With a little more than a week left before voting ends in the 2023 general elections, big business and labor are pumping money into campaigns to buy influence in City Hall for the next four years. Right now, our corporate overlords lead the money race by a mile. 

As of Oct 25, union Independent Expenditure (IE) committees have only raised about $280,000 for their 2023 candidates. That’s a far cry from 2019, when labor raised almost $900,000 and secured an impressive six of seven council seats with the help of the backlash to Amazon’s and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s naked attempt to buy the council.

They’ve apparently learned from that 2019 PR blunder. The Chamber swore off fundraising when the new CEO took over in 2020, but now the same rich donors who previously dumped their cash into the Chamber’s IE have spread almost $1 million across six IEs branded as “[Insert Seattle region here] Neighbors,” attempting to put a friendly face on Trumpers, real estate tycoons, giant corporations, and wealth-hoarding billionaires. Labor even added its worker money to the corporate pile in a couple races. 

John Goodman Is Not Your Neighbor

The City of Seattle limits how much an individual can donate directly to a campaign. But IE committees can spend money promoting their chosen candidates without limits. Candidates and campaigns legally cannot coordinate with IEs, but the kind of IE money a candidate attracts can help shed light on who that candidate best represents. 

Big business seems the most hungry to elect big tech lawyer Rob Saka in District 1 and City insider Maritza Rivera in District 4. Real estate moguls, CEOs, and other monied interests have also shelled out big time for Tanya Woo in District 2, Cathy Moore in District 5, and Bob Kettle in District 7. 

Two IEs with nearly identical donor lists started fundraising for Saka and Rivera in the summer. By the end of July, the twin IEs raised a combined $150,000, making their champions the only two candidates in the City to benefit from substantial outside money ahead of the primary. These “neighbors”-branded donors have ramped up contributions by almost 500% since the primary narrowed the races down to the top two. 

Despite its name, normal, working-class neighbors did not pool their money to pay for Elliott Bay Neighbors, an IE supporting Saka. Rather, corporate landlords, notorious Trump donors, and the same interests that bought the last three Mayors raised $285,000 for Saka. And it's not like Saka shares a cul-de-sac with MAGA billionaire developer Martin Selig and the CEO of HomeStreet bank—about a quarter of contributions to Elliott Bay Neighbors come from outside of Seattle.

According to filings with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), the IE has spent more than $200,000. That amount includes almost $70,000 on mail and digital ads supporting Saka, $30,000 of which counted as negative campaigning against his more left-leaning competition, tech worker Maren Costa. 

Meanwhile, University Neighbors raised $285,000 for Rivera from the same big banks, real estate moguls, and MAGA diehards that donated to Saka’s IE—not the people you ask to water your plants when you go on a weekend trip. 

What Biz Money Does to a MF

After the primary, the usual suspects—the Runstads, George Petrie, John Goodman, people who you would so see at the block potluck—started spending money on Moore in D5. As of Oct 25, Moore’s IE, Greenwood Neighbors, has raised more than $185,000 in corporate money. So far, Greenwood Neighbors has only paid for negative campaigning: $30,000 on a mailer that misgenders her competition, ChrisTiana ObeySumner, and paints them as an extremist. 

In her endorsement meeting with The Stranger, Moore said that she would not engage in negative campaigning and would denounce any PAC that did it on her behalf. She vaguely commented on IEs on her campaign Facebook page shortly after the mailer came out, but she did not denounce Greenwood Neighbors for smearing ObeySumner. I asked her for comment and will update if I hear back. 

More or less the same donors started paying into Kettle’s IE, Downtown Neighbors, in September. As of Oct 25, that IE has raised almost $135,000. The IE spent about $30,000, and of that $12,000 paid for a negative TV ad attacking council incumbent Andrew Lewis for his original vote against the City’s bill to re-criminalize simple possession and create a new crime of public drug use. 

Kettle caught flack from the King County Democrats, who said the ad “employs dangerous and misleading tactics, exploits the plight of our unhoused neighbors, and is an absolute rejection of our democratic values.”

But Wait, There’s More!

Seattle Neighbors Committee, which supports District 3 candidate Joy Hollingsworth, has raised more than $50,000 from some familiar big business donors, along with labor money from UFCW (grocery workers). When she first announced, politicos quickly pegged Hollingsworth as the business candidate in the race. 

While she got the Mayor’s first endorsement of the cycle, she also earned endorsements from MLK Labor and UFCW 3000, which reps grocery workers. Her labor endorsements faced scrutiny. Labor organizers, consultants, and other candidates speculated that Hollingsworth and UFCW made a trade–UFCW would support her campaign if Hollingsworth signed a neutrality agreement with her cannabis workers–but both parties deny that rumor. Similarly, a UFCW rep said that some of its members did not want to support D3 candidate Alex Hudson because she hired Sandeep Kaushik, a consultant who lobbied for Lyft against workers. 

The Ballard Neighbors IE, which may support either council incumbent Dan Strauss or his marginally more conservative challenger, Pete Hanning, has not raised any money. However, the “neighbors” branding suggests the same corporate interests backing Saka, Rivera, Moore, and Kettle could pay into Ballard Neighbors at some point. 

A few of the recurring “neighbors” donors already chipped in for Coalition for a Stronger Seattle, an IE that has raised a modest $47,000 for Strauss. This marks a shift from his 2019 election, when labor spent more than $150,000 to get him elected over business-backed candidate Heidi Wills. 

While the donor list for Friends of SE Seattle doesn’t match the “neighbors” donor list as closely as the other “neighbors” IEs do, similar real estate and corporate interests have dumped more than $100,000 into it. The IE paid $22,000 for mailers opposing council incumbent Tammy Morales, meaning they support her challenger, Woo. 

Labor Taking Ls

Union fundraising chops hardly compete with big business this year. Labor insiders blame their pitiful contributions on overspending in 2021, when unions shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Lorena González’s failed mayoral campaign.

According to PDC filings, labor has raised only $185,000 across specific IEs for three candidates—Costa in D1, Alex Hudson in D3, and Lewis in D7. And UNITE HERE Local 8 (hotel workers) spent another $100,000 on their mixed-bag of a slate. 

Costa’s IE, Workers United for Seattle, has raised $91,000 mostly from UFCW, SEIU 775 (home care workers), SEIU Local 925 (higher ed and early learning workers), Electrical Workers 46 PAC, along with a $3,000 contribution from former Amazon Vice President Gianna Puerini. Workers United for Seattle spent almost $15,000 on pro-Costa mailers. 

Coalition for Progressive Change supports Hudson with about $51,000 from SEIU 775, SEIU Local 925, Teamsters Local 117, and two individual donors. Hudson, and her more density-averse competition, Hollingsworth, split labor’s support. Hollingsworth won endorsements from UFCW and UNITE Here Local 8, and Hudson won endorsements from SEIU 775, SEIU 925, and Teamsters Local 117. While both Hollingsworth and Hudson received similar nods of approval from the Downtown Seattle Association, a big biz representative, business and labor did not combine forces on Hudson’s PAC as they did with Hollingsworth’s.

Energize Washington, Lewis’s IE, has raised $41,000 from a mixed group including SEIU 775, Voter Action PAC, and Affordable Housing Council, a PAC run by the Master Builders, which usually supports more conservative candidates because they’re into sprawl. The IE paid $15,000 for mailers to support Lewis. However, Energize Washington’s contribution seems almost insignificant compared to the money labor spent to get Lewis elected in the first place. Labor, mostly UNITE HERE Local 8, spent almost $550,000 on Lewis’s 2019 campaign against Jim Pugel, backed by a few thousand dollars more from business. 

UNITE HERE Local 8 gave $16,500 in six races for a total of $100,000. The PAC skipped Lewis, who they once carried across the finish line. Neither Lewis nor UNITE HERE Local 8 responded when I asked why the union ended its once enthusiastic investments into Lewis. 

They spent money on firm labor candidates Costa, Morales, and Ron Davis in D4. But they also gave to candidates already supported by big business, such as Hollingsworth, Moore, and Strauss. 

Labor Is Not the Left 

And who's left out from both sides? ObeySumner. 

With a few exceptions, labor skips over candidates they deem too far left and instead joins forces with the bosses they ought to stand up to. 

In 2019, labor-back IEs gave socialist council member Kshama Sawant about $2,000, and they gave Democratic Socialist Shaun Scott even less. By contrast, labor IEs spent on average $220,000 on the four other candidates who only received labor money–Council Members Lisa Herbold, Morales, Strauss, and Lewis. This year, labor snubbed ObeySumner, the clear progressive in District 5, and joined up with unsavory characters in an attempt to elect a more conservative candidate, Moore. 

Politicos offered The Stranger a few theories as to why ObeySumner did not garner labor money. For one, labor's interests do not always perfectly align with the interests of the left. For example, unions of workers who build roads may oppose pro-transit candidates for fear–rational or not–that they will take money away from the projects that put food on their table. And even more progressive unions may deprioritize issues that do not clearly connect to their workers getting a better contract, making negligible the difference between a candidate who wants more cops and one who wants less.

Secondly, labor might not see a left candidate as viable. IEs could discredit ObeySumner because of their lefty agenda, or because of bias against Black people, disabled people, queer people, or formerly homeless people–all facets of ObeySumner’s identity. In 2019, consultant Riall Johnson called out progressive IEs for spending so little on Morales, Sawant, and Scott, the three candidates of color the left almost universally endorsed.

If labor does not think ObeySumner stands a chance, then IEs may spend their money to buy influence with the more likely winner, even if that candidate runs on a more conservative platform. And what do they have to lose? ObeySumner will more likely do their bidding in office because they actually share and campaign on union values. 

As a former member of SEIU 1199 (health care workers), ObeySumner feels disappointed that labor has so far declined to financially support their campaign, their consultant said. But they remain committed to serving working class interests in office.

That is, if big money doesn’t squeeze them out.