Forget the yard signs. Forget the candidate forums. The real campaign season begins when political interest groups start spending big money to give their own take on things. In the races for Seattle City Council, that started the first week of August, when the first $20,000 worth of independent expenditures were announced on behalf of two candidates: Jessie Israel and Sally Bagshaw.
Sometimes independent expenditures—payments made on behalf of a candidate by any group other than the campaign itself without any coordination between the two parties—are incredibly helpful. Sometimes they are conveniently dirty. And sometimes they can become a top story within the campaign itself, like when the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) relentlessly attacked Governor Chris Gregoire in last year's gubernatorial race. Because of their potential for making a strong impact, the law requires that these expenditures be reported by the end of the next business day during the three weeks immediately prior to an election.
First to the line this year is the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, whose PAC spent $10,000 on a mail piece supporting City Council Position 6 candidate Israel last week. It immediately followed that up by splitting the cost with the Seattle Police Officers Guild for a $10,000 mailer backing Position 4 candidate Bagshaw under the aegis of a group called Secure Seattle.
While Bagshaw is running in a crowded race to fill the open seat that Jan Drago is vacating to run for mayor, Israel is challenging three-term incumbent Nick Licata—an incumbent the firefighters are actively campaigning against with the mail piece. That gives Israel—who as a challenger desperately craves name recognition and institutional support—a real shot in the arm. And it raises the question: Are the firefighters doing this because they really like Jessie Israel or because they really don't like Nick Licata?
"It's mostly because we support Jessie," Seattle Fire Fighters Union president Kenny Stuart told The Stranger. "But obviously if we liked Nick more, we wouldn't be spending money on this." Stuart added that although Licata has done some good things for the firefighters, like signing on to the latest contract, the incumbent has not been "proactive" enough—a pretty vague answer, especially when Licata has plenty to defend himself with when it comes to supporting the firefighters, like helping to push for a 2003 fire levy and the new Queen Anne station.
The firefighters union and the police guild are certainly willing to be proactive in flexing their political muscle. Last year, the union spent more than $10,000 to help elect state representative Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), while the guild backed Dino Rossi and infamously forcibly removed a Democratic cameraman from a Rossi event.
Plus, the union isn't afraid to use blunt objects to achieve its means. Its consultants, Laurus Associates, are helmed by two staunch Republicans with questionable pasts. One, Mike Sheridan, is a longtime GOP staffer who served as political director for the state Republican Party during the Bush/Rossi era of 2004. The other, Bruce Boram, is a former Dave Reichert flack who resigned from Reichert's 2004 campaign after his consulting firm tried to hide the contributors who paid for a million dollar television ad that smeared Democratic attorney general candidate Deborah Senn and helped to pave the way for Rob McKenna's first statewide victory.
The kind of mercenary consultants that any Seattle candidate with a semblance of a soul would avoid are fair game for third parties, who are ultimately just looking out for their own interests. Asked about the firefighters' relationship with known political street fighters like Sheridan and Boram, union president Stuart said, "We're firefighters. We're not pro lobbyists or politicians. We went out and talked to all of the consultants in the Seattle area. And in the end, Laurus Associates fit the bill."
In other words, the fight is on.