Two first-time candidates in the Seattle City Council races, Tanya Woo of District 2 and Joy Hollingsworth of District 3, are on the precipice of maxing out on contributions from the Democracy Voucher program, a public campaign financing scheme that aims to return some power to The People by handing all Seattle residents four $25 coupons to spend on candidates of their choosing. 

Some argue the City created the program precisely for candidates such as Woo and Hollingsworth, who boast deep, generational connections to communities of color. While data show that Democracy Vouchers helped make Seattle’s donor pool less white, it also shows the same demographics who always vote and donate more–upper-middle-class white people–still make up the majority of voucher participants. With big business expected to back Woo and Hollingsworth, it appears the voucher program could pad the very money it aims to combat.

Support from Communities of Color

Consultants for the Woo and Hollingsworth campaigns said the candidates don’t have some big secret for collecting Democracy Vouchers. They run all the typical collecting operations, such as door-knocking excursions, tabling outside light rail stations, and going to community events. For the most part, people are just mailing their vouchers to the City. Consultants say it’s because their neighbors know them. 

Woo has raised more than $83,000 in vouchers. According to the International Examiner, Woo’s family has lived in the Seattle area since 1887. Her family has owned the historic Louisa Hotel since the 1960s, and her father opened the first Chinese bakery in Seattle, the now-closed Mon Hei Bakery.

More recently, Woo made a name for herself as an advocate for the Chinatown International District (CID) in 2020, when she started the CID Community Night Watch. Last year, Woo fought a very public battle against the County when she thought it did not adequately inform CID constituents about the expansion of a shelter in SODO. 

Hollingsworth has raised more than $80,000 in vouchers. She also draws donations from many different sectors, including the nonprofit world, cannabis, collegiate sports, and, most importantly, her community in the Central District, her campaign manager said. 

Hollingsworth’s family has lived in the Central District since the 1940s. Her mom worked for the King County Housing Authority and her father worked at Seattle Parks and Recreation. Her grandmother, local civil rights trailblazer Dorothy Hollingsworth, was the first Black woman in the state to serve on a school board. 

“Democracy Vouchers have always been about community involvement and getting community support,” said Michael Charles, an Upper Left consultant on Woo’s payroll. “When people talk about the power of support from communities of color, I think both [Woo and Hollingsworth] genuinely have communities of color supporting them.”

The Democracy Vouchers aim to rebalance power in campaign financing, and Seattle’s donor class started to look more like the city’s voter base after the program started, according to a study out of Georgetown University. Still, that means most of the people who use vouchers are white, older, and make more than $100,000.

However, the neighborhood connections appear to have paid off somewhat. Both candidates have certainly collected most of their vouchers in-district, but not at rates much greater than other candidates. 

According to data from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, 39% of Woo’s total contributions come from her district, and 66% of her vouchers come from D2. In that regard, she’s slightly outperforming Morales, who has collected 62% of her vouchers from D2 residents. 

By comparison, Hollingsworth’s share of vouchers is less concentrated within her district. District 3 contributors make up 41% of her total funding and 54% of her voucher money. That’s pretty in-line with the city’s third-highest voucher collector, District 4 candidate Ron Davis, who picked up 43% of his total contributions and 54% of his vouchers from within his district. And proportionally speaking, D3 candidate Alex Hudson beats Hollingsworth with 62% in-district contributions, but Hudson has only collected about half as many vouchers. 

Obviously, Woo will not win every CID resident and Hollingsworth will not win every Central District resident because the neighborhoods are far from monolithic. Since every political belief under the sun exists in every district, “community support” could mean wealthy homeowners or renters in low-income housing, bosses or workers, Seattle is Dying types or Antifa supersoldiers, depending on which parts of the communities these candidates appeal to. 

Hollingsworth’s call to “rebuild trust” with police, for instance, will resonate with some people who live in the CD, but others might prefer the abolitionist-lite philosophy of D3 candidate Efrain Hudnell, or whatever the fuck Hudson thinks about cops.

Likewise, some people who know Woo from her advocacy and family legacy in the CID will disagree with her anti-tax perspective and rally around incumbent Council Member Tammy Morales. 

Business’ Blessing

Still, Woo and Hollingsworth are raising a lot of money from vouchers, and it looks like they’ll get support from another kind of “community” as well–the business community. 

In a city with two major political powers, labor and business, consultants and political watchers widely speculate that Woo and Hollingsworth will go for the mayor’s endorsement and business’ support. The two candidates supported Harrell during his 2021 race, and both share many of his policy positions–graffiti abatement, hire nicer cops, and apprehension around raising taxes on the wealthy. Those positions also align nicely with the big business interests that supported Harrell. Plus, Woo is running against Morales, who business fought against in her 2019 election, and who the Mayor allegedly sought to replace this cycle. MLK Labor has already endorsed Morales in the race.

But so far, Woo and Hollingsworth don’t appear to be tapping the Mayor’s donor list.

According to PDC data from May 8, Woo has received contributions from 1,163 donors. Only 16 of those donors contributed to Harrell’s 2021 campaign. Hollingsworth has received contributions from 771 donors. Only 28 of those donors also kicked money over to Harrell’s mayoral campaign. Similarly, District 1 candidate Rob Saka, who was allegedly hand-selected by the Mayor, shares zero of his 161 donors with Harrell. 

The race is still young. It is unknown to what degree Woo, Hollingsworth, or any Democracy Voucher participant will benefit from the very money the program aims to combat. Independent Expenditures–which are basically PACs–typically wait until a month before election day to pour in the big bucks, which will break the program’s $93,000 primary election spending cap and let loose floods of funds, rendering the entire Democracy Voucher program somewhat of a joke. Still, Woo and Hollingsworth are ones to watch.