Spending by so-called independent expenditure groups on Seattle City Council races is the highest in recorded history.

Seattle politics have never been this nuts. On November 3, we're going to be voting for all nine Seattle City Council members at once, and we're doing it in a brand-new districted system. Four of those nine seats have no incumbent running, leading to hotly competitive races that could have real influence on which direction the council heads come January. Incumbents Kshama Sawant and Tim Burgess—representing opposite ends of the council's current political spectrum, with Sawant on the far left—are both in ugly fights for reelection. And, of course, that's all happening against a backdrop of an increasingly expensive and growing city.

With such high stakes, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that this election is breaking records for how much special-interest cash it's attracting. But the amount is still notable, and it's worth exploring for what it shows about the role of big money in Seattle politics.

On top of the usual rich donors giving directly to candidates, business and labor interests are—as usual—funding political action committees that they can then use to advertise on behalf of their chosen candidates. Which is how we get to a phrase you've probably heard at least once this election cycle: independent expenditures.

Like political action committees, or PACs, independent expenditure (IE) committees gather up money from a bunch of donors and then spend that collected money on promoting certain candidates. By law, IE groups can't donate directly to campaigns or coordinate with them in any way. But they can have major influence on who gets elected. That's because—thanks to Citizens United and other court cases—there are no limits on how much a person or corporation can give to an independent expenditure committee.

So, for example, while developer John Goodman can give only $700 to Council President Tim Burgess directly, he can give as much as he wants to a political action committee that's not affiliated with Burgess's campaign but wants to pay for pro-Burgess advertising. (Goodman has done both of these things. More on that in a second.)

Increased IE spending began to show up ahead of the August primary election and is ramping up as we approach the November 3 election. (Get your ballot in the mail, people!) About $490,800 has been spent by IE groups on council races in both the primary and general election with almost $200,000 that's been raised but not yet spent. That's the highest level of IE spending on council races since the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission started separating out independent expenditures in its annual reports in 1999—by a lot. (All of the figures in this story come from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the state Public Disclosure Commission, unless otherwise noted.)

Before this election, the year with the highest IE spending on record was 2009, with four council races on the ballot and a total of about $134,500 spent on council IE groups. That means this year's total IE spending is likely to be around five times as high as the previous record. True, there are almost twice as many candidates this year as in 2009. But it's not the case that IE spending always rises with the number of candidates in play; in 2011, the five citywide council races on the ballot attracted no IE spending at all. And this year, a single IE committee supporting Burgess has, on its own, raised more than the total spent on multiple races in previous years.

Still, if you're thinking, "Doesn't this increased spending make sense for a year in which all nine council seats are on the same ballot?"—you do have a good point. You should remember, though, that the bulk of the money spent during the primary election was focused on just three races: West Seattle's District 1, Northeast Seattle's District 4, and North Seattle's District 5. Districts 1 and 4 saw big business spending for county council aide Shannon Braddock and transit advocate Rob Johnson. In District 5, Native American tribes supported attorney Debora Juarez, and a national Realtors group spent on long-shot Kris Lethin, who lost in the primary.

Heading toward the general, IE spending is looking sleepier so far in Districts 4 and 5. Instead, it's showing up in citywide Position 8, where Burgess is running, and looks likely to appear in the closely watched District 3 race, where Sawant is running to represent Capitol Hill and the Central District.

Part of the pitch for switching from citywide council elections to districts was that having fewer voters for each candidate to reach meant a new type of candidate—someone without wealthy connections—could get elected. But if these deep-pocketed IE groups get their way, Seattle could end up with a city council that's not so different from the current one after all.

Political insiders have different interpretations of what this all means, based on where they sit. Christian Sinderman, a consultant who's working with the more centrist candidates benefitting from most of the IE spending, says he sees the spending as the result of so many seats being up at once, including multiple seats without incumbents. Sinderman expects IE spending to diminish once candidates "settle in" to their new districted roles. Sitting opposite Sinderman is consultant John Wyble, who works for some of the scrappy challengers to Sinderman's candidates and sees big spending as the result of Seattle moving leftward.

"It is simply going to cost more for developers and downtown interests to have the sway they used to have with the city councils of the past," Wyble says. "I don't think it's any different, frankly, than when a harvest goes bad and the price goes up in the grocery store. The climate is not good for business as usual, so the price is going up."

As we approach the general election, here are the IE groups you're most likely to be hearing from, and where they're getting their money.

First, let's look at one IE group supporting Tim Burgess in his citywide race (Position 8) and another supporting Shannon Braddock in District 1 (West Seattle, South Park). Those are the two richest IE efforts around right now, and they're getting their funding from some of the biggest spenders in this year's council races.

UNITED FOR TIM

Raised: $218,000

Spent: $108,900 on TV ads

Where most of that money comes from: Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the Washington Restaurant Association, and the commercial real-estate lobbying group NAIOP

NEIGHBORS FOR SHANNON

Raised: $130,500

Spent: $59,700 on TV ads

Where most of that money comes from: CASE, the Hospitality PAC, and NAIOP

Now, what the hell is Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy? That's the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and it is an incredibly powerful player in these IE groups. But just looking at that name makes it difficult for most voters to tell where that money is actually coming from.

CASE's top donors read like an enemies list for housing activist—and Tim Burgess challenger—Jon Grant: Vulcan (which has given $40,000), Amazon ($25,000), the developer R.C. Hedreen Company ($20,000), the Washington Association of Realtors ($20,000), the Rental Housing Association ($40,000), the Washington Retail Association ($30,500), Boeing ($10,000) and Goodman Real Estate executives John Goodman and George Petrie ($5,000 each). Other donors of note: Lyft, which is currently opposing a city proposal to allow app-based drivers to unionize, has kicked in $5,000. Alaska Airlines, which fought against raising the minimum wage at Sea-Tac Airport, has donated $10,000.

All told, CASE has brought in almost half a million dollars this year and spent the bulk of that on IE groups for Burgess, Braddock, and Rob Johnson.

What about NAIOP? That's a commercial real estate lobbying group, whose largest donor is Vulcan. The group also gets money from Goodman Real Estate, Tukwila-based data center company Sabey Corporation, and other smaller-scale real estate interests.

The Washington Restaurant Association is a well-known entity in local politics, most recently for its opposition to the city's minimum wage increase. It's funded by a long list of WRA members, including Seattle's Ivar's and Tom Douglas Restaurants. The Hospitality PAC helping to fund the Braddock IE group gets money from the WRA, restaurants, the Washington Lodging Association, and Visit Seattle.

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The Seattle Fire Fighters PAC has also donated, at smaller levels, to both United for Tim and Neighbors for Shannon, and SEIU 775 has kicked in $7,500 to United for Tim.

On the other side of the political spectrum, an IE committee organized by local unions is supporting lefty candidates at a smaller scale.

PROGRESSIVE SEATTLE PAC

Raised: $37,000

Spent: $21,200 on mailers supporting Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold

This group is funded entirely by unions from Seattle, Renton, Tukwila, and Kent, with Service Employees International Union 775 and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 as the top funders. Two other SEIU locals, the Teamsters Local 117, and an electrical workers union have also contributed amounts between $1,000 and $5,000.

And here are a couple IE committees you should know about even though they haven't reported any spending yet.

NEIGHBORS FOR BANKS

Raised: Nothing as of press time

Spent: Nothing as of press time

Why it matters: This IE group is the first one expected to focus specifically on the District 3 race, where Sawant and Urban League president Pamela Banks are running to represent Capitol Hill and the Central District.

Considering Sawant's icy relationship with business, and her calls for "unplugging Comcast" and making developers pay higher fees to fund affordable housing, plenty of people are expecting big money to flow into getting her off the council. As of press time, we don't know much about where that money might come from or how it will be spent, but it's not unheard of to see huge spending show up at the last minute in a race like this.

What we do know is that the two people who created the committee have ties to Republicans. The treasurer of the committee, Tom Perry, also worked as treasurer for a PAC funded by the King County Corrections Guild and is currently treasurer for Republican Chris Vance, who's challenging Senator Patty Murray in 2016. Perry is using a Puyallup PO box for the committee. The other guy who started the committee, Bob Ratliffe, is an executive at a downtown investment firm who has donated in the past to Republicans like Rob McKenna, John McCain, and Bill Bryant; contributed to the campaign against a statewide income tax initiative in 2010; and this year donated to Banks. Ratliffe is also the board chair at Seattle University, where Sawant has stood with adjuncts who are fighting with the administration to unionize. The irony of Pamela Banks—who has argued for endorsements from Democrats in town because she is a Democrat, not a socialist—getting support from donors with connections to Republicans in the state is not lost on Sawant supporters.

There's no indication about whether this will be an anti-Sawant campaign or just a pro-Banks effort, but Sawant's side is clearly bracing for negativity. The campaign put out "an urgent call to action" asking for donations over the weekend, saying "a Republican Party linked PAC explicitly targeting Kshama Sawant has been created!"

SEATTLE NEEDS ETHICAL LEADERS

Raised: $250 in-kind for compliance work

Spent: Nothing as of press time

Why it matters: Formed on October 6 with promises to run ads attacking Tim Burgess's challenger, Jon Grant.

Since this particular IE committee was created, the group was caught up in an embarrassing scandal. Earlier this month, a developer offered Jon Grant help making this IE group "go away" if Grant would help kill a lawsuit against the developer involving a building across the street from City Hall. A consultant behind the group told The Stranger when the committee formed that he planned to raise $200,000 against Grant, largely from business and veterans groups. It's unclear if that was ever really going to happen. What is clear is that Burgess supporters now look pretty all-in on "United for Tim" and not "Seattle Needs Ethical Leaders."

CITIZENS ALLIANCE FOR LIMITED GROWTH

Raised: $4,900

Spent: $4,600 on mailers, apparently supporting Michael Maddux in District 4 in Northeast Seattle, including the University District and Eastlake

Why it matters: Offers a window onto what happens when IE groups do something a candidate doesn't think is helpful.

This is a tiny IE group, relatively speaking, but it highlights the occasional trouble they can cause for candidates they purport to be helping. This group, funded mostly by the Seattle Displacement Coalition, has created mailers in support of Maddux claiming that he will, among other things, help stop upzones in Northeast Seattle. But Maddux considers himself an urbanist ready to welcome growth to the city while also focusing on housing affordability. When Publicola reported on these mailers, Maddux told the site, "I... demand that no further IE money is spent on my behalf, and that my campaign be allowed to control our message."

Unfortunately for Maddux—and everyone else who's affected by IE spending—you can "demand" all you want from an IE group, but in the end, the only thing it's accountable to is the people stuffing it with money. In this game, it's what they want that matters. recommended