Photo by Daniel Warn: District 7 candidates Andrew Lewis and Jim Pugel sought an endorsement by the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy ahead of the August primary. Pugel was one of two candidates CASE endorsed at that time and continues to support through independent expenditures.
Photo by Daniel Warn: District 7 candidates Andrew Lewis and Jim Pugel sought an endorsement by the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy ahead of the August primary. Pugel was one of two candidates CASE endorsed at that time and continues to support through independent expenditures.

City council candidates endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee are set to get a big boost in support from a $1.05 million contribution from Amazon, made just three weeks before the general election.

With seven seats on the ballot — only three districts with incumbents seeking re-election — the city council could see an ideological shift in 2020.

The chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy is backing those candidates it deems as pro-business.

“CASE and the business community want what the voters want: a functional Seattle City Council that gets back to the basics and effectively addresses challenges like traffic, affordability, and homelessness,” said CASE executive director Markham McIntyre in an Oct. 15 statement. “The money CASE has raised is from local companies who care about the future of this city. The status quo isn’t working: we have a dysfunctional, toxic environment at City Council and employers, including our city’s largest private employer, want a return to good government.”

A global e-commerce giant, with Prime memberships available in 17 countries, Amazon’s contribution to CASE on Oct. 15 brought its total for this election cycle to $1.45 million. That’s a little more than 10 percent of what it would have paid annually under an employee-hours tax the city council passed last year, but then repealed following a referendum campaign headed by CASE that Amazon also supported.

Amazon doubled its profit in the first three months of 2019, and is planning to spend $800 million to improve its Prime delivery times.

“We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle,” said Amazon spokesperson Aaron Toso in a statement. “We believe it is critical that our hometown has a city council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety.”

Amazon’s contribution appears to be the largest to date for a city council race in Seattle.

“With the big caveat that we don’t know what inflation-adjusted contribution was made in 1947, it is the largest in memory,” said Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

There are 12 city council candidates using the city’s Democracy Voucher program, and 11 have maxed out at the $150,000 cap. Candidates using the program are limited to accepting individual contributions of $250, not counting a potential $100 in vouchers from a voter.

There is no limit on how much a political action committee can spend supporting a candidate through independent expenditures. Candidates are not allowed to coordinate with a PAC as to the messaging in media advertisements, mailers, canvassing and other expenses made on their behalf.

CASE made its endorsement decision for the 2019 Seattle City Council race before the August primary, sending questionnaires to a select number of candidates. Then there were in-person interviews before a decision was reached.

District 7 candidate Jim Pugel, who served with the Seattle Police Department for 33 years — briefly as interim chief — said those questions revolved around business and employee safety, workforce and affordable housing, freight mobility, and worker and customer transportation.

“I think the headline should be, ‘Big business finally gets in the races.’ It’s been other big-interest groups for a long time,” Pugel said.

Pugel was one of two candidates CASE endorsed ahead of the primary, and advanced to the general election with 24.76 percent of the vote. Andrew Lewis, an assistant city attorney, took 31.71 percent of the vote.

“Andrew, by far, is the biggest winner of all, right now,” Pugel said.

CASE has spent a little more than $60,000 in support of Pugel’s campaign to date, including for canvassing, phone banking and direct mailers.

Compare that to the $148,000 the hotel and hospitality workers union Unite Here’s local chapter has spent in support of Lewis. Both District 7 candidates met with Unite Here Local 8’s members, according to Crosscut.

Lewis said he’s a fan of unions, and happy to support them, but added independent expenditures, regardless of who’s spending the money, have a “corrosive effect” in elections.

The King County Democrats and 43rd, 36th and 37th Legislative District Democrats are planning to denounce Amazon’s investment, and corporate PAC money in general, during a press conference at the Amazon Spheres on Thursday.

Lewis, who has the endorsement of all four Democratic Party groups, was invited to speak at the conference.

“I’m not going to be attending. I’m not a big fan of the Citizens United ruling, as I’ve said many times,” Lewis said. “I wish a lot of these groups that want to get involved in local politics would get involved in the Democracy Voucher program.”

Lewis did seek CASE’s endorsement ahead of the primary election, he said, adding he sought endorsements from every stakeholder group that invited him for an interview.

“I sought their endorsement,” he said. “I don’t know what would come of it.”

Lewis and Pugel are participating in the Democracy Voucher program, and both have reached their funding limit. Barnett said the SEEC will look at this year’s election cycle and how to possibly improve the program in the future.

“The lids have been blown for two of the races in 2017 and six out of seven in 2019, and we’ll have to look at if the caps make sense,” Barnett said.

As for getting big money out of local elections, that’s something Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González is proposing in a bill set to be released in early 2020. The legislation would limit contributions to PACs at $5,000 per donor, but is expected to be challenged because of the Citizens United ruling, which allows for unlimited PAC spending.

“Constitutionality is very questionable,” Barnett said. “It’s intended to be a test case.”

Queen Anne News asked both District 7 candidates what they thought about limiting independent expenditures.

Pugel said he thinks there should be limits for incumbents, who already have an advantage. He said he wouldn’t let support from big businesses affect his decision making if elected.

“You’ve got to make your decision based on facts and data and science and common sense,” Pugel said.

“I do think we need to push the envelope a little bit in regard to money and politics,” Lewis said, “regardless of where the money is coming from.”

While it remains unclear how CASE will divvy its Amazon money among the candidates it’s supporting, data show Pugel’s campaign has received the lowest amount of independent expenditures by CASE, with District 3 candidate Egan Orion receiving the lion’s share at nearly $250,000 in his bid to unseat Socialist Alternative Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who continues to push for taxing large corporations, and particularly Amazon.

Sawant released a statement regarding Amazon’s latest CASE contribution on Oct. 15.

"Amazon and Jeff Bezos dropped a million dollar bomb on our city's elections today, in a flagrant move to blow up Seattle's democratic process,” a portion of the statement reads. “This attempt of a hostile, right-wing takeover is utterly unconscionable. It is also a call to action for ordinary people — we cannot allow Bezos to buy this election.”

Orion, whose campaign has claimed in fliers around District 3 that he has taken no corporate PAC money — again, candidates had to seek CASE’s endorsement and, by default, independent expenditures in their support — also issued a statement calling such spending a distraction.

"I entered this race because District 3 residents deserve a voice in City Hall, and I have built my campaign around Democracy vouchers, in-district donations, and doorbelling—while my opponent has rejected vouchers in favor of a massive out of state fundraising effort,” Orion’s statement reads. “The influx of PAC money in City politics this year is completely out of scale with the grassroots campaign myself and many others are trying to run, and is proving to be a distraction from the real issues. A lot of this spending is clearly driven by a frustration felt across the city—from seniors and young renters to unions and businesses large and small, that we need change on the City Council. If elected, I will absolutely pursue policies to limit outside spending and bring balance to our civic elections."

While Pugel hasn’t yet received the kind of infusion of support from CASE that candidates in other districts have, he is also getting a campaign boost from a new People for Seattle PAC formed by former councilmember Tim Burgess and Pho Cyclo Cafe owner Taylor Hoang.

An Oct. 11 independent expenditures report states People for Seattle spent $8,500 to produce video ads supporting Pugel, $70,110 for cable TV ads and $30,368 on digital ads.

“I don’t think you have to focus on who’s doing it,” Pugel said of independent expenditures. “I think the big question is why.”

Ballots for the Nov. 5 general election were mailed out on Wednesday.