In 2013, during the last municipal election campaigns in Seattle, the ridesharing company Lyft was fighting for its life in a dispute over local taxi regulations. It contributed $2,600 to candidates for mayor and city council and also spent $15,000 lobbying city hall. Eventually, it won city rules agreeable to its interests.

Meanwhile, Clise Properties, a developer involved in an enormous set of construction projects north of downtown Seattle for which it sought city permission to take over alleys and install a new district energy system, spent $48,000 lobbying city officials that year. It also contributed $2,800 to candidates for city office. It has since won permission for many of its projects.

The Rental Housing Association (RHA), which represents landlords in city hall in policy fights over apartment regulations, tenant protections, and land-use ordinances, spent $30,000 on city lobbying in 2013 and $2,600 on campaign contributions.

Honest Elections Seattle, Initiative 122 on the November city ballot, tightens lobbying-contribution standards that would tame such blending of business and politics. It would enshrine in law a policy principle that is simple and intuitive: elected leaders should not take campaign money from those they are actively regulating.

To put that principle in practice, Honest Elections Seattle bans contributions from companies, unions, individuals, and all other entities that have spent $5,000 or more on city lobbying during the preceding year. If your business interests are big enough to warrant shelling out five grand to a lobbyist, candidates for city office shouldn’t be taking your money.

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This provision in Honest Elections Seattle would have prevented the contributions from Lyft, Clise, and the Rental Housing Association in 2013. Who else would have been affected?

Some 24 entities spent $5,000 or more lobbying city hall during 2013. Two were nonprofits, which are banned by federal law from making political contributions to candidates. None were unions. The rest were companies, business associations, or business-aligned PACs. Fourteen of the 24 made no political contributions—effectively obeying the ban already. Of the remaining ten, three spent $6,000 or less on lobbying. Had Honest Elections Seattle been in place, they might have reduced their lobbying budgets to stay under the threshold. The remaining seven included Lyft, Clise, and RHA. The other four were:

  • Cedar Grove Composting ($350 in contributions), which holds contracts to handle composting for the city’s solid-waste utility. In 2014, the city enacted a mandatory composting law, which presumably increased Cedar Grove’s city business.
  • Clear Channel Outdoor ($900), which is one of the largest owners of billboards in the city. In 2014, the city council enacted a new set of billboard rules.
  • CalPortland ($1,200), which is a major producer of concrete. It lobbied on infrastructure projects, including the Alaskan Way Viaduct project, the seawall replacement project, and the 520 bridge rebuild, which are generating or will generate enormous demand for concrete. It also lobbied on regulatory issues with huge implications for its facilities on Seattle’s Duwamish Waterway, such as the city’s Shoreline Master Plan.
  • Seattle Steam ($1,350), which depends on numerous forms of city cooperation to expand its district-heating business in downtown Seattle.

Between them, these seven companies contributed about $12,000. That’s roughly 0.5 percent of in-city contributions in the 2013 cycle: a small percentage but still a lot of money from just seven companies, all of them simultaneously trying to make money by winning favorable policies from the people they were contributing to.

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  • Whatever you may think of the particular policies for which these companies lobbied (I’m a fan of Lyft’s business model, Clise’s in-city developments and district heating, and of mandatory food-waste composting), their actions exemplify what Honest Elections Seattle would stop: political leaders taking campaign money from those they’re in the midst of regulating.

    Notes on methods:

    Sightline analyzed all 2013 city lobbying expenditures reported to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, identified who spent $5,000 or more on city lobbying during the 2013 calendar year, and checked which of them had made political contributions in the 2013 election cycle in the records of the state Public Disclosure Commission. This method of research simplifies the question: we did not attempt to ascertain whether these firms had spent $5,000 on lobbying during the 12 months immediately prior to making each of their contributions, which is the test of Honest Elections Seattle’s lobbying contribution ban. Still, our method provides a reasonable approximation of what the initiative would have done had it been in effect. We also examined lobbying activity reports filed by many of the named lobbyists and the sign-in records from their meetings with city council members.

    To put the political contributions of those who spent heavily on lobbying in context, we relied on the same data set of political money that we developed for (and documented in) our study “Who Funds Seattle’s Political Candidates?

    Thanks to researcher Jane Harvey for her assistance with this article.