City Hall

"I Don't Think A Case Has Been Made for This Legislation."

By Erica C. Barnett September 5, 2012

City Council members remained unsatisfied with their colleague Mike O'Brien's proposal to limit candidates' ability to raise campaign funds this morning, saying that they didn't understand what problem the legislation---which would require candidates to give up any surplus funds after an election and prohibit them from raising money until January of an election year---was meant to solve.

O'Brien staffer Esther Handy sat on the hot seat at today's committee meeting, fielding questions from council members while O'Brien himself, also seated at the table, stayed conspicuously silent.

Handy explained that the legislation came in response to Occupy Wall Street, income inequality, and the "growing public perception that money is a huge influence in politics." Creating a three-year period when politicians can't raise money, she said, would at least let voters know that their representatives' policies weren't being influenced by campaign cash during that three-year period.

While council members agreed that there may be a general perception that money has too much influence in politics, particularly at the federal level, they weren't willing to make the leap from perception to reality. "We do a lot of chasing of perception" in politics, council president Sally Clark said. "Are you actually addressing a real problem, or are you just chasing a perception?"

Although the size of the average contribution has gone up, Clark added, the cost to run a campaign has gone up as well---it's not that candidates are stockpiling money, it's that everything from paper to consultants to stamps costs more.

And in the last mayoral election, council member Bruce Harrell pointed out, the winner, Mike McGinn, raised less money (just under $300,000) than either the incumbent, Greg Nickels ($600,000) or the other challenger, Joe Mallahan ($800,000).

Council member Tom Rasmussen, the most vocal opponent of O'Brien's proposal, told Handy bluntly, "I don't think a case has been made for this legislation. Citing Occupy Wall Street is rather weak to say the least. I don't think there's a need for this legislation."

Finally, O'Brien was left to respond weakly, "I don't believe that any of us are corrupt or that that's an issue, and yet I think what we all hear, what we heard in public testimony today and what we hear when we go out in the community, is that the public perception of politicians in general is that it's a money game."

Contacted after the meeting, Rasmussen said he believes Seattle's current elections laws---which require candidates to report contributions immediately and limit contributions to $700---combined with Seattle voters' strong aversion to impropriety (think: Strippergate, Venus Velazquez) do a good job of keeping local politicians in line.

However, if the legislation does move forward, he's proposing two amendments he says would address some of council members' concerns with the proposal. The first would strip out the requirement that candidates zero out their surplus funds after a campaign; instead, candidates would have to ask each donor for permission to use their contribution in a later campaign.

The second would give candidates two more months to raise funds---starting in the November prior to an election year, rather than January of that year.

"While it’s true that most challengers don’t start until the year of the election, it’s to their disadvantage that they do that," Rasmussen (who defeated incumbent Margaret Pageler in 2003) says. "A challenger should start early and raise money early. If we limit that period of time, I think that people could be hobbled in their efforts to take on an incumbent."

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