The Curious Case of the 37th District

This year will long be remembered as a milestone in local Seattle electoral politics, and not just because of the new district system of city council elections. The infusion of enormous wealth into Seattle’s economy – and especially the seemingly limitless corporate welfare enjoyed by real estate interests – has finally given Seattle big city politics. That is, politics in which large sums of money are spent, inside and perhaps outside the boundaries of the law, to keep well-lubricated the steady movement of money from local taxpayers to the very wealthy.

Most obviously, this has been seen in the unprecedented (at least since Prohibition days) allegation of Jonathan Grant, who appears to have gained enormous traction running on affordable housing issues against city council president Tim Burgress. Grant claims that a developer behind a $200,000 drop of soft money on behalf of the already well-funded Burgess campaign told Grant that the expenditure would disappear if Grant… cooperated. This is good old-fashioned big city shadowy mob politics, and it’s not because of Seattle’s transition to the oft-warned-of “ward politics” – the Burgess/Grant race is for one of the council’s two new citywide seats. No, this is about making money, and it’s about buying politicians for pennies on the megadollar.

Whether or not Grant’s allegations are proven, however, the transition of local politics into a Martin Scorcese script can be seen in far more interesting, and numerous, ways in a story that got less attention this month: the apparent hijacking of the endorsement votes of the Democrats’ 37th (state) Legislative District group in southeast Seattle.

Now, local Democratic LD endorsements get an enormous yawn from everyone except political insiders. They help, but they rarely swing elections on their own. But they’re coveted by campaigns, not just for a line in direct mail ads, but because the local Democratic LDs have something not many campaigns themselves have a lot of: volunteers. Get endorsed by the 37th, 43rd, or any other local LD, and their stalwarts will go door to door telling their neighbors to vote for you. That’s a far more effective way to influence voters than postcards or prerecorded calls.

In the primary, the 37th didn’t get the 60 percent needed to endorse Burgess. In the two new council districts the 37th overlaps with, members also could not agree to endorse incumbent Bruce Harrell and voted not to endorse in the Pamela Banks/Kshama Sawant race – a victory for Sawant, who as a non-Democrat wasn’t eligible for the endorsement.

Last month, the group endorsed in all three races – by only one vote in its Burgess and Banks endorsements. What changed?

It was the electorate that changed. Only district party members, with dues paid 25 days before the election, are eligible to vote. On the final day to join in late August, a member of Harrell’s staff called the chair of the 37th, asking if it was legal for the campaign to purchase bulk memberships. A few hours after Harrell’s staff got their answer – no, it’s not legal, because it runs afoul of campaign finance laws – an anonymous caller arranged to run out to the house of the group’s treasurer at 10:30 PM to present 15 sequentially numbered and separately signed money orders for new members.

The new members turned out to be employees of Eastside for Hire, a cab company whose owner, Abdul Yusuf, made the anonymous call. Yusuf has also been an outspoken opponent of legislation before the council that would allow cab drivers to unionize. And come the night of the endorsement vote, there was the cluster of East African cab drivers, huddled with Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell, who, according to witnesses, were instructing them as to how to vote in the Burgess, Harrell, and Banks races. Supporters of those candidates were so loud in their heckling and jeering of statements by opposing supporters that those statements could not even be heard.

As it turned out, some of the 37th’s new voters shouldn’t have voted. At least five voters lived outside the 37th District or otherwise weren’t eligible. Those votes almost certainly swung the one-vote-margin Burgess and Banks races.

Supporters of the losing candidates cried foul, but the 37th’s executive committee, under heavy pressure, declined to rescind the endorsements or have a re-vote. And the winning campaigns – all sharing the same consultant, Christian Sinderman – went on the counterattack. Sinderman’s office sent out a press release claiming critics of the vote were motivated by racism against East Africans.

(Ironically, the same week, Banks gave an interview in which she questioned Sawant’s ability to understand civil rights issues since – referencing the fact that Sawant is an immigrant – “If you’re not from here and you don’t understand the history of this country…” In 2013, East Africans overwhelmingly supported Sawant.)

Sinderman, it should be noted, is also Mayor Ed Murray’s campaign consultant. This year, Sinderman’s company, Northwest Passages, represents candidates in an unprecendented eight of the nine council races – Burgess, Harrell, Banks, incumbent Sally Bagshaw, and open seat candidates Lorena Gonzales (citywide), Shannon Braddock (West Seattle), Rob Johnson (University District), and Sandy Brown (Northeast Seattle). All of these candidates are broadly understood as favorites of Murray, the developer lobby, and the local political establishment. So far no non-Sinderman candidate in the general election has received any of the unprecedented flood of corporate soft money. Burgess, Banks, Braddock, and Johnson – the four candidates facing the most progressive challengers, all thought to be in close races – have received the bulk of it.

And those ineligible voters in the 37th? Four of the five, it turned out, weren’t from the Eastside for Hire contingent at all – and one, Maggie Thompson, works as a policy advisor in Mayor Ed Murray’s office.

So, in this incestuous little tableau, we have at least the appearance of the following: A possible quid pro quo of Harrell’s opposition to unionizing cabbies in exchange for endorsement votes; coercion of employees by their boss to mobilize for the boss’s preferred candidates; the bulk purchase of qualifying memberships by a campaign (a SEEC complaint on this item was rejected for lack of evidence); coordination between the mayor or his allies and a supermajority of council campaigns; the cabbies being instructed how to vote on allied campaigns; use of illegitimate endorsements by at least the Banks and Burgess campaigns; and bullying, threats, and race-baiting to intimidate and discredit critics.

That smells like a whole lot of ugly dealings for one simple endorsement meeting. But when so much money is riding on getting the properly pliant people on Seattle’s city council, you can bet that we’re going to see more, not less, of this sort of strongarm politics in the future. Welcome to the big leagues.

[Note: An initial version of this post incorrectly characterized the LD’s primary endorsements. The post was changed to reflect that correction – gp 10-13 11 AM]

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