Back in 1997, when he first ran for mayor, Greg Nickels drummed up a respectable $100,000 in campaign donations and got thumped in the primary.


Million-Dollar Mayor

His fund-raising is always in high gear. But whose isn't?

Back in 1997, when he first ran for mayor, Greg Nickels drummed up a respectable $100,000 in campaign donations and got thumped in the primary. "I learned a lot in '97," Nickels said in 2001 as he launched a new Seattle mayoral run. Amassing what turns out to have been more than $600,000 in political contributions to pay for advertising, fund-raising, staffing, and more fund-raising, Nickels rode off to victory that year and helped usher in the city's first half-million-dollar mayoral race. Now figures are in from what turns out to have been his second successful half-million-dollar election, in 2005, crowning him as City Hall's first million-dollar fund-raiser.

No other candidate in the city's modern political history has collected the kind of financial backing Nickels did in 2001 and 2005, an aggregate $1,143,299, based on figures released March 8 by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC). "Believe so," says SEEC's database expert, Bob DeWeese, of Nickels' money title. That doesn't include $80,000 Nickels quietly raised the past four years for the mayor's office fund, used to pay non-city-related expenses such as $2,000 for the mayor's recent Super Bowl trip or $650 for "beverages for legislators" in Olympia from Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis. Nickels just added $8,245 to his office account the other day, following a recent fund-raiser.

DeWeese and SEEC campaign auditor Polly Grow note that Nickels' next-closest challenger to the campaign fund-raiser crown, former City Attorney Mark Sidran, collected a single-campaign record $731,000 in 2001 while narrowly losing—by 3,158 votes—to Nickels. But Sidran's total fund-raising in three earlier city attorney races, somewhere around $150,000, leaves him short of a million overall.

City Council candidates, meanwhile, are also raising and spending more on their races. New figures show that Richard Conlin took in an apparent record $273,000 and Jan Drago attracted $258,000 in hotly contested re-election wins last year. Altogether in 2005, 21 candidates seeking six positions—four council spots, mayor, and city attorney—collected $2.4 million in donations. The real winner? City Attorney Tom Carr. Unopposed, he spent only $2,000 of his meager $5,600 to be re-elected.

Get used to increasing fund-raising and spending, some observers think. "It wasn't very long ago you could have a decent City Council race for $100,000," says Seattle political consultant Bob Stark, whose firm, Gogerty Stark Marriott, has both advised and donated to mayoral and council campaigns. "That cost has more than doubled in just a few years." He's not particularly surprised that Nickels raised another half-million in 2005 while steamrollering over a merry band of nobodies—his six primary and general election opponents collectively raised about $24,000. The bar had been slowly rising since 1993, when Norm Rice won re-election with $365,000, and then, in 1997, when Paul Schell beat an underfunded Charlie Chong with a then-record $394,000 campaign chest. "In citywide races today," says Stark, "they ask what should a candidate be spending time on: walking around a neighborhood and contacting, say, 15 voters, or calling people on the phone and raising money to pay for TV or mailings? They've obviously chosen the latter."

In 2001, Nickels, along with Sidran, took fund-raising to the next level. It had been conventional wisdom that Sidran had far outdistanced Nickels moneywise during that year of campaign-fund bacchanalia (a dozen candidates from the primary through the general election raised and mostly spent $1.7 million). But when all donations were tallied later in 2002, a recent review of records shows, Nickels in fact scored huge with donors, too, collecting a stunning $616,000—six times the amount he'd raised four years earlier. One key was spending a healthy 10 percent of his funds on raising more funds. Last year, he upped that to 25 percent, spending more than $130,000 to raise $537,000, even though he was effectively unopposed. His supporters responded accordingly, with 44 percent of them giving at or near the maximum $650 amount.

Geographically by neighborhoods, most money came from donors living or working in the downtown/Belltown area ($96,000); the largest group of contributors was out-of-towners ($151,000). Neighbors for Nickels, as the mayor dubs his campaign fund, is also the Developers, Attorneys, and Corporations for Nickels fund. Private corporations whose employees gave the most to Nickels' 2005 campaign were Washington Mutual Bank ($4,788), the Preston Gates Ellis law and lobbying firm ($3,315), and Paul Allen's Vulcan Northwest development company ($2,613). All do business with City Hall. Contributions reached $520,000 just days before the 2005 November election, and an additional $17,000 has since been reported in the account, some of it arriving after the election or deposited belatedly. The late arrivals include $650 donations from Alaska Airlines, Delta Airlines CEO Gerald Grinstein, and Bechtel Infrastructure of Maryland.

Preston Gates employees are Nickels' biggest single group funding source—$8,875 in the last two elections—and comprise the number two group giving money to all City Hall candidates from 1999 through 2005 ($48,000). SEEC figures don't parcel out top individual donors citywide, but two who regularly appear in the giving columns are well-connected Foster Pepper land-use attorney Judith Runstad and her husband, construction magnate H. Jon Runstad. Each has given nearly $15,000 to a wide variety of city candidates since 1999. Employees of their firms are among the top group givers to all City Hall races: $34,000 from Foster Pepper and $21,000 from Wright Runstad & Co.

If half-million-dollar mayoral campaigns have become the norm, the quarter-million-dollar level may be settling in at the City Council level. (See accompanying chart.) As in the mayoral contests, that's a lot of money to collect at a mere $650 a clip. (Two weeks ago, the city raised the maximum contribution limit to $700.) "If you look at these campaigns," says consultant Stark, "at least 80 percent to 90 percent is often spent on direct voter contact. That means, for the most part, mail, and repetition is really an important thing to some, so there's mail almost daily."

Seattle City Council President Nick Licata agrees, though he dislikes the trend. "If you keep bombarding the public with [campaign] literature every few weeks, it can be a negative," he says. "It looks like you're trying to buy recognition, and they may wonder how you'll spend their money." A candidate can still win with less than $100,000, Licata argues, and he should know: Licata averaged $95,000 in his past two races. Peter Steinbrueck did it even cheaper, with a $91,000 average—though both council members lacked major opposition. Licata shakes his head at the costs others are incurring. "When [David] Della decided to get in the race against Heidi [Wills], David told me she already had $100,000, and I told him, 'I don't see how you can do it.' But he did." Upstart Della raised nearly $170,000 in short order and unseated Wills by 10,000 votes. Wills was among three council members made vulnerable by the 2003 Strippergate campaign-money bundling scandal that led to the return of $39,000 in donations in all. Also ousted was incumbent Judy Nicastro ($169,000) by newcomer Jean Godden ($202,000), while Jim Compton ($112,000, virtually unopposed) survived but retired this year.

On the mayoral level, Nickels began his current fund-raising blitzkrieg in January 2000 and, like many other city campaigners, hasn't stopped. He rolled the last $9,000 of his 2001 campaign funds over into his 2005 re-election campaign without a pause. He continues to raise money under the 2005 campaign banner for what may be a third City Hall run in 2009. He thus is in his seventh unabated year of raking in mayoral campaign cash. The mayor's office had no comment for this story. Former Nickels campaign manager Viet Shelton, now communications director of the Washington State Democrats, said he would check with the mayor but did not respond.

While it's not called campaign money, the mayor's $80,000 office fund provides a lot of good will and good times for the mayor. Current electronic records going back to 2004 show $29,000 deposited over two years. A Seattle Times story in early 2004 reported the fund had reached $53,000 in the first two years (compared to the $50,000 that Paul Schell took in over four years). Recent contributors to the Nickels fund include jeweler Herb Bridge ($150), developer Douglas Howe ($250), consulting firm Gogerty Stark Marriott ($250), Seattle Opera Director Speight Jenkins ($100), Washington Mutual broker Robert Flowers ($250), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency project director Sharon Nickels, the mayor's wife ($250). During the November 2005 election period, the fund received $4,350 in donations, including $250 each from corporations (or officers of) Pemco Insurance, developer Nitze-Stagen, Argosy Tours, and Clise Properties, along with a handful of political consultants.

Even though he breezed to victory last year, Nickels spent most of his half-million. As of this week, he paid out $517,691 of the $537,052 in donations. His biggest expenditure was for sending out campaign literature, $171,000. Nickels spent $119,000 on TV and radio, and $43,000 on consultants and staff. At $133,000, fund-raising was the mayor's second-biggest cost. For laughable comparison, his general election opponent, little-known ex-professor Al Runte, spent $1,900 on fund-raising. He collected all of $17,000, including $4,000 he loaned himself. He got a respectable 35 percent of the vote.

To council leader Licata, it's the lack of fund-raising that counts. "I think what it comes down to is—sounds trite, yes—I think it's a question of trust, a sense that people know where you're going and what you stand for." Licata has been the council's most outspoken opponent of a new taxpayer-built arena for the Seattle SuperSonics, for instance, drawing the ire of principal owner and chief moneybags Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO. "It doesn't hurt [at election time] to be known as the person who occasionally stands alone," says Licata. "Folks who don't like my politics give me money because they think I'm doing the job." But, he adds, "I'm not expecting any free coupons from Starbucks."

City Hall Campaign Give and Take

Mayor, two terms

Raised 2001/2005

Top private donor*

Greg Nickels


Preston Gates law, $8,875




Mayor, one term

Raised 1997/2001

Top private donor*

Paul Schell**


Washington Mutual, $4,800




City Council, two terms

Raised 2001/2005

Top private donor*

Richard Conlin


Martin Smith Corp., $2,100

Jan Drago


Foster Pepper law, $5,245

Richard McIver


Foster Pepper law, $1,765

Nick Licata


Group Health, $1,615




City Council, two terms

Raised 1999/2003

Top private donor*

Heidi Wills***


Microsoft, $9,020

Margaret Pageler***


Foster Pepper law, $3,500

Jim Compton****


Preston Gates law, $1,375

Judy Nicastro***


Microsoft, $3,400

Peter Steinbrueck


Lorig Associates, $1,200




City Council, one term

Raised 2003

Top private donor*

Tom Rasmussen


Onvia Consulting, $4,925

Jean Godden


Vulcan NW, $1,550

David Della


Davis Wright law, $975

* From contributors who work for this employer

** Defeated in 2001 primary

*** Defeated in 2003

****Resigned in 2006

Top 10 business contributors to city candidates

Money given 1999-2005*****



Preson Gates Ellis (law firm)


Foster Pepper (law firm)


Windemere (real estate)


Wright Runstad (construction)




Vulcan Northwest (development)


Lorig Associates (development)


Alhadeff Companies (development)


Washington Mutual


***** From contributors who work for this employer

Source: Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission

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