Port fighting campaign bill ending unlimited contributions to candidates

The Port of Seattle is using its lobbyist to fight a pending bill in Olympia that would end unlimited campaign contributions to candidates in port commission races.

The bill, which passed the House last week, also would impose limits on candidates for Supreme and appellate court judgeships, as well as those seeking county offices in large counties.

The Port's opposition comes amid substantial spending on Port of Seattle races.

Last fall, the top five candidates in the commission race combined raised more than $1 million in contributions — many from major Port tenants and cruise lines — in amounts that exceed the proposed limits.

The Port says it has long opposed limits for commissioners because the nonpartisan Port races don't receive backing from parties and don't garner much public attention. Yet the cost of mounting a countywide campaign in King County is substantial.

"In a way, it's anti-democratic," Pat Davis, president of the commission, said of the bill. "In a race like ours, putting a cap on contributions restricts average citizens from running. The wealthy who want to buy name familiarity can do so."

In the latest election, Davis received more than $56,000 in large contributions that would have been banned under the new caps, about a quarter of the $221,250 she raised, according to public filings. Her opponent, Jack Jolley, raised $320,000, including $73,000 that would have exceeded the cap.

On Tuesday, the Port of Seattle Commission voted 2-3 against a motion to shift its stance to neutral on the bill. Commissioners Lloyd Hara and Alec Fisken voted for it.

Under the current version of the bill, port commissioners and judges would be subject to limits of $1,400 per donor in each primary and general election, or $2,800 total per election cycle. Initially, the bill proposed limits of half that amount. The restrictions would apply only to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, not to smaller port districts. Tacoma did not oppose the bill.

Concern for judges

The issue has been a bigger concern for judges, who also have seen contributions escalate. In a 2004 Supreme Court race, Jim Johnson, a property-rights advocate, raised about $440,000 and defeated appeals court Judge Mary Kay Becker, who raised about one-third as much.

Only three other states lack campaign-contribution limits for judges, and during legislative hearings the bill saw wide support from law groups such as the King County Bar Association and the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association.

State Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander, who is running for another term this fall, said he will abide by the limits for statewide office whether or not the measure passes.

"I told my campaign committee that I didn't want to accept any contribution that exceeded the statewide limit," he said. "We'll send it back if it does."

The bill would bring to a wider swath of officials the notion of contribution limits imposed by Initiative 134 in 1992, which applied only to elections for statewide office and the state Legislature. King County already caps contributions at $1,200 per donor per election cycle, including both primary and general elections. Seattle's limit is $650 per cycle.

Questioning propriety

Legislators backing the bill questioned the propriety of the Port of Seattle spending tax dollars to lobby on an issue that affects commissioners' own campaign war chests.

"The only active lobbying against this bill has come from the Port of Seattle," said Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, one of the bill's sponsors.

"Why are they fighting it so terribly hard? Why should their commissioners not be subject to the same limits on special influence as the governor and attorney general?"

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, was so concerned about conflict of interest that he asked House counsel Tim Sekerak whether it is legal for the port's lobbyist to lobby on a bill that affects the contribution limits for the election of the port commissioners.

"This is an organization that has taxing authority and is responsible for large amounts of taxpayer money," Hunter wrote Sekerak in an e-mail. "It seems like commissioners ought to be subject to campaign contribution limits."

"Yes, it's legal," Sekerak responded. "That's not a conflict of interest because the conflict statute does not address or cover activity by port commissions and lobbyists."

The Washington Public Ports Association supported the bill but said the limits that were being proposed were too low.

"Those were limits for legislative districts," said Pat Jones, executive director of the port trade association. "In Port of Seattle commissioner races, they cover parts of 11 legislative districts."

A single mailing to targeted voters costs $40,000, Jones said.

After lobbying by the Port of Seattle, the bill was amended to exclude port commissioners. But they were restored in a later version that doubled the contribution limits.

The Port of Seattle will continue to use lobbyist Terry Finn to fight the measure, Davis and Commissioner Bob Edwards said. Neither saw any conflict of interest in lobbying on the measure, in part because they say it favors incumbents.

"We've been opposed to limits and that's what the instructions to Terry are — to oppose it," Edwards said.

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com

Million-dollar race

The top five fundraisers running for the Port of Seattle Commission raised more than $1 million for last year's primary and general election. Many big donations, some from major Port tenants, would have exceeded limits proposed in a bill pending in the state Senate.

Jack Jolley,

Position 4

Total raised: $320,345

Major donations:

Albert Deatley (Superior Asphalt), $15,000

Fred Hines (PCF Management), $12,500

Nancy Nordhoff (philanthropist), $10,000

John Creighton *

Position 1

Total raised: $223,722

Major donations:

Holland America Line, $5,000

SSA (Port tenant), $4,000

Princess Tours, $2,500

Patricia Davis, *

Position 4

Total raised: $221,250

Major donations:

Citizens for a Healthy Economy (PAC), $10,000

SSA (Port tenant), $10,000

Holland America Line, $10,000

Richard Berkowitz, Position 3

Total raised: $163,815

Major donations:

Holland America Line, $5,000

ILWU Local 19, $4,000

Micky Arison (Carnival Cruise Line), $2,500

Lloyd Hara *

Position 3

Total raised: $133,228

Major donations:

Matco Enterprises, $5,000

Nancy Nordhoff (Philanthropist), $4,500

Concourse Concessions, $1,000

* Indicates winner of race

Source: Public Disclosure Commission