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Four big companies pour money into Washington’s elections

Nov. 7, 2022 Updated Mon., Nov. 7, 2022 at 8:36 p.m.

Boeing 777 freighters are seen in various stages of assembly at the company’s Everett Production Facility on June 15.  (Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times/TNS)
Boeing 777 freighters are seen in various stages of assembly at the company’s Everett Production Facility on June 15. (Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times/TNS)
By Renata Geraldo The Seattle Times

SEATTLE – While Washingtonians have been casting ballots and making their voices heard in Tuesday’s midterm elections, some of Washington’s top corporations have put their money where their interests lie.

Four of Washington’s largest public companies, Amazon, Microsoft, T-Mobile and Boeing, have spent a total of $823,075 in political contributions for the midterm elections in Washington state, according to data gathered from the state Public Disclosure Commission. The data doesn’t include contributions made to super political action committees, known as super PACs.

These giant companies have combined annual revenues of more than $841 billion as of October. Their financial backing can boost a candidate or a PAC’s expenditures and become a factor in who gets elected.

Their contributions have been made to PACs associated with party caucuses, as well as PACs focused on improving communities and schools, particularly in Bellevue and the Seattle area’s other eastside communities , where many of their employees live and work. They also gave to individual Democratic and Republican candidates, according to disclosure commission data.

Corporations will often put money toward the candidates they believe will further the company’s interests, said Cindy Black, executive director of Fix Democracy Now, an election-advocacy organization.

Direct corporate campaign financing tends to look nonpartisan and moderate, according to University of Washington political science professor Jake Grumbach. He wrote a study in 2019 about how corporate contributions through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are considered “gray money.”

To avoid backlash, firms’ “most visible political behavior can be credibly described as nonpartisan,” Grumbach wrote.

By doing so, the corporations are reducing their risk of betting on a candidate who won’t be elected.

Corporations often hedge their bets to ensure access to whomever gets elected, Black said.

In Washington midterms, Boeing, through its PAC and lobbyists, contributed almost equally to Democrats and Republicans – $41,199 and $42,000 respectively. It gave just $25,000 to PACs.

Amazon gave $243,250 to PACs, and its total contributions to individual candidates slightly leaned Democratic – $87,001 versus $77,025 for Republican candidates.

Microsoft’s contributions to candidates also leaned slightly Democratic – $67,750 compared to $58,000 for Republicans. Microsoft contributed $112,100 to PACs.

T-Mobile contributed more to Republicans than Democrats – totals of $33,500 and $14,500, respectively. It gave $18,000 to PACs.

Candidates who are unaffiliated with a political party received a total of $3,750 from Amazon and T-Mobile.

Corporations can lean Republican in their contributions because Republicans can be more business-friendly on issues such as taxation, zoning and environment, Black said.

The total amount of publicly disclosed contributions – $823,075 – is aligned with the typical levels of contributions in state elections, Black said.

A T-Mobile spokesperson said the company’s “bipartisan political giving, which happens throughout the year, is core to ensuring leaders from both parties are informed and educated about issues impacting the wireless industry.”

For the midterm elections, the four corporations contributed to individual candidates, as well as PACs supporting candidates and ballot proposition, data from the disclosure commission shows.

Among the PACs supporting ballot propositions are two formed by Bellevue Chamber of Commerce: Livability Bellevue and Eastside Business Alliance.

Livability Bellevue received $30,000 from Amazon and Microsoft, out of $41,350 in total fundraising as of Nov. 2.

The PAC supports a ballot proposition for a $85 million levy for Bellevue parks. If approved, Proposition 1 would develop trails, community and neighborhood parks, invest in emerging sports and off-leash areas and preserve open spaces, greenways and wildlife corridors.

It will also cost homeowners. The proposition levies a property tax of 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, which means $200 per year for the next nine years for an owner of a $1 million home.

Microsoft, which gave $10,000, said through a representative in a statement that it supports measures that “generate investments in local communities and improve quality of life for everyone.”

Livability Bellevue’s highest expenditure was $21,300 for mail pieces and postage. The PAC also spent $4,000 on voter files – information on whether someone voted in a given election – and website design and development, according to disclosure commission.

PAC Chair Dave Hamilton is CEO and president of Delivery Express, which is listed on Livability Bellevue’s website as one of the top contributors.

Hamilton said corporate support to Livability Bellevue is a result of companies’ interest in the community and in improving quality of life, especially for employees who work from home.

“Amazon and Microsoft are very active in the community and always looking for ways to give their support to community-building efforts,” Hamilton said.

Eastside Business Alliance, supported by Amazon, is described as the “region’s most effective organization for electing thoughtful, nonpartisan, pro-jobs leaders on the Eastside.” On the board of trustees of the PAC is Jared Axelrod, one of Amazon’s in-house lobbyists.

The highest expenditures for Eastside Business Alliance were for surveys, polling and research costs.

Amazon, which contributed to the two Bellevue Chamber-associated PACs, said it is growing its presence in Bellevue and the Eastside. John Schoettler, vice president of global real estate and facilities at Amazon, said in a statement that the company supports Proposition 1 because it will help maintain a high quality of life in Bellevue.

“We hear firsthand from our community engagement in Bellevue that green and community spaces are an important reason why people love living here,” Schoettler said.

Amazon has close to 10,000 Bellevue-based employees. The Eastside will see most of the company’s growth, Guy Palumbo, Amazon’s director of public policy and in-house registered lobbyist, told the Seattle Times in the summer.

Contributions to chambers of commerce give companies more control on where the funds are being spent, Black said.

Chambers’ members, businesses who are part of the community, have certain legislative and policy priorities. PACs associated with the chambers, Black said, pull money from members to act on these priorities.

“It’s a way to be more impactful with their money,” Black said.

Conserve Our Future, a PAC supporting a King County parks levy, received $35,000 from Amazon and Microsoft. Proposition 1 requests to restore a levy to pay, finance and preserve urban green spaces, natural areas, trails, farmlands and forests. It requires 6.25 cents for $1,000 per assessed property value in 2023.

Another PAC that received money from Washington corporations was Schools First Coalition. It received a total of $28,000 from Amazon and Microsoft out of a total of $184,798, according to disclosure commission data.

Schools First Coalition supports two propositions for the Seattle School District. Proposition 1 requests approval of an operations levy of $646.8 million. Proposition 2 requests a renewal of the “Building, Technology and Academics/Athletics Capital Levy” for 2023, which would require $47 per $100,000 assessed property value. The revenue from the levy funds 85% of the school district’s technology department.

The highest expenditures for Schools First Coalition went toward mailing and texting services and fundraising consulting.

PACs associated with party caucuses in the state were high receivers.

The Leadership Council, associated with the Senate’s Republican Caucus, received the highest amount of contributions – $35,000 – from The Boeing Company PAC, Amazon and T-Mobile.

The Leadership Council donates to the Washington state Republican Party and multiple PACs that promote Republican candidates.

The House Republican Caucus’ PAC Reagan Fund, which in 2020 contributed to Parents for Safe Schools, a campaign against a sex-education bill in Washington, received a total of $15,000 from Amazon.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy Fund, associated with the Senate’s Democratic Caucus, received a total of $20,000 from Boeing and Amazon.

The House’s Democratic Caucus-associated PAC, the Harry Truman Fund, received $10,000, from Amazon.

Boeing declined to comment. Microsoft and Amazon also declined to comment on their campaign-financing activities.

These disclosed contributions generally appear bipartisan, even when they slant toward one party or the other. It is an approach that helps corporations buy access to any politician who might have authority over taxation, regulation and other issues, UW’s Grumbach said in an email.

The leader of PAC has the say on where the money, pooled from donors with shared interests and a bigger say, is being spent, Black said. The decisions can vary based on the geographical focus of the PAC and the legislative focus of certain candidates.

Individual candidates from both parties also received support from Washington top corporations. Steve Hobbs, the incumbent Democratic Secretary of State received a total of $14,000 from Amazon, Microsoft and T-Mobile, the highest amount donated by the three to an individual candidate campaign.

Hobbs is running a contested campaign against nonpartisan Julie Anderson. Polls show Hobbs leading Anderson 40% to 29%, with 30% undecided. None of the four corporations donated to Anderson’s campaign.

Other candidates who received the most were Andrew Barkis (R) and Jacquelin Maycumber (R), who both received a total of $9,000 from Amazon, Microsoft, T-Mobile and Boeing.

State Rep. Mike Chapman, a Democratic incumbent, received $7,500. Republican candidates Drew Stokesbary, Judith Warnick, Matt Boehnke and J.T. Wilcox each received $7,000.

Corporate giving is no different from other forms of campaign contribution, said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, chair of the Washington House Democratic Campaign Committee, who as a candidate received a total of $5,500 directly from Amazon, Microsoft, T-Mobile and Boeing PAC.

Fitzgibbon said the House Democrats and the Kennedy Fund receive more contributions from labor union groups than from large corporations.

Corporations and candidates are not allowed under the law to have control over the distribution of money when they give to caucus funds such as the Kennedy Fund. After it gets funneled to candidates, the money often pays for ads, Fitzgibbon said.

The largest independent spenders in the state were WA Wins, New Direction PAC, which have received funds from the Harry Truman Fund and Kennedy Fund, and Evergreen Progress, funded by the Washington state Republican Party. The state’s Republican Party received $2,000 directly from Microsoft.

Because the amounts analyzed don’t include donations to super PACs, it is hard to get a full picture of these corporations’ contributions to the midterm elections, Black said.

The rise of super PACs makes additional campaign contributions by wealthy donors difficult to track. Still, according to a 2020 report by OpenSecrets, “major corporations didn’t take full advantage of their new political powers. Corporations accounted for no more than one-tenth of independent groups’ fundraising in each election cycle since the ruling.”

The typical level has been slowly increasing since the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee in 2010, Black said. The court held that corporate funding of campaign advertising in elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment.

Despite the limitations, disclosure commission chair Fred Jarrett said the disclosure regulations that make this data available in Washington are among of the strongest in the country.

“Sunlight,” Jarrett said, “is the best disinfectant against corruption.”

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