City Hall

Council Committee Passes Amended Election Reform Legislation

By Erica C. Barnett September 19, 2012

By a vote of 6-3 (with council members Bruce Harrell and Tom Rasmussen voting no, and council president Sally Clark abstaining), the council's government oversight committee voted this morning to pass legislation proposed by council member Mike O'Brien that would limit the amount of time candidates for city office are allowed to raise money and bar incumbents from keeping money in their campaign accounts after their election.

The committee, which included all nine council members, also adopted an amendment by Rasmussen widening the window when candidates can raise funds from 10 months in O'Brien's original legislation (the January before an election through the November election date) to two years starting the January of the year preceding an election year.

Although courts have consistently ruled that cities can't base legislation on the desire to make it easier for candidates to challenge incumbents, the supposed challenger-incumbent imbalance came up repeatedly this morning, with proponents of the legislation arguing that it would "level the playing field" and opponents saying it would make it harder for grassroots candidates to get in early and raise lots of small donations.

Limiting the window when candidates can raise money, Harrell said, puts grassroots candidates "at an extreme disadvantage because a wealthy candidate … can write a a $50,000 check or a $100,000 check two years before the election and incredibly disadvantage a challenger.

"I had a person give me $10 even before it was trendy to do," Harrell continued---a reference to O'Brien's (successful) pledge to raise his first $10,000 in $10 donations. "Many of us pull from grassroots communities, [including] many people who are not already invested in the election process."

Council member Sally Bagshaw countered that O'Brien's time limits provide a period of "donor relief" for people who give to candidates during every election cycle. "If people are asking donors two years before they're running to support them, I think that's contrary to what we're trying to accomplish here."
Conlin and Rasmussen both pointed out that city council and mayoral races have, since at least 2003, been extremely competitive despite the lack of restraints on fundraising and the fact that incumbents can hold on to substantial war chests.

"I just want to remind everybody that sitting at the council table are three council members who defeated incumbents," Conlin said. "That’s a third of the city council."

Rasmussen (who beat an incumbent, Margaret Pageler, in 2003) added, "In 2003, three of the incumbents lost, and they raised more than their challengers and had carryover funds [from previous elections] as well." Similarly, in 2009, the incumbent mayor, Greg Nickels, lost to challenger Mike McGinn despite having a campaign fund that dwarfed McGinn's---nearly $600,000, to McGinn's $220,000.

Rasmussen wasn't so successful with his second amendment, which would have allowed incumbents to hang on to donations if they obtained explicit permission from each of their donors. (A similar but slightly more lenient amendment, by Harrell, would have required candidates to ask permission to keep campaign donations, but would have interpreted silence from donors as consent.)

O'Brien said that by not allowing candidates to keep money after a campaign, "we honor that [contributors] are donating to the candidate in that election cycle for the issues that are being discussed in that race. … To me, the cleanest thing to do .. is to hand them back that money and they’re not prohibited at all from giving it back to you as soon as the election cycle opens."

Bagshaw suggested that by prohibiting candidates from holding on to excess campaign funds, the legislation would force candidates to be "more frugal," raising only what they need---a suggestion that prompted Clark to scoff, "I wish I lived in that world. I’ve run three times now, and that is not how it has worked for me any of those times, because you don’t know until filing week whether you’ve got a challenger," so you raise as much money as you can right up until the filing deadline.

Both Rasmussen's and Harrell's amendments failed on 5-4 votes. The full council will vote on the legislation Monday.
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