A report issued today by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission examines the cash flow behind the city council election of 2011, swept by incumbents who out-raised their closest challengers by at least double and by as much as 250-1. The commission found an uptick in the average size of contributions, despite the recession, and that the 20 top donors all united behind the five winning incumbents. In fact, 12 of the top 20 donors gave exclusively to incumbent reelections with the maximum $700 allowed by law.
You can check out the whole report RIGHT HERE to draw your own conclusions. These are the trends that stood out for me:
First, the average size of contributions reached a record high ($223) while the number of small donations has hit an all-time low (32 percent of all contributions). That trend is partly explained by inflation—average contribution sizes naturally rise with the dollar—but this trend may be particularly sharp. As the commission explains: "In 2001 roughly two-thirds of contributions came from people who contributed less than $100. Ten years later, just one third of the contributions came from people who contributed less than $100." In that same timespan, donations between $100 and $599 have nearly doubled.
Second, the common denominator among the election's winners—aside from outspending competitors and the fact that they were all incumbents, which lends an advantage—was the support of the largest donors.
Most of the top 20 donors last year gave all their contributions to incumbents. Each of these companies, unions, or individuals gave the maximum $700 to only incumbents and nothing to challengers: Amalgamated Transit Union; Robert B. Burkheimer of Burkheimer Mgmt. Co. Real Estate Investment; Cleanscapes Inc; Consumer Fireworks; Safety Assn PAC; Intl Fed. of Prof. & Tech Engineers Local 17 PAC ; Muckleshoot Indian Tribe; David Sabey of the Sabey Corporation; SEIU Healthcare 775 NW; The Seattle Mariners; UA Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 32; Vulcan, Inc; and WA Association of Realtors PAC.
The remaining eight top donors gave the maximum or near the maximum to all five incumbents, while giving money to only one or two challengers, and typically less than they gave incumbents: Matt Griffin of Pine Street Group; Pacific NW Regional Council of Carpenters; James Mueller; NUCOR PAC of WA; HOD Carriers and General Laborers Union Local 242; Builders United in Legislative Development BUILD; John C. Blackman; and Paul Brainerd. There are variations, of course, so see the report for details.
As you would expect, many of these funders have an agenda before the council. For example, Matt Griffin leads the company managing Pacific Place and he has been upset when the council raised parking rates in the Pacific Place parking garage. Cleanscapes has a garbage-collection contract with the city. Many of the others have development and real estate agendas that ultimately need council approval, or they stand to benefit from construction projects (deep-bore tunnel) or new labor regulations (paid sick leave) that provide union revenue.
Naturally, they want to maintain a council majority that has served them well. All the incumbents have proven malleable to most of their lobbying interests (Burgess pushing a panhandling measures for downtown lobbies, Rasmussen leading the charge on an expensive-yet-inefficient tunnel that creates construction jobs, Clark at the forefront of allowing taller buildings in "contract rezones," Harrell and Godden following the pack—to name only a few recent examples).
I hear what you may be thinking: Perhaps they gave to incumbents because the challengers last year were lackluster (and some seemed kinda nuts, to be honest).
But as we've mentioned before, the donors aren't just giving their candidates enough money to win. Tom Rasmussen didn't need $312,130 to beat a challenger with $1,236. The donors are contributing so much money that serious challengers can't afford to run against incumbents in the first place. By deterring challengers who can't raise this sort of cash, incumbents have plenty left over. They can then shuffle leftover cash from one election year to another, ensuring a war chest that scares off viable candidates in the next cycle.
To wit: "Two candidates began the 2011 election cycle with significant funds on hand left over from their 2007 campaigns, and four of the five Councilmembers elected in 2011 had in excess of $60,000 left unspent and unobligated after Election Day," the commission reports. This table shows the leftover cash that incumbents have on hand going into the next election cycle (perpetuating their advantage):
Rasmussen already has a $144,025 advantage when he runs again—once again giving him the upper hand and his council lobbies a reliable freeway-friendly vote whenever they need it.
If these council members are continually willing to be proxies for their largest donors, and largest donors are willing to continually stuff the council members election bank accounts, these incumbents aren't just unbeatable, they're so rich they're unchallengeable.
And that's consistent comfort for lobbies who do business in front of the council.