Super PACs have flooded Seattle’s elections in cash in recent years, with the independent committees growing from nonexistent at the beginning of the decade to accounting for nearly half of all money spent in local elections in 2019.
And as anyone who followed the November city council elections will remember, Seattle’s Super PACs were thrust onto the national stage last year after Amazon donated $1.5 million to a super PAC that tried—and failed—to install a more business-friendly council.
But the wave of Super PAC cash in Seattle elections may soon crest.
In a sign of growing momentum for reigning in PAC money, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's office tells The Stranger that she'll be supporting a new council bill, titled the Clean Campaigns Act, that would set tight limits on the ability of Super PACs to raise cash. The legislation would also block multinational companies like Amazon from spending in city elections entirely.
“Mayor Durkan believes that outside spending has disrupted our representative democracy and believes the Citizens United decision has had devastating impacts for our country,” said a spokesperson who did not want to be named. “While this bill will likely have legal challenges, the mayor supports the Clean Campaigns Act and agrees that we need to take all steps possible to prevent money from swamping the voice of the people in political campaigns.”
The proposed law is currently working its way through council chambers and some aspects of the act could see a full council vote as early as next week.
Super PACs, which are political action committees that are not directly affiliated with any candidate, currently face no donation limits. They've become a fixture in American politics after a series of court decisions, including the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, removed donation limits to the groups. Super PACs were able to raise $1.79 billion in the 2016 presidential election, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Super PACs have also grown locally. The groups did not spend any money in the 2011 Seattle election, according to city filings, but then grew to spending more than $780,000 in 2015. And then last year, thanks in large part to a massive $1.5 million donation from Amazon, Super PACs spent a startling $4.2 million.
Last year’s outsized Super PAC spending in Seattle’s elections brought widespread condemnation from progressives. Elizabeth Warren criticized Amazon’s donation and Seattle Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal said she was “extremely disturbed” by the Super PAC donation.
Even before Amazon’s unprecedented donation there was already a plan to curb mammoth election spending. Seattle City Council Member Lorena González had already proposed a law she's calling the Clean Campaigns Act, which would accomplish three primary objectives:
• Limit Super PACs to receiving no more than $5,000 per-year from any single individual or corporation;
• Block multinational corporations, defined as companies with more than 1 percent ownership from a single foreign national or more than 5 percent ownership from multiple foreign nationals, from local election spending;
• Require that all political advertising outside of election years follow similar reporting requirements to current rules for election advertisements.
The Super PAC donation limits would put Seattle at the forefront of campaign finance reform. According to legal experts, the only other place in the country that has set limits on Super PAC donation limits is St. Petersburg, Florida. That city's law, passed in 2017, has not been challenged in court but Seattle would likely be sued if it passes its own Super PAC regulations.
The Seattle law could become a test case for Super PAC regulations nationwide if it makes it to the Supreme Court, and González has the support of multiple constitutional law experts who say the law could survive a court challenge.
González has said she hopes the Seattle legislation could change campaign finance nationwide.
“I do believe that people in Seattle want to see big money out of politics," González said at a council hearing last month. "And we have a real opportunity to not just frame up the issue and do the right thing here in Seattle, but hopefully inspire others across the country to also do the same.”
The Clean Campaigns Act has been divided into three separate laws and González said during a briefing Monday morning that she wants the first two laws—tackling political advertising and multinational corporations—to be voted on by the full council next Monday. The third law, which sets donation caps on Super PACs, is going to be put on hold for “additional stakeholder engagement.”
“We will pick [the donation limits law] back up at the beginning of quarter two when I am back from maternity leave,” González said.
Durkan’s support for the law is particularly noteworthy because her political career has been bankrolled by Super PACs.
Durkan’s mayoral campaign in 2017 brought in over $1 million in direct contributions but an unaffiliated Super PAC, called People For Jenny Durkan, brought in over $878,000, a record for Super PACs in Seattle up until that point.
Durkan’s Super PAC was largely funded by one single $608,000 check from the Civic Alliance For A Sound Economy, the same group that funneled Amazon’s $1.5 million check into this last year’s city council election.
Durkan is already gearing up her reelection campaign for 2021 but, even if she signs the Clean Campaigns Act into law, it’s not clear that her election effort will be forced to play by the new Super PAC rules. If the law is challenged, it will likely be put on hold for years while it works its way through the courts.
Durkan could tell any Super PACs supporting her to voluntarily follow the new rules, but it’s not clear whether she'll actually do that—Durkan’s staff has for months refused to facilitate any election-related questions from The Stranger, the city's largest free newspaper.
Mayor's office employees are barred from working on elections or answering election-related questions, but the city’s election regulator permits city staff to direct reporters to either the politician's private contact information or other non-city employees working on campaigns when election-related questions are asked. Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, has declined to do so in this case, claiming that “there is no campaign.”
That hasn’t stopped Durkan from beginning to court donors. She told King 5 in November that she plans to run for reelection.