The Honest Elections ballot initiative that Seattle voters passed in 2015 is making waves in the 2017 mayor’s race, even though mayoral candidates can’t participate in the most notable part of the initiative—Democracy Vouchers, publicly-funded coupons that voters can donate to candidates of their choice.
That’s because Honest Elections also placed harsher limits on who can donate to candidates, and how. On Tuesday, The Seattle Times reported that mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan accepted donations “from two companies that have recieved more than $250,000 in payments from the city in roughly the past two years”—Ash Grove Cement and Microsoft. While the contributions were relatively small, at least one and possibly both were prohibited by the new campaign finance rules created via Honest Elections—“possibly,” because the city doesn’t yet have a definitive list of its major contractors. Throughout her camapaign, Durkan has been criticized as too cozy with business and establishment interests.
On Monday, before news of the contributions broke, the architects of Honest Elections filed a complaint with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission against Durkan over the contributions. Estevan Munoz-Howard, Crystal Lee-Anguay Reed, and Rory O’Sullivan wrote in a letter to SEEC director Wayne Barnett that “as members of the original committee that helped develop the initiative known as Honest Elections Seattle…we are disappointed to see these violations of the law.”
The letter alleges that Durkan accepted money from not only city contractors but also from “regulated corporations/industries that hire lobbyists” via those corporations’ owners: Clise Properties owner Alfred Clise and from City Investors LLC owner Paul Allen. Durkan also took money from Washington Hospitality’s PAC, Seattle Hospitality for Progress, which pays lobbyists at city hall.
Moon took money from two executives, but not owners, at two environmental firms contracted by the city.
The Durkan campaign responded to request for an interview with a written statement by spokesperson Stephanie Formas that read in part, “Jenny strongly supports the state and Seattle campaign finance laws…The campaign has devoted resources to compliance and is committed to complying fully with Seattle’s strong campaign finance and disclosure laws. As a first time candidate, Jenny has received overwhelming grassroots support from volunteers as well as more than 3,050 supporters.” According to the Durkan campaign, they immediately returned the two illegal donations when they found out about them.
Moon campaign spokesperson Heather Weiner says that as a lawyer, Durkan should have known better. “I’m sure she would not have accepted the word ‘oversight’ or ‘mistake’ from some of the people she prosecuted,” Weiner said. “Many will point out that when they’re onstage, it sounds like they’re saying a lot of the same things, and that’s true, and that’s been very interesting to watch, but when it comes to ethics and integrity, Cary … has said, ‘I will not take corporate contributions, period,’ and she hasn’t.” Consequently, Weiner says, the Moon campaign doesn’t need to finely cull illicit donations from licit ones. So far, the Moon campaign has raised almost $200,000; about half of that is her own money.
Since she announced her candidacy, Durkan has struggled to prove her progressive bona fides in light of strong financial support from entrenched business interests. For example, at a Candidate Jeopardy forum orchistrated in June by Seattle Weekly and others, Durkan drew hisses from the crowd regarding her fundraising after she responded to a question about whether she’d received contributions from corporations or developers by saying, “Corporations? I don’t know. I don’t look at the list.”