If you’re walking around Capitol Hill right now you may come across a new Egan Orion campaign poster advertising a bold “NO CORPORATE PAC MONEY” claim. The strategy being the poster is obvious. What Seattle voter doesn’t like a big, ambiguous “no corporate” vow? It’s even colored in Sonics green and yellow.
The only problem is that Seattle's most prominent corporate political action committee is spending more to elect Orion than any other candidate running in this year’s council elections. While Orion’s personal campaign hasn’t accepted any donations from businesses or PACs, the Amazon-backed Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) PAC has spent almost $123,000 supporting Orion's candidacy this year and another $11,692 fighting against Orion’s opponents, according to campaign finance records.
When I asked Orion how he could square this ad with the massive amount of help his campaign has gotten from corporate donors, he quickly doubled down on the argument that his campaign hasn’t directly taken corporate cash, therefore he isn’t deceiving anyone.
“I stand by the ad,” Orion said by phone. “The intention was not to be deceptive.”
The ad is factually accurate and, at the same time, completely misleading—a superb illustration of our new post-Citizens United world of confusing, unaccountable politics.
PACs are now free to raise as much money as they want and spend it however they want, while candidates like Orion are able to benefit from that spending without having to answer for it. Orion isn't responsible for how CASE gets its money (which includes $250,000 from Amazon), even when over $100,000 of CASE money gets spent on his campaign.
And District 2 candidate Mark Solomon doesn't need to answer for PAC ads that misappropriate Police Chief Carmen Best, even though Solomon is a Seattle Police Department employee, because those ads are being run by an independent committee.
Seattle's groundbreaking Democracy Voucher program is unfortunately not able to solve this accountability problem when it comes to independent expenditure PACs. In fact, it may even be making it worse. Democracy Vouchers have infused over a million dollars into City Council campaigns this year, often going to anti-establishment and grassroots candidates. That lifts those voices up, but the program may also be creating an incentive for the Tim Burgesses and the Chamber of Commerce's of the world to spend even more unaccountable money on elections through no-limit PACs in an effort to drown out those less-established voices.
Orion, who is himself enrolled in the Democracy Voucher program, said the 'NO CORPORATE PAC MONEY' ad is part of a series of ads designed to “display the values of the campaign” because he feels that CASE, the $1.1-million slush fund created by the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, is distracting from his personal values.
“There’s been a lot of attacks on me as the [chamber] candidate, for me being a shill for big business when my biography and my work for the community speaks otherwise,” Orion said. “So, we did a series of posters that speak to my values.”
Orion has taken a very, let’s say, fluid approach to his campaign’s values.
When The Stranger asked him back in May whether he was seeking the support of CASE, he told us in unequivocal terms that he is “not seeking nor will we accept an endorsement from CASE.” Then the CASE endorsements came out in June and, lo and behold, Orion’s name was on the list. Suddenly he was anointed in all the gold that big money from Amazon and other Seattle-based corporations can buy.
Orion told us at the time, and he reiterated to me over the phone yesterday, that he changed his mind because he has a long history of working with the business community. Orion added that he needs the support of CASE to compete with District 3 incumbent Council Member Kshama Sawant’s fundraising abilities; Sawant has been able to tap into her national socialist fundraising network to raise over $270,000—with 47 percent of those donations coming from outside of Seattle.
“When I originally said that I was not going to take the endorsement of the chamber I got push back form my friends and allies in the business community, reminding me that was not reflective of the way that I have worked in the community or the values that I had espoused when I first stared this campaign, so I reconsidered,” Orion said. “I am someone who will always take in constructive feedback and make a change.”
I asked Orion if he would change the poster, considering the average voter walking by the poster almost certainly doesn’t realize that Orion is benefitting from spending by this city’s biggest corporate PAC. He agreed that CASE’s spending was in fact a large number, and that he would think about changing the size of the text.
“Yes, [CASE’s corporate PAC spending] is a considerable number,” Orion said, “and maybe in reviewing the poster we shift the small type and the large type with each other.”
The “small type” on the poster includes a line that says “90% of contributions from Seattle residents.”
Those Seattle donors have given $81,449 to Orion's campaign so far, or roughly $41,000 less than corporate PACs have spent thus far supporting Orion.