It's taking a lot of cash to get big money out of local politics

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It's the thickest irony of this year’s election season: a measure designed to reduce the influence of big campaign donations has garnered more financial backing than any other Seattle ballot measure or candidate – and it has done so largely thanks to enormous checks from East Coast funders.

The irony isn’t lost on Heather Weiner ofHonest Elections, responsible for I-122. “Do I personally feel the irony of big money needed to fight big money?” she said. “I absolutely do.”

Direct contributions to candidates in Seattle are capped at $700, although there is no cap for donations to ballot measures. But money raised through independent organizations – which, legally, cannot communicate directly with the campaign – is uncapped. And despite the switch to district elections, which was meant in part to reduce the influence of downtown money, this election cycle has seen more of these kinds of independent expenditures than ever before.

All that cash in local politics has created some awkward moments — and not just for those trying to get the cash out of our democracy.

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The Honest Elections initiative can be added to the list of Seattle experiments with potentially national implications. In addition to lowering the $700 cap to $500 and restricting total candidate expenditures, I-122 would distribute four $25 vouchers to every voter in Seattle. It would then be the task of the candidate to solicit those vouchers just as they would real dollars. In theory, this system would encourage participation from a broader range of constituents and make it so candidates without ties to big money could still fund a campaign. Voters will decide this November whether to levy a $30 million property tax hike to make it happen.

It's one of two state-led initiatives this year that seek to counter the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, which classifies campaign donations as free speech. Thanks to Citizens United, Honest Elections cannot mandate limits on how much money a candidate raises, nor can it address the influence of campaign contributions ("independent expenditures" in political lingo). As a result, participation would be voluntary for candidates. But in order to take advantage of the vouchers, he or she would need to play by the new rules.

The other campaign finance overhaul on the ballot this year is in Maine. Known as Question 1, it is similar to the failed Seattle measure of 2013 which would have provided extra dollars to candidates who raised money from the public, rather than from private entities.

“In the last six months there’s been this increased dialogue about campaign finance reform" thanks in large part to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, says Weiner. As a result, I-122 and Question 1 have caught the eye of national advocates for campaign finance reform. To date, Honest Elections has raised $514,722, 72 percent of it from three out-of-state donors, including Sean Etheridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. By contrast, the Move Seattle transportation levy, which at $930 million is more than 30 times the property tax of Honest Elections, has only raised $160,000.

At $200,000, Etheridge’s Hudson River Ventures has put in the most. Second, at $75,000, is the Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization Every Voice. “We wouldn’t put a dollar into a campaign that didn’t already have local support,” said Every Voice CEO and President David Donnelly.

Likewise, I-122 proponents cite local support in their efforts to separate themselves from the big money influence seen in elections across the country. “After months and months of local discussions with lawyers and election experts and stakeholders (including running ideas by Every Voice's experts), and then everyone and their dog, the local activists formed a committee in March so they could raise money to actually move the idea as an initiative,” said Weiner.

“The organizations in Seattle want to change elections for the better and they’re going to need money to pass it,” said Donnelly. “We happily embrace the irony.”

Donnelly’s choice of words may have been intentional. In spring of 2014, the now-Presidential contender Lawrence Lessig ran into this same irony. He launched a Super PAC to raise money and support candidates that would work for campaign finance reform. As the New Yorker wrote a year ago, “It was a super PAC designed to drive its own species into extinction.” Rather than run from it, Lessig adopted the motto “Embrace the irony.” Unfortunately for Lessig, nearly every candidate his Super PAC supported lost.

When asked if Every Voice favored making it harder for itself to make these kinds of donations, Donnelly deflects the question slightly. “It’s a valid question. It's sort of a chicken or the egg thing isn't it?” he said. “I haven’t spent a huge amount of time thinking about the best policy on ballot measures. We’re going to let local organizations take the lead on that.”

Weiner was a little more direct. “In an ideal world,” she said, “we wouldn’t need these donations.” But while Honest Elections initiative is idealistic, the staff at Honest Elections is grounded in reality. “To pass a 'yes' initiative anywhere requires a lot money.”

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The irony is perhaps not as palpable in other city races, but the presence of independent expenditures nevertheless has put some candidates in the position of defending themselves against their own money. Leading the pack are Shannon Braddock in District 1 and Rob Johnson in District 4, both of whom have received nearly $80,000 each from independent expenditures.

These two races will arguably be the closest contests in November. And in an election of progressives, in which candidates disagree largely on approach rather than politics, the subject has become campaign fodder. Both Braddock’s opponent Lisa Herbold and Johnson’s opponent Michael Maddux have portrayed the expenditures as corrupting. Maddux told the Seattle Weekly that he wouldn’t have taken the money as Johnson has, calling him “the progressive candidate that is being backed by conservative groups.” Herbold has called the group People for Shannon “shady and deceptive.”

Braddock is a little sheepish about the large amount of money streaming into her campaign from People for Shannon. She claims she had no idea the group was campaigning on her behalf. “I learned about it because I read it in ‘C if for Crank,’” she said. “I was like, ‘what are they doing? What are they doing?’ It’s a little disconcerting to not control your own message.”

When Braddock learned that the money was to be used on a positive TV ad, she felt better about it, but she still comes across as conflicted. “It’s one of those things – I support campaign finance reform, I support I-735 [to urge the Washington Legislature to propose an amendment to the constitution weakening Citizens United], I support Honest Elections.”

But she too bumps up into the same wall that Honest Elections has. “The reality is that we’re in it right now,” she said. Would she support measures that would make her own campaign more difficult? “In an ideal world, yeah.”

Our world, apparently, is still something less than ideal.

Correction 7:13 AM: An earlier draft of this article said Heather Weiner was of Sightline Institute. She is with Honest Elections.