Elections aren’t just about the democratic process or the freedom to choose the desired candidate for the job; these days it’s also about a metric ton of money exchanging hands to finance the campaigns of politicians – Bothell is no different.
“Campaign contributions play an important part in allowing the candidate to get the word out about why they are running for council,” said Andy Rheaume, incumbent for Bothell City Council position 2. “The vast majority of campaign financing should come from Bothell residents and the candidate’s family [and] friends.”
Since June, more than $44,000 was raised by seven of the eight candidates for Bothell City Council. While most donations came from private citizens, there is also Political Action Committees (PAC) and corporate money financing local elections.
“I was surprised to see how much the candidates raised. In a town the size of Bothell, it’s entirely possible to spread a message without going into high finance,” said Maryanna Price, a Bothell council candidate who did not pass the primary election in August. “As for how loudly money speaks and how well it’s heard, I’d have to say that candidates do tend to respond to those who give donations. We’ve seen the loyalties of the majority line up too frequently with the moneyed donors.”
The practice of using money or gifts to entice voters or influence election outcomes has been used since George Washington spent $195 (around $5,460.60 in today’s value, according to MeasuringWorth.com) for food and drinks in the elections for the Virginia House of Burgesses, and long before that.
“I don’t see the role of campaign finances in Bothell elections as being fundamentally different from the role… in any other elections. That is, campaign contributions provide an opportunity for the candidate to get his or her message out to voters more broadly than possible through face-to-face interactions alone,” said Robert Carsrud, a primary candidate for Bothell City Council position 4, who will not be on the ballot in November. “However, I do believe that in a city election, the results are going to be more heavily influenced by those face-to-face interactions…”
To combat the ways money can corrupt politics, the government has rules to regulate campaign contributions.
First, the candidates must not only report each donation, but must also identify anyone who is contributing more than $25 by name and street address.
Second, there are contribution limits for candidate campaigns, different limits for different offices. City office positions have a campaign contribution limit of $950. However, there are separate funding limits for the primary and the general elections, so the same individual or corporate entity can spend a total of $1,900 during an elections year.
Third, the state government provides public financing for the elections by using public funds. However, a candidate must not raise any private capital and can only spend a specific amount of money on their campaign. The dollar amount is set by the states.
However, nothing is that simple, and the rules and regulations are extremely confusing. Even more confusing can be who can and cannot contribute to political campaigns.
This year, Northshore School District candidate David Cogan ran afoul of the campaign financial laws when he accepted a donation of time and skills that topped more than $5,000.
“…The individual who provided services to the campaign is not a professional and does not perform those services in any other capacity where she would be compensated. ‘Volunteer services’ are not a contribution under the provisions of RCW 42.17A.005(13)(b)(vi),” said Lori Anderson, of the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. “When it’s money, the candidate is instructed to refund the contribution. When it’s an in-kind contribution, the item could be returned if the circumstances allow or the candidate could reimburse the contributor.”
Cogan was directed to file an amended report.
Outside of errors in reporting, other important issues arise when talking about campaign contributions.
Take, for instance, PACs and Super PACs, the latter of which can raise an unlimited amount of money for any candidate, issue, company, union, association or entity they choose. They are not required to report and disclose contributions and they are not required to limit campaign contribution amounts. The only limit to Super PACs is they cannot donate directly to candidates, though that doesn’t stop them from being able to spend money for candidates.
Bothell is not a stranger to PACs.
“I don’t work for any of my contributors and [I] don’t depend on them for business. Although I am supported by the owners of the Ranch Drive-In, I can’t envision how that could be a conflict of interest – except with my diet,” said John Lee, general election candidate for Bothell City Council position 6. “I have a lot of supporters in the business community in Bothell, some of them have given modest contributions. I have raised less than $2,000 [in the primary] and am focused on bringing Bothell together through community events, not big money.”
Rosalind Gorc, Tim Ottersburg and John Lee have taken donations from the Affordable Housing Council, a PAC for the Master Builders Association. According to the Affordable Housing Council website, they are a PAC that ensures issues that directly impact the homebuilding industry, such as impacting critical areas regulations, impact fees, permitting processes and more.
“The endorsement and contribution came with no promises from me, only a willingness to listen and be respectful, as I have promised to each and every citizen and business I have met,” Ottersburg said. “My largest business contributor is Alexa’s Cafe on Main Street, which I am very proud of. I support small businesses in Bothell that serve our community and want Bothell to grow the right way. I appreciate their support in return.”
Furthermore, the National Women’s Political Caucus, a PAC supporting women who seek public office with recruiting, training and financial contributions, has also donated money to Davina Duerr.
“These entities want their viewpoints to be heard. I believe that all viewpoints should be heard; the problem occurs when PAC’s issues are ‘represented,’” said Duerr, general election candidate for Bothell’s position 6. “The Women’s Political Caucus gave me $250 and does not lobby for business causes or money making decisions. Their main goal is to support women running for office as well as affordable housing, child care and senior care.”
After the Citizen’s United decision made by the Supreme Court in 2010, any non-profit or for-profit organization or business entity may donate to any election campaign – basically giving corporations the same legal rights as people and are able to choose their candidate with for-profit dollars.
This, too, has impacted Bothell elections.
James McNeal has business contributions from Brink Property Management in Bellevue ($950), Star Roofing in Snohomish ($500), and two contributions from Exterior Stucco in Lynnwood ($405 each). Though, Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe also donated to his campaign to the tune of $100.
“We should be open and transparent about the reason they are contributing and ensure they have no impact on our community,” said James McNeal, Bothell City Council candidate for position 4. “If the corporate entities are lobbying for decisions or have influence in our community [it would create a conflict of interest].”
Other candidates have chosen a less costly way to campaign. Both Maryanna Price and Nadia Mustafa have chosen to have ‘mini-campaigns,’ which do not require electronic filing of reports for donations or expenditures when less than $5,000 is raised and spent. As of the end of the primary elections, they still had not submitted their financial reports.
If the primary is any indication, there will be a lot more money flowing into Bothell general elections come this November.