At a May fund-raiser in downtown Seattle for Sen. John Kerry, Peter Goldman and Martha Jane Kongsgaard were seated at a table just about as far from the candidate as they could be and still be in the same hotel ballroom.
"It's ironic," Goldman mused later. "We gave about 100 times more than almost anyone else in that room for the effort to unseat [President] Bush, but we were all the way in the back of that room, and we didn't have our photo taken with John Kerry."
Seating charts and photos are often the party favors in the world of political high finance. And Goldman and Kongsgaard could have sat wherever they wanted if they had given heavily to the Democratic Party and raised money for Kerry's campaign.
Instead, they are major financiers of new independent liberal groups such as America Coming Together and MoveOn.org, which sprang up last year to take the big-ticket donations that political parties could no longer collect under new federal campaign-finance rules.
Contributors to those independent groups top The Seattle Times' list of the state's 50 biggest political contributors to this year's election campaigns.
Passionate, anyone-but-Bush feelings fuel the top donors. The money comes mostly from Seattle's new-economy moneyed elite, whose riches came from RealNetworks, Costco, Microsoft, Aldus and Amazon.
"To me, the Bush administration is a total disaster from the perspective of issues I care about, particularly the environment," said Paul Brainerd, 56, who founded Aldus software and, after selling it, retired to environmental philanthropy work.
"I made a very conscious decision to put extra money into the federal level."
That included $705,010 to independent political groups that can accept unlimited donations. Those groups are known as "527s" for the section of the federal tax law that governs them and can collect unlimited donations. They can't give money directly to a candidate, but they have been spending millions on voter drives, ads and research to mount an independent campaign against Bush.
That's real money, even to someone with Brainerd's wealth.
"That was a very significant contribution for me but one that I felt was necessary in this election," he said.
Democrats "just furious"
Democrats dominate the list of top donors even more than Washington's generally liberal bent would suggest. While Bush has raised millions in the state, Republicans have not funded independent political groups nearly to the extent Democrats have.
George "Skip" Rowley, the top Republican donor at No. 14 on the list, says Democrats who are dropping big money this year "are just furious at George W. Bush, and they are doing whatever they can do to get rid of him."
Republicans, he says, don't have that sort of anger to motivate them.
"I've never seen this before," Rowley said of the Democratic seething. "It is severe and really, really deep for some of these people. I could disagree with them, but it wouldn't change their minds."
Most of the top 10 contributors also are active philanthropists and say they see a merging of their charitable and political giving.
Rob Glaser, 42, founder and CEO of RealNetworks, is the state's top donor. He has given more than $1 million so far, the vast bulk of that to America Coming Together, the most prominent 527.
Nationally, Glaser is among the top 20 individual donors to independent groups.
Goldman, 47, and Kongsgaard, 49, each brought family wealth to their marriage. He inherited a real-estate fortune while in his 20s, though he kept working as a King County deputy prosecutor. She is also a lawyer and heir to a California winery. Kongsgaard is president of the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation, a charitable group founded in 1988 that gives to environmental, human-rights and arts programs in the Northwest.
Matthew Bergman, 42, the fifth most generous donor along with his wife, Rebecca, 43, is a trial attorney who has spearheaded litigation against asbestos companies.
Jack and Charlotte Spitzer are the only names on the top 10 that could be considered Old Seattle. Jack Spitzer, 86, founded Covenant Mortgage, and they are longtime philanthropists and political donors.
New money and old money
According to PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan service that analyzes donations, just 135 individual donors around the country have contributed $50,000 or more to 527 committees during the current cycle. Those elite contributors accounted for $52.5 million of the more than $200 million donated to 527 organizations thus far. The rest came from smaller individual donors, corporations, unions, nonprofits and other organizations.
With months to go before the election, Washington's top 50 is bound to change as some donors give more and other names are added.
For example, last month Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave $150,000 to Initiative 884, which would raise the sales tax to pay for education programs.
But the giving so far shows a clear shift from the last decade. When The Seattle Times in 1998 compiled a list of top donors to campaigns in the 1990s, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was the top donor, spending millions to push a ballot measure that helped fund a new football stadium for his Seattle Seahawks. Backers of competing charter-school initiatives were also among the top 10 donors.
There were also more Republicans at the high end of the '90s list. Of the top 10 donors on the 1998 list, only two were traditional Democratic families. This year, nine of the top 10 are consistent supporters of Democrats.
Anger at Bush
The Times was not able to reach all of the top 50 donors, and some chose not to talk about their political giving.
"I don't know if this is a Northwest thing, but people don't like talking about money in general," Kongsgaard said. "It's just money. It's so conflated and confused and all this stuff laid on it. It's just another way to get work done."
Many Democratic financiers on the list are veterans at campaign giving. But most at the top say they are giving more than ever.
"Basically, what it comes down to is I have a son who is going to become of draft age in the next four years and a daughter who will come of reproductive age in four years," said Bergman, who with his wife, Rebecca, has given $298,240 so far this cycle. "And I think the outcome of this election will have a lot to do with the kind of future this country will have."
Bergman says he is a moderate, Scoop Jackson Democrat, but like many top donors he speaks the language of a crusader battling an implacable foe. "These are not just conservative Republicans who I can disagree with," he says. "These are people who fight by different rules and are radicals."
If anger at Bush is driving wealthy donors to give more this year, campaign-finance reform set the stage for where the money would go.
The McCain-Feingold bill passed by Congress in 2002 banned unlimited, soft-money donations to political parties, but not to 527s, which Democrats quickly seized on this year as a way to balance Republicans' traditional money advantage.
Many of the state's top donors say they were impressed by the sales pitch they got from America Coming Together (ACT), one of the biggest 527s.
The group is run by experienced political operatives, including Ellen Malcolm, who founded EMILY'S List, the political-action committee that finances female candidates.
ACT focuses on grassroots organizing and is a partner with the Media Fund, which produces TV commercials to run in swing states.
Bruce Jacobsen, No. 12 on the list and a self-described political novice, said he was attracted by the idea of "one-stop shopping" that would mean he could contribute to the cause without making a series of decisions about what candidates or party groups to support.
The fund-raising plan, hatched before it was clear who would win the Democratic nomination, was based on the oft-heard phrase of the Democratic primary season, "anybody but Bush."
"To state it more politely," said the soft-spoken Brainerd, "it was to give whoever the Democratic nominee was a fair fighting chance against the huge money advantage the Republicans had, which certainly appealed to my sense of fairness."
As it is turning out, though, Democrats lead in the fund-raising battle. The Washington Post reported last week that the Kerry campaign and the Democrats' national and congressional fund-raising committees have raised more than their Republican counterparts.
Goldman and Kongsgaard chose ACT and the Sierra Club's 527 in part because they think ACT and other 527s will be more efficient organizers and campaigners than the political parties.
"The Democratic Party is also, I think, very hierarchical and very heavy on leaders. That doesn't necessarily interest us," Kongsgaard said.
Goldman said what appealed to him was the grassroots component of what the groups were promoting, including door-to-door voter registration and Election Day phone banks.
He says he is turned off by most political advertising.
"What's really the most depressing is that all of this (television) money is to inform uninterested and uninformed people about important decisions," Goldman said. "If people took the time to learn, we wouldn't need all this money to educate them with a sound bite."
Republicans' top donor
Rowley, the Issaquah developer, doesn't play in the national political game. He said he doesn't give to the presidential campaign and rarely gives to congressional candidates.
"When you start getting into the big congressional races, the amount of money I would be able to participate with is peanuts compared to what the overall programs are," he said.
Rowley says his biggest issue by far is transportation, and he backs only candidates he feels will support sound plans for funding roads — not light rail.
He mostly gives to Republicans but is one of the few top donors who gives to both parties.
Rowley wrote his biggest check, $40,000, to the state Republican Party. He's also a big backer of fellow Eastsider Dino Rossi, Republican candidate for governor.
Meanwhile, state Republicans are having to do without the help of the man who has been their most generous financial backer.
Bernard Daines of Spokane Valley gave more than any Republican in the state in 2002. And in 2000, he and his wife, Marsha, were the nation's top donors to state Republican Party committees, giving $1.2 million. So far this year, he says, he hasn't given anything.
Daines, head of a Utah-based software company, said stock-market losses and a tough market for his telecommunications technology have made it harder to be a donor this year.
"I have other things to worry about," he said.
While "anybody but Bush" is a strong motivator for the top Democratic donors, many have causes they feel particularly strongly about and hope their money — wherever it goes — helps advance those issues.
For Nicholas Hanauer, it's education. He's an active Democrat, but so far this year has focused on Initiative 884, which would raise the sales tax a penny to raise money for schools and colleges. He's co-founder of the League of Education Voters, which sponsored the measure and supports a limited number of candidates each year.
"It appears to me that the hardest political choices that our community must make, like whether to tax itself more for the common good or not, are best articulated and promulgated by nonpartisan, citizen-led organizations like the League of Education Voters," Hanauer said in a recent e-mail.
Top donors Brainerd and Goldman count the environment as their top issue. They make charitable donations to environmental groups. Brainerd started an environmental learning center, and Goldman runs a nonprofit environmental-law firm.
Goldman envisions an environmental lobby that is bipartisan, well-financed and feared, having clout similar to that of the pro-Israeli American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"You mess with Israel, look out, you're going to get eaten for lunch by AIPAC," Goldman said. "That's what we want to do for the environment."
Many top donors see a growing connection between the sort of more genteel and widely accepted charitable and philanthropic giving and campaign donations.
"What sense does it make to be purely philanthropic and support nonprofit organizations when you have people in office with policies that you think are completely undermining that agenda?" Goldman said. "Our political money is philanthropic money."
No. 12 donor Jacobsen said he and his wife, Gretchen, have cut back on charitable giving to social and environmental causes this year.
"That money is being funneled into politics," he said. "The causes that I care about are just getting annihilated by the current politics."
Kongsgaard also sees her political giving this year as a natural extension of her and Goldman's charitable work. "Perhaps it has to do as much with our evolution — being parents, philanthropists, human beings. Maybe we're just growing into this," she said. "Just like a philanthropist doesn't write a $100,000 check the first time. You have to get used to it."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com