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Government and Politics
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Wealthy Individuals Bankroll Washington Campaigns

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Kara McDermott
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KUOW

So far this year, business interests have contributed more than $16 million to political campaigns and committees in Washington.

But gifts from individual donors eclipse even that. That’s because a small group of wealthy people are writing large checks.

When it comes to initiatives, donors can give as much as they want. There are no caps. Peter Quist is with the National Institute On Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana. He said the theory is you can’t corrupt an initiative.

“The idea that there are unlimited contributions there don’t raise the same question about the quid pro quo opportunity that you might get with a candidate,” Quist said.

Big money in Washington’s gun fight

If there’s one person who’s synonymous this year with mega-campaign contributions in Washington, it’s Seattle’s Nick Hanauer.

Hanauer has emerged as a national advocate for a higher minimum wage. But this year he’s also waging another battle. This one for passage of a gun control measure on Washington’s fall ballot.

Initiative 594 would expand Washington’s background check requirement for gun sales to include transactions between private parties. Right now, only federally-licensed firearms dealers have to conduct a check.

Just last month, Hanauer contributed $1 million to the I-594 campaign. Earlier this year, Hanauer made it clear he’s doing more than just underwriting the effort.

“The gun fight is something that I’m not tangentially interested in, the gun fight is something I’m leading in the state,” he said.

Hanauer is one of several wealthy Washingtonians who have written large checks to I-594. Other major donors include Bill and Melinda Gates who together also gave $1 million. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie who’ve contributed more than $800,000. And Seahawks owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave $500,000.

‘Billionaires are trying to bully us around’

Gun rights advocates have seized on the big contributions.

In a recent exchange with champion shooter Anette Wachter of Seattle, NRA radio host Cam Edwards said, “Some billionaires in Washington state have decided to dump a ton of money into this I-594, this gun control initiative.”

Wachter responded,“I know, billionaires are trying to bully us around.”

The I-594 campaign points out it has received thousands of small donations too. But consider that of the more than $7 million raised so far by Initiative 594, more than half has come from individuals who gave $50,000 or more.

Initiative 591, a pro-gun rights measure, is also on Washington’s fall ballot. But so far that campaign has not reported any large contributions from individuals.

Getting around the caps

In Washington, direct contributions to candidates are capped -- the result of a 1992 citizen initiative. But wealthy donors have other options. There are no caps on contributions to political action committees. And then there’s what has been called the “rich guy” loophole: individuals can give unlimited amounts to Washington’s political parties and also to legislative caucus campaign committees.

According to Quist, large checks into these coffers do have quid pro quo potential.

“Certainly any source of money that is sizable raises the question of outsized influence or access to the agenda of that candidate or committee,” he said.

So who’s writing big checks this year to PACs and legislative caucus committees? Here are just two examples of top donors:

Brent McKinley runs a company that leases office space to the state. That’s why he testified last year before a panel of lawmakers. This year, he and his wife have contributed $30,000 to a political action committee associated with Washington Senate Republicans. Control of the state Senate is on the line this November. In the past, the couple has given to both parties.

Legislative Democrats have taken in $100,000 from Tom and Sonia Campion. Tom is the founder of Zumiez clothing and a wilderness advocate. He said he wanted to maximize the value of Zumiez “to give my share of the wealth, a high percentage of it goes into protection of these great public spaces.”

The Campions have a quote on their foundation website: “If you aren’t participating fully in the democratic process, you’re leaving leverage on the table.”

Staying out of the spotlight

Most deep-pocketed donors prefer to let their money do the talking. I reached out to several of these higher-dollar donors and left several voicemails and spoke with several executive assistants. But no one called me back.

I did get a couple of emailed responses along the lines of thanks, but no thanks. One donor said he preferred to remain out of the spotlight to avoid being hit up for additional contributions. Bill and Melinda Gates did issue a statement after their $1 million contribution to the background check measure. It read in part: “We believe it will be an effective and balanced approach to improving gun safety.”

Quist said individual donors typically contribute for one of three reasons: they want to help elect their party to power, they are seeking a specific policy outcome, or they are “Looking for a broader political, personal utopia, I guess, if you will, rather than a specific return on their investment necessarily.”

Usually wealthy individual donors enjoy relative anonymity. But not always. This year, the conservative Freedom Foundation called on the Thurston County Democratic Party to return a $65,000 contribution from the popular new-age teacher JZ Knight. The Party declined.

More recently, California billionaire and climate activist Tom Steyer generated headlines. He’s set up a political action committee to help Democrats win back control of the Washington Senate.