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Seattle council member on mission to oust foreign money from local politics

A Seattle council member is crafting new legislation aimed at not only getting big money out of city politics, but also foreign money and influence. The bill could affect the city’s largest corporations that donate to local elections.

Seattle Councilmember Lorena González is spearheading the bill, and is currently passing it around city committees for review. She plans to officially submit it to the council in early 2020.

“Really at the end of the day what this bill is going to do is send a clear message to folks who seek to buy our elections that that kind of behavior is not going to be permitted in the city of Seattle and our local elections,” González told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.

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The bill aims to do this in three ways:

  • Defines foreign-influenced corporations, foreign investors, and foreign owners. It prohibits them from making political contributions in local elections. If a company has more than 1 percent of shareholders who are foreign nationals, it would be prohibited from making political contributions.
  • It limits contributions for independent expenditure committees to $500,000 per PAC.
  • It amends disclosure requirements for qualified public communications. This way when voters see ads online or in the media, it is indicated which special interest is behind the ad.

The bill is broad enough to include ballot measures as well as contributions to candidate campaigns. According to González, political contributions in municipal elections have grown from $556,000 in 2013 to nearly $1.3 million in 2017. Her office also notes that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security state that Russia, China, Iran and other countries are actively trying to influence elections in the United States.

The effort comes as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s PAC — the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, or CASE — has poured considerable funds into the city council race. CASE has reportedly put $380,000 into current campaigns. Among CASE’s top contributors are Puget Sound Energy and the Washington Realtors Association. By March, months before the council primaries, CASE had raised $485,000.

Foreign money and Seattle elections

Amazon also donated $200,000 to CASE earlier this year. Currently, Amazon does not have to reveal how many of its investors are foreign. Under González’s bill, the company would have to disclose this information to the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission. She says that there is no data to state whether or not Amazon would eventually fall under the prohibitions of the bill, but “I suspect that they might” she said.

It is unclear how many donations to local campaigns have come from foreign money in the past. But González argues it has been happening.

“There are many corporations that may have significant ownership by foreign nationals that have been making contributions in our local elections, not just this year but in prior years,” González said. “And I think that is in conflict with the voice of our voters who voted overwhelmingly in favor of our honest elections law which allows us to have democracy vouchers and a greater focus on the will of the voters as opposed to the deep pockets of corporate donors.”

Labor groups and unions have also been spending big money in local elections. González said that the bill does not specifically target corporate PACs versus labor money, rather, it deals with who is behind the PACs.

“There is a long precedent under US Supreme Court law and federal law that has already determined that foreign nationals are not allowed to legally contribute to local elections,” she said. “The fact that foreign nationals have found a work around to be able to do effectively that, violate the law, contributing through corporations, is problematic … this is going to be more about who owns the interests of these corporations. Whether it is a labor union or a corporation is not necessarily relevant.”

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Seven out of nine council positions are up for reelection in November 2019, providing the potential for significant change on the dais.

So far, González has submitted her bill to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission for review.

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