The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has an idea of what the Seattle City Council should look like. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot less progressive than the council we have now.
To achieve its dream of more Big Business-approved leadership in City Hall, the Chamber's political action committee, "Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy," is stacking up a huge pile of cash that it'll be allowed to unleash in unlimited amounts this fall (thanks, Citizens United!) to promote its preferred council candidates.
Already, CASE is sitting on $780,000, with Amazon having contributed the largest amount ($200,000), followed by Expedia ($50,000), Vulcan Incorporated ($50,000), the Washington Association of Realtors ($25,000), Alaska Airlines ($20,000), Comcast Cable ($15,000), the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association ($15,000), and Puget Sound Energy ($15,000).
According to spokesperson Alicia Teel, the Chamber wants a realigned City Council because "our current council has failed to make progress on important issues like transportation, homelessness, and public safety—and voters want to see a change." (Not mentioned by Teel: the thing that seems to have most infuriated Big Business, last year's proposal for a head tax to fund—gasp—homelessness services.)
Anyway, we know what the Chamber says its powerful PAC wants. But what do the PAC's donors themselves say they expect to gain in exchange for writing all these big checks?
We asked them, and found some interesting political opinions — plus a lot of rich silence.
Although Teel claims CASE's goal is to elect politicians who are "transparent, accountable, and represent their districts," most of CASE's largest contributors seem less than eager to demonstrate transparency and accountability.
Of the 23 companies and individuals who've contributed $1,000 or more to CASE, most failed to respond to our requests for comment on their political agendas. And the Chamber, when pressed for direct contact information for CASE's largest donors, also failed to respond.
Still, we did learn some interesting things by reaching out on our own to major CASE funders.
Amazon, the PAC's biggest donor by far, said its aim is mainly to encourage pragmatism in local politics.
“We’ve consistently supported organizations and initiatives connected to issues, such as transportation, housing, and education, that affect our business and our employees in Seattle and the region,” said Aaron Toso, an Amazon spokesperson. “We work with CASE and the broader community to help ensure that Seattle is focused on pragmatic solutions to our most challenging issues and the opportunities that are ahead.”
Amazon, which famously halted some of its downtown construction out of fury at last year's proposed head tax, did not respond when asked if it's planning to dump even more cash into CASE's coffers before election season is over. But with over $230 billion in annual revenue for 2018, the company certainly has the resources to write more checks.
Bill Clapp, the now-retired co-founder and CEO of the Matthew G. Norton Company, a real estate and property management firm that generates an estimated $7.1 million annual revenues, is the individual who has given CASE the most. He contributed $10,000.
“I’ve been really concerned about the quality of the city council, particularly on a fiscal basis,” Clapp said. “I don’t think they’ve been fiscally accountable, I don’t think they have the expertise or background to manage the responsibilities they’re taking on.”
For Clapp, there wasn’t one instance that soured his opinion. Instead, it was an accumulation of “almost everything they’ve managed over the last several years,” he said.
Additionally, he is shocked at how high the taxes have gotten in the city. He didn't specify which taxes he meant, however, and many of the taxes paid by city residents and businesses are set at the state level. But interestingly, Clapp was quoted by the Seattle Times in 2010 as supporting a statewide income tax that would have raised taxes on only Washington's wealthiest residents. ("This is tough times right now and it’s going to get tougher,” he told the Times. “We’ve got to step up. … You can’t ask people who are really struggling right now to do a lot.”)
Still, in Seattle in 2019, Clapp feels that the city "raised the taxes and we spent it all and that’s not good." He's especially upset by generous city spending that he sees as tied to increased revenues from property taxes and the local building boom—for example, spending on bike lanes and street cars, which he views as investments that "don't pay for themselves." He warns: "Rainy days will come."
Clapp sent in his donation to CASE last year, but he recently became concerned when Amazon sent in a donation that's 20 times larger than his own.
“My request to the CASE people was that the small businesses be represented and not the big businesses,” Clapp told The Stranger. “I think that large a donation puts a little bit of a cloud, or a bias to CASE’s work. I think it’s been the City vs. Amazon and I don’t want to lose the fact that this is really important to the city and not just Amazon. I don’t want people shying away from candidates just because Amazon’s backing them.”
(A new PAC called "People for Seattle" reared its head Wednesday and seems to be aligned with CASE’s goals but without the Big Business money. In a press release, People for Seattle said it is “is initiating a broad effort to endorse and support pragmatic"—there's that word again!—"City Council candidates committed to good government, fulfilling their oversight responsibilities, and listening to their constituents.” So far, People for Seattle has raised $120,000 from just individuals, according to a statement that former Mayor Tim Burgess, an organizer with the PAC, made to KING5.)
As for the rest of the CASE's major donors, the Washington Association of Realtors offered a statement that is clearer about its name being a registered trademark than it is about why the realtors gave $25,000 to CASE.
“Washington REALTORS® RPAC made a $25,000 donation to CASE at the request of the Seattle King County Association of REALTORS®, which is the largest local member of our statewide organization,” Russell Hokanson, the Chief Executive Officer, wrote in an email, adding some other words that shed little light on the matter.
Puget Sound Energy said it would not comment on its $15,000 donation, directing all questions back to the Chamber, which failed to answer questions about why the region's natural gas utility is so interested in flipping the Seattle City Council.
And that was it for the responses.
What does Expedia, which is vacating its Bellevue headquarters for a $229 million Interbay campus overlooking Elliot Bay, want from its $50,000 donation to CASE? Radio silence. What about Vulcan, Comcast, and Alaska Airlines? Same.
This isn’t CASE’s first time around the campaign-funding block. They contributed over $1 million during Seattle’s 2017 election. Around $669,000 of that went to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s campaign. And all of the same companies that contributed to CASE in 2019 contributed to CASE in the 2017, too. A lot of them had multiple donations back in 2017—Amazon donated twice for a total of $350,000, Vulcan made six separate donations that totaled $114,000, and Puget Sound Energy made three donations for a total of $18,000.
As for who CASE is going try to install on the council, Teel said the PAC's endorsements will be announced in mid-June.
In the meantime, The Stranger has a compiled a list of council candidates who say they're down with the CASE agenda and are eager to receive the business PAC's financial help.