Cash Money Voter's Guide: Campaign donations in Seattle's council races

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For those considered moderates and conservatives in Seattle, there’s the Seattle Times voter’s guide. For the more liberal set, there’s The Stranger. Endorsements from legislative districts and interest groups round things out. But these yearly rituals in voter guidance all pale in comparison to the most influential endorsements of all: campaign donations.

In politics, money speaks loudly. It buys ads, yard signs and campaign mailers. It buys staff and consultants. It buys credibility, where poor fundraisers are written off as non-serious. And for both groups and individuals, it’s a clear-cut statement of who they see better representing their issues, or with whom they want to curry favor. Money, unlike nearly everything in politics, is brutally honest. A union or special interest may donate to both candidates in a race, but who do they really want (or expect) to win? Their money usually tells the story.

Among the general election contenders for Seattle City Council, almost $2.6 million has been raised by 18 candidates, for an average of $143,753 each. This doesn’t count the hundreds of thousands raised by independent expenditure committees (IEs), which are funded by such groups as the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and SEIU, and back candidates with ads and other activities.

This year's new district-based elections were meant to undermine the sway of money in council politics. Judging by the figures presented below – as well as a general election almost exclusively populated by the primary's top fundraisers – no drastic shift was in the cards this year. That said, the change caused many longstanding incumbents to step down, and led to the elimination of one in the primaries (Jean Godden), who raised more than double the cash of one of her successful opponents (Michael Maddux).

In the 2015 council elections, donors are staking their claims on a large crop of new candidates. To provide a look at how their wallets are voting this year, we present a guide to this year's campaign donations, full of graphs, quizzes, and general data wonkery. In addition to a better understanding of local campaign financing, you'll also learn which candidate received a donation of six jars of honey, which received $150 from a mime, and the candidate of choice for the manager of Bullwinkle's Pizza in North Pole, Alaska.

All this data comes courtesy of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, and was pulled after ballots hit mailboxes last week. A table of contents is below to aid in skipping around, because this thing is about to get long.

Table of contents*:

  • District Elections, Outside Money
  • Money's Favorite Race
  • Money's Most Hated Candidate
  • Money's Most Confident Bet
  • Money to Burn
  • Maxed Out Money
  • BREAK: Match the In-Kind Donation to the Candidate! 
  • Business Money
  • Union Money
  • Attorney Money
  • Tech Money
  • Retired/Unemployed Money
  • BREAK: What district race has Vulcan NOT contributed to?
  • School Employees Money
  • Tribal Money - The Case of Debora Juarez
  • IN CONCLUSION: The Best of Sawant's Out-of-State Donations
  • Additional resources

* The ability to categorize many of these donations is based on donors properly recording their employer and profession on donation forms. However, this is not always done – for example, we spotted a government affairs employee from Vulcan who appears to have disclosed his employer and position on some forms, but not all. Thus, figures based on employment status should be taken as accurate estimates, but estimates nonetheless. 

District Elections, Outside Money

If district elections were meant to amplify the power of district donors, we haven’t seen it yet. In every local district race, the majority of donations originated from outside that district. In addition, over a quarter of all donations originated from outside city limits.

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This was most notable in the District Five race between Debora Juarez and Sandy Brown, where only seven percent of donations came from district donors. Forty-four percent of donations there originate from outside the city, the most in any race. This figure is largely driven by Juarez, who pulled the majority of her funding from outside Seattle (more on this later). Only three percent of her money came from district donors, compared to her opponent Sandy Brown’s 11 percent.

When it comes to donations, the most localized race is District Seven, where only 57 percent of donations have originated from outside the district. Seattleites had their ability to vote in council races substantially narrowed this year, but that's clearly not keeping them from registering their preferences in other ways.

Money’s Favorite Race

Far and away, no race attracts the interest of greenbacks like District Three. The average raised in all other district races hovers around $235k. In the Third, more than $708k has been raised by candidates Kshama Sawant and Pamela Banks.

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There is a clear disconnect in where that money is originates, however. Judging solely by the amount raised, Banks is the choice of District Three donors, having received more than twice as much from district residents as Sawant (155k vs. 78k), who is a favorite of donors both outside the district and city limits.

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That said, Sawant has more individual donors from the district, with 602 donors to Banks’ 458 – Sawant leads Banks in overall donor count by about 1800. For a race that is clearly fascinating to moneyed interests, big-spending independent groups have not played a big role in it, beyond some mostly grassroots help for Sawant. More on this race’s donors will follow later in the guide. Clearly this is one people are very interested in.

Money’s Most Hated Candidate 

In the at-large district occupied by council president Tim Burgess, money has mounted a shock and awe campaign against challenger Jon Grant to an almost comical degree. Burgess’ campaign has raised over $361k, to opponent Jon Grant’s roughly $62,000. If money were votes, this would be the biggest landslide in the city. The average cash gap in other races is a fourth that amount, around $75k.

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Then there’s the independent expenditures, which only emphasize the lopsidedness of money in this race. United for Tim has raised more than $218k, mostly from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Restaurant Association, but also from SEIU 775. Recently another IE named Seattle Needs Ethical Leaders popped up, which consultant Jason Bennett claimed would raise about $200k to help defeat Grant. That IE figured into in the alleged extortion scheme involving Grant and his former employers at the Tenants Union, which the Seattle Times revealed earlier this month. Time will tell whether that scandal smothers it out before it can get to work.

Candidates running against incumbents – Tammy Morales, Catherine Weatbrook, Grant, and Banks – all are raising less than their opponents. But if there's anyone that donors really want to lose, it's Grant. Burgess beats him in labor money, business money, and every category in between. Like Game of Thrones' Lord Tywin of House Lannister, Burgess and his allies are not content to simply best their foe in battle, but must smite him from the earth.

While we are not here to pick favorites, below we present a picture of Grant having a nice cupcake. Just look at him, people with money. Look upon the man you would destroy.

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Jon Grant, whom money wishes to obliterate.

Money’s Most Confident Bet

While money is openly hostile to Grant, it displays utter indifference toward another candidate:Deborah Zech-Artis, who is challenging Sally Bagshaw in District Seven. For the second election in a row, Bagshaw has completely shut out any competition. However, this feat did not diminish the eagerness of donors to pony up cash.

Bagshaw has raised over $113k in this race, not far from the $107k she raised in 2013. That year, her challenger Samuel Bellomio raised so little that he didn't merit a Public Disclosure Commission file (it lists him as $0 raised). Zech-Artis suffered the same fate this year. Digging through data from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Zech-Artis seems to have raised a whopping $100, from what appears to be a relative in Texas. The rest of her cash derives from donations and loans to herself.

Because this guide is centered solely around cashflow, this will be the last we speak of this candidate.

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Deborah Zech-Artis: the candidate who money forgot.

Money to Burn

A lot of capitalists in the campaign biz have benefitted from socialist councilwoman Sawant, who's spent more than anyone this year – over $337k, compared to an average of $117k among other candidates.

But Sawant still has about plenty of cash on hand. In terms of truly burning through campaign cash, District Six's Weatbrook may as well be wielding a flamethrower. In her race against incumbent Mike O'Brien, she appears to have spent 100 percent of her roughly $58k in cash raised, entering the election's final stretch with nary a penny.

Below are the candidates with the most to spend in the campaign's final days. Depending on the personal data they've either collected or purchased, you may receive their mailers in coming days.

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Maxed Out Money

Collecting a sizable percentage of maxed out donations can carry a stigma, the whiff of being beholden to special interests over regular citizens. In this election, however, half of the candidates derive over 30 percent of their donations from maxed out donors, with Bruce Harrell, Pamela Banks, and Sally Bagshaw leading the pack. Grant actually beats Burgess in this department. Only Maddux and Bill Bradburd are below 10 percent.

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The figures above exclusively cover donors who have hit their donation cap to a candidate, which is $700. Lower that threshold to big donors of $400 or more, and many candidates would find more than half of their donations accounted for.

As the Sightline Institute recently reported, half of the money in the 2013 election derived from 0.3 percent of Seattle adults, and more than a quarter came from 0.07 percent of adults. People are generally not inclined to donate to local council candidates, and the candidates who can rely on a ton of small donors are few.


If you've walked around Seattle in the last few years, you know that Sawant is a huge fan of taping her flyers to telephone poles. But did you know that her consultant, Jeff Upthegrove, has faithfully documented the $4.92 he spent on duct tape for her campaign, potentially used for just this purpose? He did, according to PDC documents.

You found that insight totally fascinating. "That's a great factoid," you muttered to yourself. "Wow." Well, once you've pulled yourself together and filed that one away to share at a dinner party, you can find more like it on the quiz below, which contains some of the campaign's most notable in-kind donations thus far. A little break before we get into the true nitty gritty.

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Business Money

Traditional business interests like the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Rental Housing Association (i.e. landlords) remain big players in district elections. Not only have they maxed out in donations to their favored candidates, but using IEs, they've donated a whopping $479k to three candidates in this election: Tim Burgess, Rob Johnson, and Shannon Braddock. In the case of Braddock, they've raised more for her cause than her official campaign.

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Perhaps realizing these sorts of donations can be an albatross around a candidates' neck, IE money shrank into its shell in District Four's general election. It lent Rob Johnson muscle in the primary – which was then used by some as an argument against him – and evaporated afterwards. On the flip side of the coin, IE money is doing its damnedest to tip the scales in the battle between Braddock and Lisa Herbold in District One. The candidates emerged from the primaries with neck-in-neck vote counts, and are waging a tight campaign in West Seattle.

Union Money

Unions can serve as a counterbalance to the influence of business organizations, like restaurant owners or developers. In this year's election, however, their favored candidates often overlapped. Seattle politicians typically exist in shades of blue, so union interests backed both candidates in many district races. But running the numbers, they have a clear favorite in each.

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These numbers only include direct donations from unions, and those identifying as their employees. Narrowing to rank-and-file members isn't possible with the data available. But we imagine it would make Sawant's lead even more bonkers.

Attorney Money

Lawyers and lawmakers. The members of each profession often take a great deal of interest in the other. It is not uncommon for them to switch places during their careers, moving from public service to a firm, or vice versa.

When it comes to campaign fundraising, attorneys are almost always a prominent target. Below is a breakdown of how they're throwing money around in the districts. As Mayor Ed Murray's former legal counsel and an accomplished attorney, Lorena Gonzalez understandably dominates this category.

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Tech Money

The city's ascendent techie class is not seen as very politically active. One Google employee even made that his campaign theme in this year's primaries, before flaming out in pretty amusing fashion. Judging solely by their political donations, they're not making a splash in campaign financing quite yet, with one notable exception.

For all candidates but one, the average amount of donations from tech industry sources is $2200. Sawant has received an astronomical $21k, from the employees of companies like Amazon, Google, Zillow, Microsoft, F5 Networks, Adobe, T-Mobile, and more.

As I've reported previously, Sawant is the council's resident techie, as a former programmer and former wife of a Microsoft employee. Whether it's these roots, her advocacy for municipal broadband, or the love that people in the industry have for "disruptors", Sawant receives a lion's share of tech donations on the council. Her main contributor is Microsoft, the area's most politically active local tech company, and one with city contracts.

The below is a breakdown of the roughly $60k that tech companies and employees have donated in district elections.

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However, there is an argument to be made that the Chamber's PAC is also an expression of tech money preferences. In an op-ed for Geekwire, Techstars director and all-around thought leader in the local tech industry Chris DeVore encouraged the sector to get more involved in politics. To guide their votes, he pointed them to the Seattle Chamber PAC's voter guide.

All that said, a shout out to Harrell for getting the race's sole donation from an IBM employee, and Herbold for roping in a donor who works at AOL. And speaking of old school...

Retired/Unemployed Money

Few people give a damn about civic issues like the retired. They attend public meetings, they write and call their political representatives, and most important to the subject at hand, they vote with their dollars. The donations of retirees represent 15 percent of all campaign money in this election, more than any other source examined here.

Of all the candidate jibs out there, retirees like the cut of Burgess' and Banks' the most. They've raised $83k and $72k from this demographic respectively, for over 40 percent of retiree money in this election. Sawant comes in third place with $50k.

But who is most dependent on the largesse of their elders, as a share of overall donations? As the graph below illustrates, the surprising winner is Grant.

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Note: Many campaigns have lumped together "unemployed" and "retired" in their campaign filings, so we've done the same. This does not cause any major shift in the numbers, and seems sensible, given the amount of self-described unemployed people maxing out to candidates.


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School Employee Money

If reaction to the Seattle Teachers Strike last month is any indication, the employees of our local schools enjoy a lot of support in the city. So who are they supporting in the general election?

Below is a donation rundown for local school employees, from both the university and K-12 level. As the numbers show, there's no breakaway choice for this demographic beside Sawant, and to a lesser extent Burgess. Otherwise, school employees mainly lean toward the safe pick everywhere except District Six, where they've donated more to Weatbrook than O'Brien.

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Note: These numbers do not include any yoga teacher donations, which popped up with some frequency in the donation data. These numbers also only include individual donations, not those of unions or PACs.

Tribal Money

Of the interest group activity in district elections, it's tough to name any as concentrated as Native American support for Debora Juarez. Juarez is a member of the Blackfeet Nation who grew up on the Puyallup Reservation, and served as the Executive Director of Indian Affairs under Governors Locke and Lowry. In that time, she clearly made some friends who really, really want to see her on the council. Of the almost $109k Juarez has raised, over a fifth has come from the tribes and their employees.

In addition to the $23k she has raised from tribes, a supportive IE named NW Tribes for Debora has raised another $28k – funded by the Northwest Tribal PAC and the Nooksack Tribe, which is located north of Bellingham.

Juarez bristles at the claim that she is heavily supported by "outside money", but it's hard to argue based on the numbers. Of her 52 individual donations connected to tribes, only four have come from individuals who live in Seattle. As noted, 97 percent of Juarez's campaign donations have originated from outside her district.  


This year's district elections may not be as unique as some would've hoped, with regard to the influence of money. But if you're searching for something out of the ordinary, councilwoman Sawant has not disappointed. As demonstrated above, she is building a base of donors from many different sectors, and her ability to activate them to support her work is currently unmatched in city politics. The degree to which she blows everyone out of the water in some funding categories, and her ability to rely on many small donors, is this election's clearest sign that the old guard is being shaken.

So it seems only natural to conclude with one of the most unique aspect of Sawant's fundraising – her assortment of out-of-city donors. Until next time, always follow the money.

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To read more about differences between candidates in individual districts, where they're getting their money, and more, the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission has the most user-friendly system available.

To dig deeper into the details of campaign donations, you can read disclosures filed with SEEC at the link above, and download campaign documents from the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

To see a pinpoint map of political donors in the 2013 election, check out Sightline's research on the subject. Indications are they probably haven't changed much since its publication.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at