You may be unfamiliar with the name Matt Griffin, but most local politicians all but have Griffin's name tattooed over their hearts. The managing partner of Pine Street Group LLC, which is behind developments such as the twin towers recently completed on Sixth and Lenora, Griffin has donated to virtually every major political campaign in Seattle for the last five years. In 2009 and 2011, he was the top contributor to Seattle City Council races. He also supported a number of issue-driven campaigns, including the pro-tunnel campaign in 2011, in addition to donating to campaigns that levied property taxes for a new downtown seawall, parks, and schools. And this election cycle, Griffin is once again on track to be among the city's most generous donors—he's already given the maximum $700 allowed to City Attorney Pete Holmes (who is running unopposed), Council Members Richard Conlin, Sally Bagshaw, and Mike O'Brien, and mayoral candidates Ed Murray and Tim Burgess.
But Griffin's name is noticeably absent from one campaign contribution list this year: Fair Elections Seattle.
If approved by voters this fall, that group's ballot measure would create a public campaign financing system in Seattle. Proponents of the plan, including some city council members who placed it on the ballot, say it would increase the number and quality of candidates running for office, as well as encourage voter turnout.
But for the city's top 20 campaign donors identified by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which include Griffin, public financing could diminish their outsize influence over city politics. Outsider candidates could run without appealing to big contributors, and well-heeled donors could cease to make or break elections. Why don't they support public financing?
"I don't know if it would make much of a difference," Griffin says. "I hate to see the city take on more financial costs when we need so many other things fixed—like streets and more money for police."
Griffin is not alone in withholding his support. "We are not intending to get involved with that campaign," confirms Rebecca Hale, a spokeswoman for the Mariners, which the elections commission identified as one of the top 20 political donors in 2009 and 2011. (This year, Seattle's favorite baseball team has maxed out contributions to Conlin, Bagshaw, and Murray, as well as city council challenger Albert Shen.)
"The political community that normally donates to this sort of campaign isn't donating to ours," laments Jake Faleschini, campaign manager for Fair Elections Seattle. "It's taken us back a bit."
Internal polling shows that the measure does well with informed residents, Faleschini says. However, the campaign had raised only $58,000 as of August 31, according to elections commission records. The sum falls short of the $100,000 to $200,000 typically required to inform voters with mailers and other outreach. Ironically, if the campaign can't raise big private donations now, the measure could founder this fall, thereby keeping the system that now empowers Griffin and donors like him.
The need for public financing was underscored in an elections commission report last year that identified a trend in Seattle: As incumbents raised more money from the same pool of top donors, challengers simply failed to materialize. "They don't have to be particularly accomplished incumbents," former council member Peter Steinbrueck argued in testimony before the commission at the time. "They can just be really good fundraisers... They are immediately seen as the stronger candidate and unbeatable."
In 2011, winning Seattle council candidates raised an average of $275,000—that's up nearly $100,000 from 2009.
The endorsement list for public financing reads like a who's who of progressives—including six district Democratic groups, the ACLU of Washington, El Centro de la Raza, the Tenants Union of Washington State, eight out of nine current city council members (minus Sally Bagshaw), Mayor Mike McGinn, and even Hempfest.
On the other side, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has the dubious honor of being the first and only organization to oppose public campaign financing. The business group typically represents moneyed downtown interests. The chamber dismissed the measure on its blog, saying public campaign financing "would not necessarily address the concerns" raised by its proponents.
Fair Elections Seattle, or Proposition 1, as it will be listed on the ballot, would establish a system in which participating political candidates must raise at least $10 (no more than $50) from 600 Seattle residents. Those funds would then be publicly matched six-to-one, giving each candidate no more than $245,00 to spend on his or her bid for office. A property tax, penciling out to an average of $6 annually for a $400,000 home, would be levied to pay for the measure.
Large cities like New York and Los Angeles already have public campaign finance systems in place, and studies confirm that more women and people of color run for office in municipalities that institute them. And they promote greater voter turnout overall, specifically more voter participation in low-income and minority communities.
Bobby Forch, who ran a close campaign against Council Member Jean Godden in 2011, says he endorsed Fair Elections Seattle in part because calling those big donors costs candidates time that should be spent talking to regular Seattle residents. Forch says, "There's a lot of great talent that could come into the political process, if not for the fear that they can't raise enough money. That's a fact."