for local races, larger amounts for national races. Enough so that candidates can stil get their message out, but can not drown financially poorer opponents out of the discussion.

Also, add more debates so that the candidates will have an equal forum to discuss ideas/slam each other. This way, everyone gets a voice, and it does not favor candidates or cost them anything.

Or course, this would require a lot of transparency, but I think we desperately need this anyway.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on June 14, 2012 at 8:26 AM · Report this
DOUG. 11
It doesn't help that our electorate is not very bright. A well-funded tree stump could win a Seattle City Council seat. Jean Godden's reelection is proof of that.
Posted by DOUG. http://www.dougsvotersguide.com on June 14, 2012 at 8:31 AM · Report this
Baconcat 12
Let's run an initiative!
Posted by Baconcat on June 14, 2012 at 8:38 AM · Report this
13
This is truly great political reportage, Dom, of the first order!

We need to see a lot more of this stuff in the national media.
Posted by sgt_doom on June 15, 2012 at 11:32 AM · Report this
funnylittlemunki 14
@#1 - you have my vote on that! :-)
Posted by funnylittlemunki on June 15, 2012 at 1:41 PM · Report this
Buckywunder 15
The two biggest reforms not mentioned in the article are voter owned/publicly-funded elections and instant runoff voting.

Put ALL of the candidates into a single pot and let the voters pick the best four or five (or whatever number) every two years. There's no reason why candidates should have to square off against each other if they aren't representing district boundaries.

If the offices are city-wide, we should pick the best candidates regardless of who they are running against.
Posted by Buckywunder on June 16, 2012 at 1:28 PM · Report this
Buckywunder 16
The two biggest reforms not mentioned in the article are voter owned/publicly-funded elections and instant runoff voting.

Put ALL of the candidates into a single pot and let the voters pick the best four or five (or whatever number) every two years. There's no reason why candidates should have to square off against each other if they aren't representing district boundaries.

If the offices are city-wide, we should pick the best candidates regardless of who they are running against.
Posted by Buckywunder on June 16, 2012 at 1:36 PM · Report this
17
I think District election couple with some campaign contribution laws may end this unfair monoply of power by those who can raise money from the specail interest.
Posted by Yusuf Cabdi on June 18, 2012 at 5:52 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 18
My question for Peter is simply this: Are you going to run for Mayor of Seattle in 2012? Are you Mr. Steinbrueck?
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on June 18, 2012 at 6:38 AM · Report this
19
A well-funded tree stump could win a Seattle City Council seat. Jean Godden's reelection is proof of that.

Bobby Forch wasn't exactly a gift to this city's I.Q. either.
Posted by Mister G on June 18, 2012 at 5:11 PM · Report this
20
How about an initiative to cut city council's pay to the city's average median household income? That would be about $70,000. Ought to be plenty to live on.
Posted by Mister G on June 18, 2012 at 5:13 PM · Report this
21
@1 & @14: I second it!!
Posted by auntie grizelda on June 19, 2012 at 1:33 AM · Report this
22
1. no donations by anyone with pending permit application, zoning changes or arena deals with city. That's just corrupt.

2. all fundraisers must disclose the phone numbers and names of persons they call for donations. Those they ask. Those they are pandering to, not just those they get monry from.

3. all public employees must disclose the hours they spent on fundraising calls and meetings. we should not be paying them for this work.

4. for each donation above $200, the fund raiser must fill out a form indicating what topics were discussed in the fundraising call. "Oh yes, Mr. Hansen, I certainly will give every consideration to your interesting areana proposal"

5. maybve just decide money isn't speech, and ban all donations, period? seriously most people have the internet and communication is easy now.

Posted by money=corruption not speech on June 19, 2012 at 9:35 AM · Report this
23
Great report! Thank you.
Posted by Oscar M http://oscarmcnary.wordpress.com/ on June 22, 2012 at 4:10 PM · Report this

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