Every election year, Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission tallies up all the money spent trying to get people elected in this town and puts together a report about it. Their newest report, covering the 2015 elections, includes this mind-blowing graph:
"Independent expenditures" refers to spending (usually on advertising) that is organized by outsiders to help elect or defeat candidates without involvement from the candidates themselves. There are no limits on this type of spending. I reported in October about how independent expenditures were on the rise.
Final numbers show about $784,000 in independent expenditure spending across nine council races, dramatically higher than any council election before. Most of that money came from business interests like the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Restaurant Association in support of candidates Tim Burgess, Rob Johnson, and Shannon Braddock. All that cash helped those groups buy two of those three races, though Braddock was defeated by Lisa Herbold to represent District 1, covering West Seattle.
Unlike independent expenditures, there are strict limits on donations from interest groups directly to candidate campaigns, which means those numbers are much lower. Seattle law limits direct gifts to $700 per candidate. Unions were the top spenders in 2015, with SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW as the single biggest donor. That organization gave $8,900. Vulcan and the Seattle Police Officers Guild each spent $6,300. The limits that keep those numbers so low are part of what make independent expenditures so enticing for special interests.
As I wrote before the election:
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."