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Despite voicing concerns, Seattle mayoral candidates get wide support from PACs in primary

Council President Lorena Gonzalez. (Seattle City Council, Flickr Creative Commons)

Seattle’s mayoral election cycle during the 2021 primary has seen hundreds of thousands of dollars roll in from Democracy Vouchers. Meanwhile, outside money has rolled in too, with four of the top five fundraising candidates seeing support from independent PACs.

Concerns build over ‘short-circuiting’ of Seattle’s fundraising rules

Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program was originally designed to limit the presence of large-scale outside dollars in political campaigns. Even so, independent expenditure committees (IECs) have operated as something of a loophole, functioning as local-level PACs permitted to raise and spend virtually unlimited sums of money in support of whichever candidate they choose.

In Seattle’s 2019 election, hundreds of thousands of dollars of outside money poured into city council campaigns across 16 registered IECs. And while IECs are not allowed to coordinate or be in contact with individual candidates, they have the latitude to operate entirely outside the spending limits imposed by Democracy Vouchers.

Early on in the election cycle, Bruce Harrell and Lorena Gonzalez were the only two candidates to have garnered support from IECs, registered as “Harrell for Seattle’s Future” and “Essential Workers for Lorena,” respectively. At one point, Essential Workers for Lorena reportedly spent $110,000 on over 20,000 pounds of one-ounce dried cherry packets as part of a campaign mailer sent to voters.

Meanwhile, Harrell for Seattle’s Future has managed to raise over $354,000, largely on the strength of several large donations from local real estate CEOs. Essential Workers for Lorena has received over a combined $451,000 from a handful of local labor unions. An additional IEC registered to a group that formally endorsed Gonzalez’s candidacy has also raised over $32,000.

Last month, Gonzalez, Colleen Echohawk, Jessyn Farrell, and Andrew Grant Houston all expressed their opposition to IECs circumventing the city’s Democracy Voucher system. At the time, Gonzalez drew a distinction between between the “Harrell for Seattle’s Future” committee and the recently-registered “Essential Workers for Lorena” IEC.

“Bruce Harrell has stood with big business executives who have an outsized influence at city hall his entire career,” her campaign manager Alex Koren clarified. “Lorena has always stood with essential workers and labor unions, and she is proud to have their support.”

Seattle mayoral candidates gets spending limit lifted

Other candidates, though, have been vocal in their opposition.

“Seattle passed landmark legislation with the voucher program in 2015 and I think it’s a shame that special interest groups are short circuiting the citizen based voucher program we have in place,” Echohawk told MyNorthwest in early July.

“Our campaign does not need or believe in PACs,” a spokesperson for Houston’s campaign agreed. “By participating in (the Democracy Voucher) program, we committed to not taking big corporate money.”

But since then, additional IECs have emerged, including one supporting Farrell’s candidacy known as “Seattle United for Progressive Change,” and another throwing its support behind Echohawk, registered as “New Generation Leaders PAC.” The IEC supporting Farrell has raised $74,500 (with a $37,500 donation from Seattle billionaire Nick Hanauer), while the one supporting Echohawk has brought in $34,000 (including a $5,000 donation from Seattle Kraken President Tod Leiweke).

In total, IECs supporting Seattle mayoral candidates have raised more than $900,000 over the course of the primary election cycle.

This has also come in the midst of Democracy Voucher spending limits being lifted for all five of the leading mayoral fundraisers. Mayoral candidates are typically limited to $400,000 in spending during the primary. That cap was lifted for Houston in early July, and then for Gonzalez, Harrell, Echohawk, and Farrell not long after that.

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