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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."

SEIU, Dr. Bronner's Behind Major Donor To Washington Minimum Wage Measure

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
File photo. Groups like The Fairness Project have poured money into political campaigns in Washington state like Raise Up Washington.

There’s a lot of talk about “dark money” in politics these days. That’s money raised and spent by so-called “social welfare” organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors.

But sometimes these groups will reveal who’s giving them money -- if you ask.

The Fairness Project is a California-based non-profit working to pass minimum wage measures in states and cities across the country. Over the summer, it contributed $300,000 to the campaign for Initiative 1433 in Washington. It’s a ballot measure to raise the state minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by 2020. The initiative would also require employers to provide paid sick leave.

You can find out who’s funding Initiative 1433 by going to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission website. But that won’t tell you who’s behind The Fairness Project.

That’s because Washington campaign finance law doesn’t require social welfare organization to disclose their donors unless they raise money to spend on a specific campaign.

“We’re not trying to hide anything, ” Fairness Project Executive Director Ryan Johnson said. “We’re very, very proud of the work we’re doing, we’re very, very proud of the donors who have made the leap to support The Fairness Project.”

Johnson said The Fairness Project was launched in 2015 with the help of a $5 million grant from United Healthcare Workers in California, part of the Service Employees International Union. SEIU is a national leader in the push for a higher minimum wage.

Just this month, The Fairness Project received an additional $250,000 contribution from organic soapmaker Dr. Bronner’s.

“We want to be associated with this movement,” Dr. Bronner CEO David Bronner said. He called the minimum wage fight “a new front in our [company’s] general efforts to move our society to a better place.”

Both the company and The Fairness Project publicized the Dr. Bronner’s pledge of financial support in press releases in May.

In 2013, Dr. Bronner’s poured more than $2 million directly into a Washington initiative to require labeling of genetically-engineered foods, known as GMOs. That measure failed.

This year, Bronner said, rather than give directly to the I-1433 campaign, “[We’re] basically trusting that these guys [at The Fairness Project] know how to strategically deploy resources to best effect.”

Besides Washington, minimum wage measures are on the ballot this year in Arizona, Colorado and Maine.

It’s unclear if any of the Dr. Bronner’s money will flow to the I-1433 campaign in Washington, but even without it The Fairness Project is already among the campaign’s top five donors.

“They’re above-board and so we’re comfortable accepting financial contributions and engaging with The Fairness Project as an organization because they do good work and they’re honest about the work they do and who funds them,” I-1433 campaign spokesman Jack Sorensen said.

Earlier this year, the Washington House and Senate passed legislation that would have required nonprofits that participate in state and local campaigns to disclose their top 10 donors. But the Republican-led state Senate killed the measure after it was amended by the House.

According to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission, the I-1433 campaign has raised $3.5 million. Its five largest contributors are:

  • Nick Hanauer: $1 million
  • SEIU Washington State Council: $500,000
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Intl. Union $350,000
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 $305,000
  • The Fairness Project $300,000

The No on I-1433 campaign has raised $54,646 from just four contributors:

  • Washington Restaurant Association: $25,000
  • Washington Food Industry Association: $10,000
  • Washington Retail Association: $10,000
  • Washington State Farm Bureau: $5,000
Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."