Yesterday at the Seattle City Council's Government Performance and Finance Committee, Council Member Bruce Harrell slipped an amendment into an election-reform bill that would allow incumbents to keep up a bad practice—raise tens of thousands of dollars before they even have a challenger. That was exactly the tack Harrell used when he was running for reelection in 2011: In the year before he was on the ballot, throughout 2010, Harrell amassed an intimidating war chest of over $85,000, according to Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission records. As a result, Harrell had a stack of cash before his long-shot challenger, Brad Meacham, even filed a campaign come January. So Harrell won that year with a fundraising advantage of more than four to one.

The council was considering new rules to make city elections cleaner and more fair, which I've written about here. By a 6-2 vote (with Harrell and Tom Rasmussen voting against), the committee approved the measure that prohibits candidates from rolling over leftover cash from one campaign to their reelection campaign. That's great. If approved by the full council, it will ensure donations are used for the campaign they were intended for, while leveling the playing field at the top of each election cycle (so newcomers won't be scared off by mountains of incumbents' cash). But the council gutted a key provision of the bill when Harrell introduced an 11th-hour amendment. Although the bill originally said that candidates could begin fundraising on January 1 of the election year, Harrell's motion successfully pushed that back a full year to January 1 of the year prior—22 months before the election. Harrell's amendment passed only after council members who aren't even on the committee swooped in to vote for it, and it wojuld allow incumbents to fundraise for a full year before most of them have any challenger at all. In other words, Harrell undermined a good bill, which he had originally co-sponsored with Council Member Mike O'Brien.

In the last five City Hall elections, 88 percent of challengers didnt file until after January 1 of the year they were running for office.
  • In the last five City Hall elections, 88 percent of challengers didn't file until after January 1 of the year they were running for office.
Reached by phone, Harrell provided a counter-intuitive explanation: "If you shorten the window, you create a disadvantage for a challenger." Why's that? He contends restricting the time frame for fundraising to just 10 months actually benefits incumbents, who can "sprint" when fundraising begins during the year of election.

But Harrell's argument doesn't make practical sense.

City records how that a whopping 88 percent of challengers don't file until the year they're running (see the pie chart), so Harrell's amendment would overwhelmingly help incumbents by giving them more time to raise money. To counter, Harrell says challengers should file earlier. "They can file whenever they choose to," he says. But that, too, isn't grounded in data or political realities.

Challengers aren't going to stick their necks out 22 months before election; they're just not. If you want proof, look at next year's mayoral and council races: No one has filed to run against Mayor Mike McGinn—even though he's considered vulnerable. It's just too early to run, particularly for council races. Second, the record shows that incumbents—not challengers—are the one using the year before elections to raise money. As this bar graph shows, by looking at each quarter for the 2011 election cycle, council incumbents amassed over $300,000 in the year before election, while challengers didn't raise anything in that previous year:

THE 2011 ELECTION Only incumbents raised money in the year before their reelection, not challengers.
  • THE 2011 ELECTION Only incumbents raised money in the year before their reelection, not challengers.

Harrell's amendment perpetuates this problem, it's obviously counterproductive, and it should be overturned by the full council.

The bill's original function is twofold: to remove the appearance of corruption (to limit the time big donors give to reelection campaigns while simultaneously lobbying those council members) and to stop the incumbent fundraising advantage that discourages good candidate from running at all. By moving the donation's starting gate to 22 months before the election and a year earlier than proposed, Harrell lets officeholders—like himself—both collect money from donors doing business before the council and amass war chests. Harrell has defied the purpose of the bill. Harrell's amendment was backed—not surprisingly—by many of the same candidates who have used their cash advantages to scare off challengers in the past: Sally Clark, Richard Conlin, Jean Godden, and Rasmussen. But they shouldn't worry because the legislation wouldn't take effect until it's passed later this year, allowing any funds currently in surplus accounts to be transferred to future campaigns.

This must still go to to the full council for a vote, most likely October 1. O'Brien should propose an amendment to undo the damage Harrell did and restore January 1 of election year as the date to begin fundraising. If they like, seek a compromise: Begin fund raising one year before the general election. That would reduce the appearance that their votes are bought and remove an incumbent advantage that for too many years has left council seats virtually unchallenged.