At the city council's government affairs meeting this morning, council members will discuss Mike O'Brien's proposal to prohibit candidates for city office from raising money before January 1 of election year, and to require incumbents to refund or give away any money they have left at the end of the election cycle instead of rolling it over into their next campaign. The meeting starts at 9:30; O'Brien's proposal is last on the agenda.
The theory is that by getting rid of incumbents' financial advantage and prohibiting early fundraising, the new rules will eliminate some of the barriers to entry for challengers and lower the cost of campaigns overall. "If we have less time to raise money, I think there’s an argument to be made that people will raise less money," O'Brien says.
"This wouldn't really change the landscape for challengers"---who typically don't enter city races until after January 1---"but it would for incumbents, because [like challengers] the incumbent will also have no money, so it would start somewhat even," O'Brien says.
O'Brien also hopes his proposal will lower the average contribution, which has increased steadily, and is now over $200. (Contributions in city races are capped at $700). "The hope is to lower the cost of running for election across the board."
The proposal wouldn't impact incumbents who already have money in the bank. O'Brien says the city's law department told him the city can't make laws that retroactively impact people's decisions to give money to current candidates.
As we reported back in April, though, the legislation has some potential unintended consequences. First, it could simply push the fundraising rush forward to January, potentially benefiting incumbents with connections and deep-pocketed donors who can easily give the $700 maximum contribution. "Pushing the start date back really only helps people who can raise large amounts of money," says political consultant Christian Sinderman, who has worked on many campaigns for council challengers and incumbents.
Second, putting additional limits on fundraising in Seattle could spur a wave of independent political spending by local political action
committees, which are not subject to spending limits. (A PAC made up of firefighters and builders' groups called Working for Seattle, for example, spent more than $16,000 on behalf of mayoral candidate Joe Mallahan in 2009.)
The limits would also benefit wealthy self-financed candidates, who are allowed to contribute unlimited sums to their own campaigns.
Finally, it's unclear that the changes would increase turnover in city offices, which is already higher than in jurisdictions that are subject to fundraising time limits---like the state legislature, where getting elected effectively means having a position for life. Sinderman points out that the incumbent with the largest current surplus, Tom Rasmussen (who has $144,000 in the bank), defeated a well-
funded 16-year incumbent, Margaret Pageler.
"If Tom Rasmussen doesn't draw an opponent, maybe it's because Tom Rasmussen is doing a good job," Sindefrman says. "Mike O'Brien won a crowded open-seat primary [in 2009] by having a strong, clear message. Democracy has a way of sort of leveling the playing field based not on the timing of fundraising but based on the efficacyof candidates."
O'Brien, incidentally, has the second-smallest surplus fund---$817---of any sitting city council member.