The game is afoot.
The game is afoot. Lester Black

Many of Seattle's mayoral campaign representatives have praised the city's unique public campaign financing program for limiting the influence of big donors and creating time and space for candidates to run on the issues. But that dynamic will soon change now that an independent expenditure supporting former Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell has officially filed with the city's elections commission.

Campaigns that participate in the city's Democracy Voucher Program face firm caps on fundraising and spending, but fundraising groups called independent expenditures (IEs) or PACs can raise and spend as much as they'd like to support or oppose candidates, so long as they do not coordinate with those candidates. Once PAC and campaign fundraising in any given race exceeds the voucher program's spending limit, other candidates in those races can ask the election commission to lift the cap for that race. Once that happens, the rush for cold, hard cash opens to all; big donors begin to take center stage, and the voice of everyday Seattleites diminishes. It happened in the 2019 city council races, and now it'll happen in the 2021 mayoral races.

If campaigns don't approve of big money in the race—either from business groups or unions—then they can denounce PACs that rise up to support them. A spokesperson for Bruce Harrell didn't exactly do that. "Bruce is grateful for the overwhelming support he's received from community members across the city, particularly in Seattle's diverse Black and AAPI communities, who are looking for a mayor to unite Seattle and make real progress on the challenges we face."

Several officers run "Bruce Harrell for Seattle's Future," including three people listed on Harrell's endorsements page: Sorrento Hotel owner and Capitol Hill developer Mike Malone; Downtown Seattle Association board member and entrepreneur Rita Brogan; and Nate Miles, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company that, of course, boasts a membership with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Other officers include real estate investor Brett Frank-Looney, former senior Microsoft finance and marketing executive Reggie Brown, central Seattle property manager Dana Frank, commercial realtor Chris Moe, and Diversity Recruiters founder and managing partner Tony Wright. Diversity Recruiters is also a Chamber member. Most of these officers are Black or AAPI.

As I mentioned earlier today, a handful of the mayoral candidates assumed that a PAC would swoop in and bust the cap, they just didn't know if it'd be big business or union. And to be clear, the integrity of the cap remains whole. The pro-Harrell PAC hasn't raised any money, let alone spent any, so there's still time for some other PAC to break the cap first. The entrance of Bruce Harrell for Seattle's Future simply marks the moment when expectation and reality in the mayor's race have finally aligned, as the other campaigns are quick to note.

"We are completely unsurprised by this news—frankly, we were waiting for it to happen. It is clear that the showing of our campaign’s grassroots support, via small-dollar donations and the Democracy Voucher program is seen as a threat," said a spokesperson for Andrew Grant Houston's campaign.

"It’s also hard not to take notice to the names on this registration—millionaires, investors, lobbyists, and developers. These are not representatives of the city we are, nor the city we should be," the spokesperson added.

As for the other mayoral candidates, a spokesperson for Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk said, "We saw outside groups try to put their thumb on the scale two years ago. Seattle voters rejected that heavy handedness. We expect voters will do that again."

A spokesperson for former State Rep. Jessyn Farrell's campaign agreed. "This isn't really a new independent expenditure to influence the race, this is the same old play where corporate special interests find a way to support their hand-picked candidate," a spokesperson said, adding, "Bruce has been big businesses' champion for years. It's unfortunate that powerful special interests are trying to undermine Seattle's public financing of our elections. We believe voters are smart enough to recognize this effort to buy our elections, and no amount of money can obscure the consequences of years of failed leadership by Bruce and others from City Hall."

And in a statement, Seattle Council President Lorena Gonzalez said, “Corporate-funded PACs are why Seattle has a homelessness and affordable housing crisis. It’s why economic inequality continues to worsen. I’ve spent my legislative career working to eliminate the influence of corporate money and money from foreign-owned corporations in our elections by passing the Clean Campaigns Act. My campaign is funded by working people because that’s who I’m going to be fighting for as Seattle’s next mayor.”

Nathalie Graham contributed reporting, but she didn't write anything, so if I got something wrong then yell at me.