Control of Washington Legislature could be influenced with ‘independent’ cash

  • Mon Oct 31st, 2016 10:00pm
  • News

By Jim Camden

The Spokesman-Review

With each chamber of the Washington Legislature narrowly controlled by a different political party and the prospect of either or both changing hands in the November election, an unprecedented amount of money is being spent to influence close races.

Not by the candidates themselves, but by independent groups, many of which mask their sources of money by forming new groups with generic names that conceal the donors’ possible stake in the election.

Some $9 million has been spent in a handful of races in swing legislative districts by groups that either support or oppose charter schools, business or union interests. The organizations set up to buy television or radio commercials, send mailers or conduct polls come under a special category in Washington campaign law known as independent expenditures.

By comparison, the races for governor and other statewide offices, which usually far outpace the legislative races, have only generated $1.7 million from independent groups, the state Public Disclosure Commission reports.

But while they are technically independent from the candidates they are trying to help — most often by launching attacks against the opponent — these committees are not independent from the people and organizations that regularly try to influence the Legislature or with a stake in who holds the majority.

Right now, Democrats hold a two-seat majority in the House, and Republicans have a one-seat majority in the Senate — or two seats if one counts Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with the GOP to give them the Majority Coalition Caucus.

Some independent campaigns get their money directly from committees set up by the political caucuses trying to gain or keep control of the chambers, although someone unfamiliar with the Legislature might not realize that.

Take New Direction, which is not a reincarnation of a British boy band but an independent committee set up to help defeat six Republicans running for legislative seats in Western Washington, including Sens. Steve O’Ban, of Pierce County, and Steve Litzow, of Bellevue.

The main source of the $4 million in New Direction coffers comes from the Truman Fund, which is controlled by the House Democrats, and the Kennedy Fund, controlled by Senate Democrats. Those funds in turn get money from labor unions — the teachers and Service Employees unions are among their biggest donors — Native American tribes, trial lawyers and lobbyists.

The Kennedy and Truman funds also have combined to give $745,000 to a separate committee, Mainstream Voters of Washington, which has spent $180,000 to defeat state Rep. Chad Magendanz, an Issaquah Republican running for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Mark Mullet, as well as lesser amounts against other Republicans.

Working to defeat Mullet is Working Families, which got $1 million from The Leadership Council, the political action committee set up by Republicans in the state Senate. The council received some $575,000 from a national GOP fund, but it also collected money from business lobbyists and two groups that support charter schools, Stand For Children and the Washington Charters PAC.

This creates a bit of a problem for those groups, because Mullet has been a supporter of charter schools. So Stand for Children joined with some other charter school backers and gave $140,000 to a separate independent committee, Great Schools Great Kids, which paid for ads supporting Mullet.

Stand for Children — which received $500,000 from Connie Ballmer, the wife of former Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, and six-figure donations from Reed Hastings, the head of Netflix, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. — also spent $62,000 directly on an independent campaign to help Litzow, another charter supporter, and joined with the Washington Charters PAC in another independent committee, Voters for Washington Children, that paid for mailers to support him.

An independent campaign against Litzow is being mounted by a long-standing foe of charter schools in the state, the Washington Education Association. The state teachers union is one of the few recognizable organizations that doesn’t always hide its contributions by setting up a separate committee to attack a foe or boost an ally.

Lisa Wellman, the Democrat trying to unseat Litzow, is getting attacked by the Citizens for Progress Enterprise, which gets money from Enterprise Washington Jobs PAC, a collection point for campaign cash from some of the state’s biggest business lobbying groups. Also giving to Citizens for Progress are Phillips 66, the state hospitality industry and Stand For Children. The Ballmers are two of just three actual citizens listed among Citizens for Progress’ donors.

Enterprise Washington JobsPAC has collected more than $750,000 from the petroleum, agriculture, construction, health care and insurance industries and other business donors, including $5,000 from Cowles Co., the parent company of The Spokesman-Review. It, in turn, provided most of the $408,000 sent to South Sound Future PAC Enterprise Washington.

South Sound Future has spent $120,000 to support incumbent GOP Rep. Teri Hickel and another $115,000 against Kristina Reeves, her Democratic challenger, running in a district that includes parts of King and Pierce counties between Tacoma and Seattle.

One thing the major independent campaigns have in common is they are all in Western Washington. With a safe Democratic district in the Spokane city, and traditionally Republican districts surrounding it, the largest independent effort in the Spokane area is the $1,122 spent by Planned Parenthood Votes to help Lynnette Vehrs, a Democrat running for an open House seat in the 6th District.

The race with the most money being spent by independent campaigns is in the Vancouver area, where more than $1 million is being spent by various groups in the contest between Democrat Tim Probst and Republican Lynda Wilson, who are seeking the seat currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Don Benton.

The Good Government Leadership Council, which got all of its $1.1 million from the Senate Republicans’ Leadership Council, has spent more than $420,000 against Probst. Southwest Communities Enterprise Washington — another creation of Enterprise Washington JobsPAC and various heavy hitters among the business lobbyist organizations — ponied up another $205,000.

Wilson is being buffeted by some $370,000 from New Direction, the committee that mainly gets its money from House and Senate Democratic committees, along with $45,000 from the WEA and $3,500 from Planned Parenthood Votes.

Independents don’t just spend money against candidates, although the totals are heavily weighted toward opposition. In the race between Wilson and Probst, Wilson got some $155,000 in support from Southwest Communities and $77,000 from the Washington Realtors PAC. Probst received support worth $112,000 from the Senate Democrats’ Legislative Majority PAC, and about $30,000 from OurVotesCount, which gets its money from the Service Employees union, Washington Conservation Voters and the Progress Alliance, a Seattle-based liberal group that mentions on its website “Politics is a contact support.”