Campaign contributions: who gives and what do they get?

It's all there on the Seattle website, if you can decipher it.
It's all there on the Seattle website, if you can decipher it.

The cost of democracy in America is mind-boggling. As of Nov. 1, without even considering federal, state, and county elections, Seattle alone has campaigns that will spend over $5.3 million. Think about what that kind of money would do for some of our more egregious social, environmental, or infrastructure problems. Meanwhile, the argument for public funding for campaigns becomes more convincing every day.

The Supreme Court has decided that 'ꀜmoney is speech.'ꀝ That translates into, 'ꀜwe get what we pay for.'ꀝ The result favors the rich, who make political contributions in hopes of getting even richer. In a fascinating cover story in a publication called UU World, editor Tom Stites explores 'ꀜHow Corporations Became Persons.'ꀝ It'ꀙs about the legal fiction that undermines American democracy. Sites says:

Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

His words sound overstated until you read on and read the numbers associated with his statements.

So what does the record show for Seattle campaigns? Who has the influence and who wants it badly enough to contribute? Seattle'ꀙs Ethics and Election Commission website has the details. They have lists for each candidate and issue, how much was donated, by whom, and who the donors work for.

One thing the figures show is that ballot measures account for $1.9 million in contributions, and they often draw a lot of money even from out of state. Our mayoral candidates will spend $1.7 million to get elected. City council candidates will spend $1.5 million.

It'ꀙs frustrating that the media tend to rank candidates by how much money they can coax out of contributors, implying that money is the best indicator of how much trust people will give to a candidate. The reality is that raising money is a measure of a candidate's skills at fund raising more (or willingness to stay at that degrading task) than how they will perform in office. Sadly, the public often simplistically concludes that if a candidate can raise big bucks he or she must be good.

Perusing the list of donors, I find lots of the usual suspects. Relatives, friends, and coworkers are usually asked to write a check. Almost always there are a dozen or so who contribute the same amount to each candidate every year, probably hoping for access. Attorneys contribute, likely protecting access for clients whose interests are at stake. There are always various companies, of which developers and real estate and construction firms have the most obvious stake in city hall access. Then there are city hall employees, who often feel an obligation (or a desire) to help out the boss.

It's harder to figure the angle when donations are made from a political action group with a non-profit status. Did that money come from just a few powerful backers or a large membership? 'ꀜForward Seattle,'ꀝ for example, a business PAC, donated $181,645. What do they want out of the deal? 'ꀜWorking 4 Seattle'ꀝ donated $104,000. I haven'ꀙt a clue what they stand for, or what kind of Seattle they are working 4.


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