A day after she voted to proceed with impeachment against President Donald Trump, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal turned her focus to the bitter elections Seattle is currently embroiled in. Jayapal told reporters Friday morning that she was “extremely disturbed” by Amazon’s donation of $1.5 million to a local Super PAC that is supporting seven Amazon-approved candidates.
"This most recent influx of money from Amazon is callously disrespectful to the residents of our city,” Jayapal said. “It says loud and clear that some people are afraid of letting real democracy work for the people.”
All seven of Seattle’s district council seats are up for election this year with ballots due on Tuesday. This election has seen an unprecedented amount of corporate spending, with Super PACs drawing massive donations from the business community. The Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has the most well-funded Super PAC in this year’s election, raising over $2.6 million with massive donations including $235,000 from property developer Vulcan and $1.5 million from Amazon.
Council Member Lorena González, an at-large council member who is not up for election this year, joined Jayapal on the call and said that Amazon’s spending is especially egregious because these are district elections, which cover small sections of the city.
“All they have to do is reach a very small percentage of the 150,000 people who live in each of these seven districts,” González said. “That is a tremendous amount of influence on public opinion that we should all be concerned about.”
Jayapal said corporation donations are eroding the public’s trust in fair elections.
“They believe, sometimes with very good reason, that enormous amounts of money from the wealthiest individuals and corporations are trumping, no pun intended, their interests,” Jayapal said. “And they are right.”
Amazon’s latest $1.005 million donation given to the chamber’s Civic Alliance For A Sound Economy (CASE) Super PAC earlier this month brought their total spending in this year’s municipal elections to $1.5 million. CASE has spent $2.39 million in this year’s city elections. The seven candidates Amazon and the Chamber are opposing have raised only $1.53 million combined.
Jayapal said during Friday’s call that “in a perfect world” Super PACs—which face no contribution limits as long as they do not directly coordinate with candidate campaigns—would not exist at all. Jayapal has introduced federal legislation that would limit nationwide Super PACs.
In August, González proposed a new local law that would block multinational companies like Amazon from spending in Seattle elections entirely and limit most local Super PAC donations to $5,000. González modified her legislation this month with a new provision that she says would allow some Super PAC donations to exceed $5,000, an apparent move to allow unions to continue using Super PACs to spend in city elections.
Unions are spending far less money than Amazon and other corporations are in this year’s election overall, but one district race has seen heavy spending from one nationwide union. Unite Here, a nationwide hotel workers union, has spent over $540,000 in the District 7 race supporting candidate Andrew Lewis. Jim Pugel, Lewis’s opponent, has received over $554,000 in Super PAC help, mostly from CASE and a separate Super PAC called People For Seattle, which is funded heavily by developers and corporate leaders.
The Labor Carveout
When González first proposed her legislation back in August it was clear: no one would be allowed to donate more than $5,000, per election, to a Super PAC. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jeff Bezos, the lord and master of Amazon, or Nicole Grant, the head of the MLK Labor Council. The donation limit would apply to everyone.
That now appears to have changed. González introduced an updated draft of the legislation to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) on Wednesday evening. In the updated version, there is a new special exception to the $5,000 donation limit for groups Gonzaález calls Limited Contribution Committees (LCC). Groups could qualify as an LCC if they exist for at least nine months and get contributions from at least 150 persons for a district council election, 400 persons for an at-large or city attorney election, and at least 600 persons for a mayoral election.
Once a group qualifies as an LCC they could donate to a Super PAC above a $5,000 limit, according to González.
“Once you are a limited contributor committee, then you are released from the $5,000 per individual contribution cap,” González said after Wednesday night’s SEEC meeting.
González’s LCC also seems to create an easily exploited loophole for big corporations like Amazon to get around, by allowing a company to exceed donation limits for district council campaigns as long as they have 150 individual donors. González said Wednesday evening that she doubted that corporate Super PACs would be able to get donations from enough people to qualify as an LCC.
González said Friday morning that her proposed law would possibly allow the type of spending United Here has done in District 7, but she added that she hopes to take the spending data from this election to further refine her proposal “in the coming months.”
“This is the starting place for our policy conversation,” González said. “We are going to be collecting and gathering all of the data that is available to us in this 2019 cycle to really dig into that data, analyze it, and see exactly how money moves in our city council elections this year to make better informed decisions.”
González has voluntarily brought her policy to the SEEC to get their feedback before she brings it to the full city council. The SEEC has been largely supportive of the plan, although they have yet to formally endorse the proposal. González’s latest version, which allows big union spending, raised concern for at least one SEEC commissioner.
“I’m just struggling with why this would be, to be honest, constitutional that we are setting different classes of speech at some level,” said Eileen Norton, one of the SEEC commissioners. “So, I’m just struggling with that… I certainly support the legislation that we received last time.”