Once Again, Big Political Money Is Backing an Effort to Get Money Out of Politics

Ironic? Yes. Necessary? Probably.

They’re at it again. The cohort of liberal donors who bankrolled last year’s successful Honest Elections initiative in Seattle are back with more Benjamins and bigger appetites.

Their target? Passing I-1464, aka Integrity Washington. Like Honest Elections Seattle, I-1464 is designed to loosen the almighty dollar’s grip on our political system. I-1464 would tighten transparency and anti-corruption rules, and also create a public election-financing system in which citizens would get “democracy credits” of $150 that they could donate to certain candidates. As with last year, it’s with no little irony that donors are spending large amounts of money to reduce money’s influence in elections; also like last year, that irony doesn’t necessarily make the donors wrong.

Business groups with long histories of paid lobbying are backing the No campaign against I-1464—but in contrast to the Yes campaign, opposition funding is dust in the wind. The No campaign’s $20,000 in donations comes half from the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Washington and half from the Washington Food Industry Association. By comparison, the Yes campaign has raised nearly $2.6 million. That means that for every dollar the Yes campaign has raised, No has raised less than one penny. Also, two-thirds of the Yes money comes from a handful of ultra-wealthy liberal donors including Jonathan Soros (son of George), Connie Ballmer (wife of Steve), and Star Wars director JJ Abrams. Oh, and also investor Sean Eldridge, who personifies I-1464’s central contradiction: With the help of his also-wealthy husband in 2013 and 2014, Eldridge bought a house in New York’s 19th congressional district and proceeded to spend $4 million of their own money on a spectacularly failed bid for a U.S. House of Representatives seat.

Rich people dumping money into a campaign designed to make it harder for rich people to dump money into campaigns? There’s precedent for these anti-plutocratic plutocrats. As we reported last year, the city-based initiative Honest Elections Seattle was also raking in hefty donations from many 1 percenters. We asked Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute: Isn’t this the definition of hypocrisy? Aren’t the big donors behind Honest Elections doing exactly what they’re decrying? He replied by comparing the 1 percent funder strategy to wildfire fighters in eastern Washington setting small fires themselves to eliminate fuel for larger infernos. Sure, it’s ironic, but it’s also realistic. “You can bemoan [money in politics] and lose,” he said, “or you can get in the game and try to win.”

One objection to I-1464 is that it doesn’t allow political donors enough secrecy. This isn’t a new argument: Last year, AGC successfully blocked a state senate bill which, like I-1464, would have required campaigns to disclose their donors. Currently, campaigns in Washington are required to list their top five donors so that voters know who is trying to sway their vote. But there’s a loophole in that law big enough to drive Bertha through: Those five contributors can just be shell entities created to disguise the money’s true origin. As I-1464 campaign director Peter McCollum told us in May, “You can just create a [political action committee] with a very friendly name and the ad says, you know, ‘Paid for by Seattleites for Change, top five donors include We Love Washington, We Love Puppies, and We Love Apple Pie.’ ” After defeating last year’s transparency bill, AGC lobbyist Jerry VanderWood told The Seattle Times that requiring fuller disclosure “would have unfairly required AGC to disclose its top 10 financial supporters even though their money is not necessarily used for political purposes,” in reporter Jim Brunner’s paraphrase. AGC spends about a quarter-million dollars per year on lobbying, and has contributed more than $1 million to campaigns since 2001.

Another objection is more concrete: money. The election-donation stipulation in I-1464 would be paid for by ending a sales-tax exemption for some nonresidents. Some call this closing a loophole; others characterize it as raising taxes. In practical terms, ending the exemption would slightly raise prices for a handful of customers at retail stores on our side of the Columbia, while also raising about $10 million in new tax revenue in its first year and about $30 million each following year. In past years, the Washington Retail Association has “vigorously fought attempts” to close the nonresident sales-tax exemption, as WRA vice president Mark Johnson wrote in April in an e-mail obtained by Seattle Weekly.

Johnson’s e-mail to I-1464 proponent (and Republican consultant) Alex Hayes is a glimpse into a world of informal campaigning that voters rarely see. After arguing that closing the nonresident sales-tax exemption would hurt Washington retailers on the Oregon border, Johnson intimates that Hays is risking more than his time by backing I-1464.

“We have over the years valued our relationship with you and the work you have done on behalf of pro-retail candidates,” writes Johnson. “Unfortunately Initiative 1464 will have serious unintended consequences to our industry.

“At the end of your email you said ‘I am willing to step back from this initiative if that’s what’s best,’ ” Johnson concludes. “We would recommend that course of action.”