The latest public-disclosure forms for the finances of King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg (top) and Bill Sherman.
Conventional wisdom says there is too much money in politics. In many cases, conventional wisdom is flat-out wrong. Quite often there is far too little money in politics, and this lack of funding prevents the proper functioning of our adversarial political system.
Take, for example, the race for King County prosecutor. The election to replace the late Norm Maleng is the marquee Seattle-area contest of this political season. Prosecutor is a vital public office. The voters, however, are likely going to cast their votes knowing very little about these two candidates. Neither the campaign of Republican Dan Satterberg nor that of Democrat Bill Sherman have raised enough money to run a truly effective countywide campaign. As of the last reporting period, Satterberg had raised roughly $250,000, Sherman, $150,000. Not nearly enough in a county as enormous as King.
The candidates running for Port of Seattle commissioner face the same dilemma. Bill Bryant has raised $240,000, Gael Tarleton $203,000, Alec Fisken $131,000, and Bob Edwards $115,000.
Consider the tactical options a campaign has trying to run countywide. There are roughly 600,000 registered voter households in the county. To mail them all one piece of literature costs more than $200,000, and you really need to mail voters at least five times to make a difference.
Campaigns, therefore, are forced to turn to radio, and broadcast and cable TV. To do it right you need at least $1 million dollars for one sold month of Seattle broadcast advertising, but whatever cash you have, you throw it on the airwaves and hope for the best, right?
Wrong. Television and radio stations are required to offer candidates the lowest possible rate, and to accept advertising from federal candidates. But broadcasters are not required to take ads from candidates for state and local office, and often they don't. Stations can make more money from commercial customers, so important campaigns for key offices are often shut out. The Satterberg campaign, for instance, has tried to place ads on major Seattle TV and radio stations and been turned down.
Candidates for statewide offices other than governor and U.S. senator almost always find themselves in the same predicament. Major TV and radio stations often turn down their ads, and they struggle to raise enough money to mount a meaningful campaign. In the 2004 race for secretary of state, both parties fielded credible candidates; incumbent Sam Reed for the Republicans, and state Rep. Laura Ruderman for the Democrats. Each raised roughly $650,000. Contrast that with roughly $1.5 million to $2 million that are now spent in an average contested race for Congress, or the $1 million spent in one state Senate race - the 48th District contest between Republican Luke Esser and Democrat Rodney Tom.
Routinely, voters are forced to cast their ballots for candidates for judge, assessor, or state superintendent of public instruction without hearing much from either candidate, and certainly without the benefit of spirited back-and-forth debate.
Our campaign finance system is broken. Some elections attract ridiculous amounts of money while others are virtually ignored. Public financing has been debated for years. Perhaps we need to consider compelling TV and radio stations to accept ads from a broader range of candidates. A simple answer, however, is to raise or even eliminate the current contribution limits for some races.
Today the most any donor can contribute to Dan Satterberg or Bill Sherman or any candidate for county office is $1,400. That low limit makes it extremely difficult to raise enough money, and what public purpose does it serve? Why not allow campaigns for county and statewide state offices to take any amount from any legal source as long as those donations are publicly reported? That's how the system works with ballot-measure campaigns. Take the chains off; let the candidates raise money, and let the public decide if they are concerned about who is donating and how much is being given.
Campaigns and elections are the key to our democracy. Voters may say they hate campaign advertising, but our system is based on an informed electorate, and robust campaigns are indispensable to achieving that ideal. Money is the mother's milk of politics - and democracy.