This post has been updated since its original publication. See below.
When King County Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles launched her reelection campaign at the Woodland Park Zoo last month, she ranked her sponsors by how much they had donated. A Koala for donations over $100, a Flamingo for $250, a Panda for $500 or more, and a Giraffe for donations above $1,000. There's nothing surprising about an incumbent throwing a party centered around money, but there were two unexpected names in Kohl-Welles's "Panda" tier, at least if you were paying attention to her campaign pledges.
Kohl-Welles had previously told the King County Democrats that she's refusing to take corporate Political Action Committee (PAC) donations for her reelection bid. But right there in the Panda tier were two very corporate names: PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Microsoft Corporation.
Kohl-Welles told me last week that she thought the donations came directly from the two companies, not the companies’ PACs, which in her estimation would mean she was not running afoul of her pledge.
But campaign contributions reported to the state this week show that while PEMCO’s $750 donation came directly from the company, Microsoft's $500 donation came from the company's PAC.
When I followed up with Kohl-Welles today, she said that she's going to return Microsoft's PAC money.
"I will be consistent as to what I said before and return that donation," Kohl-Welles said.
The King County Democrats' questionnaire does specify corporate PACs in their question, asking candidates if they will be “accepting contributions from corporate PACs, such as, but not limited to, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, or health insurance companies.”
Kohl-Welles clearly indicated on the questionnaire that she would not be taking those types of donations.
While her decision to return the Microsoft PAC's donation resolves one problem—having broken a campaign pledge—it also raises a question: Is there actually any meaningful difference between a corporation like Microsoft donating through a PAC versus donating directly from the company itself?
Opponents of corporate influence on politics don't see a huge distinction, and neither does Kohl-Welles. She seems to be turning down corporate PAC money mostly because of the KC Dems' questionnaire.
"PACs in themselves are not evil, and I’m not convinced a Microsoft PAC is really anything different than Microsoft as a business," Kohl-Welles said. "I’m not sure of all the distinctions [between PAC donations and corporate donations], but I did say I wouldn’t accept corporate PACs, so I will stand by that."
State law doesn't make a big distinction between corporate donations and corporate PAC donations, either.
PACs are required to file disclosure reports with the state's Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), whereas corporations do not need to file reports with the commission. But there is no distinction in terms of donation limits, according to Kim Bradford, a spokesperson for the PDC.
"For the candidate, the contribution is the same when you’re talking about contribution limits," Bradford said.
The Democratic party doesn’t publish their questionnaires, but a copy of Kohl-Welles’ questionnaire was sent to The Stranger by the campaign of Abigail Doerr, Kohl-Welles' opponent this year.
A spokesperson for the Democratic Party who did not want their name used in this story confirmed the questionnaire was an authentic copy. The local party endorsed both Kohl-Welles and Doerr. The party official said it would be up to the party's executive committee to decide whether they want re-think their endorsement of Kohl-Welles in light of the PAC contribution issue.
Kohl-Welles explained that she doesn't think of PEMCO or Microsoft as corporate PACs because of their involvement in the local community.
“I viewed this as, I was getting contributions from local businesses. Certainly Microsoft is a corporation, PEMCO is local, and I’ve always been impressed by the work they did,” Kohl-Welles said.
PEMCO is an insurance company that operates only in Washington and Oregon. Microsoft is the 16th largest company in the world, according to Forbes, and has its headquarters in King County.
The majority of Kohl-Welles's donations this year have come from individuals, who have contributed $55,058 to her campaign with an average donation of about $151.
She’s raised $6,849 from non-individual sources, including $1,000 from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe; $1,000 from the Washington Association of Realtors; $519 from the Public Safety Employees Union; $500 from the HNTB Holdings LTD PAC; and $200 from the K&L Gates Continuing PAC.
Kohl-Welles said the HNTB Holdings and K&L Gates donations did not qualify as corporate PACs because HNTB, a construction consulting firm, is employee owned, and K&L Gates, a global law firm, is not a corporation. (“K&L Gates are a law firm," Kohl-Welles said. "I would not call that a corporate PAC.")
Kohl-Welles also pointed out that she hasn't hidden anything—the donations were reported to the state, and her campaign announcement flier listing the PEMCO and Microsoft donations was posted to Facebook. She added that her record on the council and the state legislature proves she hasn't been fighting for corporate interests.
“I’ve always been very open and I don’t think anyone can tie any of my lengthy voting record to corporate money,” Kohl-Welles said.
UPDATE July 8, 2018: After publication of this post, Kohl-Welles reached out to The Stranger and said that upon further investigation, she'd discovered that her campaign staff had incorrectly categorized the $500 contribution as a Microsoft PAC donation when it had, in fact, been a donation directly from the Microsoft Corporation. Because the donation was from the company, Kohl-Welles is now accepting the donation.
“I am therefore accepting the contribution from Microsoft, not from its PAC,” Kohl-Welles said in an e-mail. “Which is entirely consistent with my statement on the King County Democrats’ endorsement questionnaire and with my position of accepting the support of local businesses and entities that are good regional community members.”
A spokesperson for Microsoft who declined to give his name confirmed that the donation was from the Microsoft Corporation, not a PAC created by Microsoft.
The headline of this post has been updated to reflect the additional information provided by Kohl-Welles and Microsoft.