By Jerry Cornfield
The battle for state legislative seats this fall will be fought in part with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations recycled from the campaigns of incumbent lawmakers.
Since May, nearly $2.8 million has been collected by the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the state House and Senate from members up for election this year.
That money comes out of surplus accounts where lawmakers stash excess contributions, funds they do not need to spend because they face little or no opposition but want to use to help elect others of their party.
Not surprisingly, caucus leaders are among those recycling the largest sums. They hold positions of power, and in politics nothing attracts money quite like the scent of power.
On the Democratic side, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has provided $80,000 to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, has turned in $87,000 to the political operation of her caucus.
Among Republicans, House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, and Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, have each given $135,000 to their respective caucuses since spring. Both lawmakers are unopposed in November.
Giving back in this manner is an expectation in each of the four caucuses and has reached the point where members feel a sort of peer pressure to give.
It’s also an election ritual which experienced donors understand offers another way of participating in campaigns. They realize when they give to an incumbent who doesn’t need the money, their dollars could wind up assisting other candidates, and it’s all kosher.
Kristiansen’s experience is instructive on how this all works.
Until this year, he had never raised $150,000 for a campaign. He’s already topped $180,000 — a gain he says is no doubt due in part to his “new capacity” as House Minority Leader.
Kristiansen’s been assured of re-election since May, when no one filed to run against him. Yet contributions, many unsolicited, flowed into his campaign coffer through the August primary as if he was fighting for his political life. Many donors gave him the maximum $1,900 for the primary and general elections combined.
Donations from locals will be kept in his surplus account for future campaigns, he said. Money received from outside the area is what he’s transferred to the House Republican Organizational Committee to aid GOP candidates in Snohomish County and around the state, he said. So far that’s added up to $135,000.
Kristiansen’s experience is typical of members in all four caucuses in the House and Senate. The House Democratic Campaign Committee leads all with $1.1 million in transfers from lawmakers since June. Eight members, including Chopp, gave at least $50,000.
Voters probably didn’t anticipate such behavior when they approved Initiative 134 in 1992 to reform the state’s campaign finance system.
That measure did permit lawmakers to make transfers from their surplus accounts to caucus committees. But the newly formed Public Disclosure Commission determined that the initiative limited the amount to the maximum for a contribution to a candidate.
In other words, a lawmaker would be allowed to give no more to the caucus than they could someone running for office — which today would be $1,900.
The Legislature amended the law in 1995 to scrub the limit, and lawmakers have been active recyclers ever since.
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; email@example.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.