Unlike most local politicians seeking office, Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien didn't announce his 2013 campaign for reelection at a large catered party packed with wealthy donors and union representatives. Instead, he announced his reelection bid 22 times last spring, at small events held in living rooms, coffee shops, even after-hours work spaces. And with each announcement came an unusual ask: just $10.
"I won't be accepting campaign contributions for amounts over $10 until I've raised $10,000 from 1,000 different people," O'Brien explained at the time. It took him three months to reach his goal. While O'Brien's $10 by 1,000 pledge may sound gimmicky, it could be the future of political fundraising in Seattle. The Seattle City Council is considering a system to publicly finance campaigns, a move that some argue could help balance the influence of money in local elections.
"It's been a successful program [for us]," explained Los Angeles City Ethics Commission executive director Heather Holt to a modest crowd of political nerds assembled at Seattle University on January 31. "We've seen more candidates, it's helped candidates raise issues and have a voice, and it allows the public to have a greater say in their election process."
But, of course, there's a downside. "You're telling citizens that their taxpayer money will go to support candidates that they may not prefer, or to support ideologies that they may not support," says George Allen, vice president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Allen says his business organization won't take a position on publicly financing campaigns "until there's something to vote on." However, this framing mirrors that of business groups that have killed similar measures, most recently in Portland.
"That will be one of the challenges—convincing people that it will cost a little bit of money," concedes O'Brien. "But it will make our democracy stronger for all people."
The push for publicly financed election campaigns in Seattle officially began last month, when Council Members O'Brien, Sally Clark, and Nick Licata asked the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) to update a 2008 report detailing public campaign finance options for Seattle. (Seattle was ready to adopt a campaign finance reform measure that year, but shelved it during the economic crisis.)
The 2008 report identifies two viable models for Seattle financing candidate campaigns:
• A matching model: In this scenario, city council candidates would be asked to raise $10,000 in increments of $100 or less to qualify for $30,000 from the city. After that, the city would match donor amounts up to $250 on a 3:1 basis (if the candidate had a challenger).
• A lump-sum model: In this scenario, tested last year by O'Brien, candidates who collected $10 from 1,000 registered voters would qualify for $30,000 from the city. This would be followed by an additional $110,000 lump sum once a challenger entered the race, with another cash dump coming for those who make it through the primary. (In 2011, the US Supreme Court found that Arizona's lump-sum model violated individuals' right to raise private funds; Seattle's model would need to be tweaked to ensure its constitutionality.)
Why publicly finance campaigns? Some people point to Seattle's 2011 election to illustrate the problem. During that election cycle, Seattle had fewer candidates running for office than any time since 1995, a drop in small contributions, a record high in the average size of contributions, top donors contributing almost exclusively to incumbents—and all this on top of massive $100,000 incumbent war chests scaring off challengers.
Despite their huge fundraising advantages, council members spent, on average, just $201,000 on their campaigns in 2011. By contrast, both 2008 public-financing models would cap contributions at $250,000, meaning participating candidates should have plenty of funds to launch viable campaigns.
Critics of our current system also point to our election cycle. While Mayor Mike McGinn is now facing seven heavy-hitting challengers, not one of the four council members up for reelection is being challenged, and political consultants have privately admitted that they are unlikely to take on a city council candidate who lacked six-figure fundraising prospects. City council seats are a litmus test of a well-functioning governing body. These seats are often sought by neighborhood advocates and grassroots activists who have a vision for the city but not necessarily the big name, deep pockets, or stacked résumé that higher positions demand.
The experiences of Los Angeles and San Francisco suggest that public financing doesn't diminish the inherent advantage that incumbents enjoy, but it does encourage more candidates to run for office, while promoting smaller and more local contributions. The speakers at the forum also noted that viable challengers make city elections more issue-driven, forcing incumbents to answer for unpopular decisions.
But the programs aren't without their downsides, most notably the dramatic increase in independent expenditures recorded in both cities (mostly by PACs). Independent expenditures increased in LA from $7,000 to more than $1 million in the first year following its public finance system.
Here in Seattle, we'll have to wait until early March to hear the SEEC's updated recommendations for how a public finance model would best work, and exactly what the cost would be. From there, the council will have to hash out the issue of how to foot the $3-million-plus annual price tag, most likely through a property tax levy or the city's general fund. And, of course, convince voters that it's worth the price.
"It will cost a little bit of money, but it'll make our democracy stronger for everyone," O'Brien says, adding that it would be "a small price to pay for more competitive races and broader diversity."