The Chicago-based National Association of Realtors is spending $48,000 on phone calls, mailers, and online ads to support one candidate in city council District 5—which covers way-North Seattle—according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission.
The candidate apparently worth all that money? Kris Lethin. Lethin, who is currently a realtor, is a former real estate appraiser, analyst, and FDIC employee who didn't previously look like he had much of a shot in this race.
Lethin has the endorsement of the local Seattle-King County Association of Realtors and $700 from Washington Association of Realtors. He's running against seven others for the district seat, promising to help secure full funding for a new police precinct on North 130th Street and "re-ignite neighborhood planning." But he also jumped in the race at the last second, has little name recognition, and has only raised $13,650 so far. (The $48,000 expenditure is three-and-a-half times that.) A massive mail/phone/web effort could change his fortunes in the primary.
Independent expenditures must be done separately from campaign activity, so it's not surprise Lethin said he didn't know about the cash drop. But when I talked to him yesterday, he seemed downright shocked just how much the association is spending.
"It totally floored me," he said. "It's huge. I was just, like, man, wow."
Lethin said he has basically no campaign staff or apparatus. "Even my brochure was made by a buddy and me over a weekend," he said. He described his website as "rookie." I'm almost embarrassed," he said. "The other guys have got such fancy stuff going."
Lethin said he believes his opposition to rent control and linkage fees may have helped win the realtors' support. (Linkage fees are charged on developers to help fund affordable housing. Lethin is staunchly against last year's linkage fee plan, which he calls a "tax," but is careful to say he hasn't yet reviewed or formed an opinion on the HALA committee's proposal. I've requested comment from the realtors and will update this post if I hear back.)
"As an economist—my bachelor's degree was in economics—I felt that the cost was likely to be passed through to the market," Lethin said about linkage fees. (Can everyone just call themselves economists now or what? Do we need a linkage fee on people who start sentences with "as an economist?" Cause it's happening a lot this year...)
Anyway, it's not really all that surprising Lethin is getting this backing. But he was clearly a little uneasy with the amount.
"I almost want to write them a letter to say, 'Thank you, but please don't do this again,'" he said. "It's so huge. This is supposed to be a local race... To have a big national organization come in and do what they're doing is awesome. It's just amazing. But it's completely unexpected and I don't know how it's going to turn out from the public perspective."
Later, he said again, "It could be amazing. There are other things that could really not help about it... They could be doing me a huge favor or they could be shooting me down just by the nature of a big expense by an outside group."
Another bit from the PDC records on Lethin: In 2012, he gave $100 to the effort against marriage equality in Washington State, Preserve Marriage Washington.
Lethin told me yesterday that he has "gone through a transformation in the last five years on that subject."
"I totally do support same-sex marriage," he said. "I'm embarrassed about making that contribution. If I was where I am today then I never would have done it."
Fair enough. But then Lethin, despite reiterating how much he definitely supports marriage equality, tacked on a strange addition. He said he's also worried about what kind of political effect coming out strongly in favor of marriage equality will have on him now.
"I know this community is polarized on the subject," he said. "We live in a very high immigrant community population up here. I want to be the guy who can sit in the middle to bring people together around these other issues like stormwater management... I'm worried that by taking a position on a subject that is freshly settled and still kind of raw for people... I don't want that to be a distraction from coming together."
So he simultaneously doesn't want to be seen as a bigot who opposes same-sex marriage because he doesn't. But he also doesn't want to be seen as someone who actually, enthusiastically, supports gay marriage? What? Enthusiastically supporting gay marriage is going to be a political problem now, in Seattle, in 2015?
In response, Lethin talked in a circle about why immigrants who "don't speak english" but are "very religious" and "could be offended." Then again, he concluded, maybe not.
"Maybe," he said, "I'm just in over my head."
UPDATE: We noticed this independent expenditure on the PDC's web site yesterday, but—because we're slow—Erica C. Barnett beat us to hitting publish. Here's her post.