OLYMPIA – In an effort to get voters to end the state’s liquor monopoly, Costco this week made the single-largest political contribution in history – nearly $9 million – to a state ballot campaign.
The discount retail giant based in Issaquah, Wash., nearly doubled down on its contributions this year to the Yes on Initiative 1183 campaign. The company had already spent more than $12 million through cash contributions and in-kind services, such as employee time for gathering signatures in less than a month to get the proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Of the $22 million collected by the campaign, some 95 percent has come from Costco.
Washington voters are encountering what that kind of cash can buy every time they turn on a television or radio. Reports on file with the state Public Disclosure Commission indicate the campaign has purchased some $9.5 million worth of advertising, mostly television and radio commercials, since the beginning of September.
More could be coming. The campaign has another $9.1 million to spend with less than three weeks until the election.
Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the PDC, said Costco’s contribution of $8,929,810, which was reported this week, is definitely the largest contribution made to an initiative campaign. In the past, few campaigns raised that much from all contributors combined.
The company’s big contributions are being targeted by opponents. A recent commercial doesn’t mention Costco by name but does complain that “one big corporation is spending millions of dollars, two years in a row, to completely deregulate our liquor system. … they stand to line their pockets with hundreds of millions in increased profits.”
Costco also gave about $4.8 million last year to a different ballot measure that tried unsuccessfully to end the state’s liquor monopoly. It has fought the state for years over changes to the distribution system, which dates to the end of Prohibition. The company has made no secret of its plans to sell liquor at its stores, which currently sell wine and beer, but the ad campaign has focused on increased revenue for the state for liquor control and enforcement and tougher penalties for selling to minors.
Opponents of the initiative, the Protect Our Communities campaign, have a deep pocket of their own. The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, a trade organization for liquor distributors, has contributed nearly $9.4 million, or about 81 percent, of the campaign’s total of nearly $11.5 million.
Liquor distributors oppose the initiative in part because it would allow Costco and some other large retail operations like Safeway to set up their own warehousing and distribution systems for liquor, potentially cutting the distributors out of a portion of the business around the state.
That organization gave $250,000 to last year’s campaign against Initiative 1100, but the main opposition to the 2010 ballot measure came from beer wholesalers and distributors from around the country, who spent about $4.8 million against it.
As they did last year, opponents focus their attacks on the increase in stores that would sell liquor and potential consequences of increased drinking by minors.