Despite Wins for the Left This Election Day, Campaign Cash Still Flowed to Corporate-Friendly Candidates
On Tuesday, Booman mentioned being concerned about that night's results possibly being impacted by the post-Citizens United flow of money into local politics. And while overall it was a good day for Democrats and the left, the impact of such money on local races in my area, Seattle and Washington state, was beyond question significant and worrisome.
For the last several months, I've been on staff for a well-qualified woman challenging an incumbent for a seat on Seattle City Council. I had a chance to watch the process up close. Seattle elects all of its nine council members at large, meaning that voters are drawn from a city of 625,000 - a more populous jurisdiction than a Congressional district. There's simply too many eligible voters for doorbelling to reach most of them. The only ways to reach most voters (outside the pathetic local media coverage such downticket races receive) are yard signs, posters, phone banks, robocalls, direct mail, and ads (buses, billboard, Internet, radio, and especially TV - which ain't cheap in a top 15 market.) All of these cost money, usually a lot of it. The conventional wisdom heading into this year was that a challenger needed to raise at least $100,000 to have a credible campaign, and well over $200,000 to have a good shot at winning.
Fundraising is the lifeblood of a campaign like that. People working on the various campaign locally noticed two things about fundraising this year: individual contributions were down (not surprising, given the economy), and corporate contributions were way, way up. City politics in Seattle is ostensibly non-partisan, but in practice anyone with a shot at getting elected is a socially liberal, business-friendly Democrat; there's very little ideological diversity on city council. The divisions are mainly among identity groups - race, ethnicity, immigrants, GLBTQ - and between downtown business elites and, well, everyone else. The downtown business elites generally call the shots, but every now and then they and their favored elected officials get swept out by a revolt of the neighborhoods.
2011 had the potential to be one of those years. The business guys had just pushed through an unpopular, staggeringly expensive new freeway tunnel project under downtown (think "The Big Dig" in geologically unstable soil), the latest in a succession of big, pricy downtown vanity projects while basic services continue to be cut. Parents were in open revolt over a school district and school board that had finally (and reluctantly) fired another scandal-plagued superintendent last year. On top of it, the local economy sucks.
The public mood seemed sour. But that was no match for money. One school board race is still too close to call. In every other county council, city council, and city school board race, the incumbents won, usually comfortably.
My candidate didn't run a particularly good race; she's well-qualified, personable, articulate, energetic, and photogenic, but she only raised $65,000, and that just didn't cut it. Her opponent, a downtown favorite who was originally appointed to fill a vacant seat specifically because she promised not to rock the boat (and she hasn't), started with over $100,000 carried over from previous years, had another $100,000 in hand by the primary, and finished (so far - the final reports aren't in yet) with about $250,000, mostly raised from a who's who of corporate Seattle, including Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and a host of lesser-known developers and other local movers and shakers.
Three of the other four incumbents did even better on the money front; one topped $300,000. There's a pretty direct correlation between amount of money raised and margin of victory, with one exception - the only close race of that night.
Jean Godden is a two-term, 80-year-old incumbent who has enjoyed a second career on city council after over 30 high-profile years as - I shit you not - a gossip columnist for the city's daily newspapers. (Think Herb Caen without talent.) She leveraged her universal name recognition and a lifetime of writing flattering things about the powerful people she saw at parties into a golden retirement present of a council seat in 2003.
There was only one tiny problem: Godden was and is terrible at her current job. She came in utterly clueless about civic issues (I sat on editorial boards that interviewed her, twice, and was staggered by her lack of knowledge or curiosity), and hasn't gotten any better over eight years. She's notorious among colleagues for not doing her homework, not knowing what was going on, falling asleep in meetings (including committee meetings she chairs), and not being a particularly robust 80-year-old health-wise. It's open knowledge in local political circles that Godden has been a disaster, and, sensing she was vulnerable, people lined up to challenge her this year.
She won last night with 54 percent of the vote.
Surprisingly for an incumbent in Seattle, Godden missed out on a lot of endorsements from Democratic Party and civic groups - a reflection of her job performance. Those went to the challenger who advanced from the primary, Bobby Forch. Forch also picked up support from some downtown types hedging their bets. But most stayed with Godden, and her massive fundraising advantage (and the loyalty of her former colleagues in local media) carried the day. Godden raised $258,000; Forch, just under $100,000. With Godden already having a massive name recognition advantage, the extra deluges of ads and direct mail did the trick. (The photo of a terrified-looking Godden supposedly rowing a kayak to demonstrate her nonexistent environmental credentials is an instant classic.) Money, most of it corporate money - Godden is a reliable vote for one percenters - was the difference.
The school board races were an even starker study in the impact of money. Four reviled incumbents of a beleaguered, scandal-rocked urban school district up for citywide reelection. Four races where the incumbents got massive, mostly business support. Three wins and a pending, possible fourth for the incumbents.
Yesterday's statewide initiatives in Washington state were also a sobering reinforcement of the local trend in recent years. There were three, and each was backed by a single deep-pocketed institution. One, an SEIU-backed measure on home health care workers that passed once in 2008 but was defunded by the state legislature, passed again easily. The other two were more ominous. A pro-car developer in suburban Bellevue singlehandedly bankrolled a measure against tolling highways that would have blocked expansion of Seattle's light rail and jeopardized funding for all sorts of bridge and highway improvements. It looks like that will fail - narrowly. And then there was I-1183.
Last year, the discount retail chain Costco (which is based in Seattle) spent over $10 million on a statewide initiative to dismantle the state liquor store monopoly and privatize hard liquor sales. It was a purely self-interested corporate initiative, and it went down to defeat. So Costco tried again this year, but they did two important things differently.
First, they defused opponents' fears of hard liquor in every corner market and gas station by specifying that it could only be sold in retail stores of over 15,000 square feet - in other words, they gave themselves even more of a new monopoly. And this time they spent closer to $25 million. You couldn't watch TV for the last three months without being bombarded by their ads.
I-1183 passed this time. Easily.
Most people aren't political junkies. They pay attention, if at all, to the front page of newspapers and the first two minutes of a newscast. They have opinions about presidents and maybe governors and senators, but usually not about city council members or state legislators. In those races, reaching such low-information voters takes money, and money usually correlates pretty directly to success.
What we saw this year was more overall money raised. The more striking change, though, was that fundraising for non-incumbent candidates without good corporate connections (like my candidate) was much harder than it has been before. And institutional fundraising for demonstrably corporate-friendly measures or candidates got easier.
I'd have to do some more number crunching to figure out whether more companies are donating, average donations are up, or both. But the consequences for local elections like ours are pretty clear. In the future, under the new status quo for our local races, it's going to be much harder to challenge an incumbent; it's going to be much harder to win with a progressive campaign and message; and it's going to be much harder to win with a volunteer-fueled, populist campaign. The political implications are pretty obvious.