At age 70, Martin Selig still suits up for work every day, arriving at his Second Avenue real-estate headquarters armed with plans to build another skyscraper or tear down another historic building. Maybe the enigmatic developer is there to introduce his new wife, whom he married last month, or to eyeball yet another lawsuit—such as the one he just settled with Joe Diamond after hauling off the parking lot mogul's signs and equipment while embroiled in a contract dispute.
Better yet, he might just sit down and write another check to a political campaign. That has become something of a ritual for Selig, the kid who loved to play with building blocks in grade school and grew up to erect Seattle's tallest building, the 76-story Columbia Center, which the late architect Victor Steinbrueck called a "symbol of greed and egoism." Thanks to his inveterate check writing, Selig now has a towering new distinction: the top individual political money giver in modern local history.
At the bottom of most people's political speed dials as recently as three years ago, Selig last month wrote his 18th check since March to the Initiative 920 campaign to repeal Washington's estate tax. In one four-week stretch in June, on average, he sent a check to I-920 every other business day (except for the day he pumped out two checks), totaling $525,000. As of Sept. 11, his contributions to the I-920 campaign totaled a staggering $807,500— almost three-quarters of the campaign's $1.1 million funding to date.
"Say that again?" says Seattle City Council President Nick Licata. "Eight hundred what? This from a guy who couldn't pay his light bill?"
Licata is referring to a $600,000 overdue City Light bill Selig was ordered to pay two years ago for some of his downtown properties. The city has more than once asked him to pay utility bills for his buildings, and creditors have complained he stalls even after agreeing to pay. But that's just business, some say: Selig tends to wait until the last minute to settle up, delaying new borrowing or hesitating to dip into his funds until he gains favorable rates or interest.
Selig plays hardball with friend and foe alike. In the aforementioned battle with Joe Diamond, Selig made his disputatious point by sending a small team of dismantlers to haul away Diamond's parking equipment from some of Selig's lots, which Selig wanted to run himself. Selig had sent Diamond notice of discontinuing his services, but Diamond disputed the move and wanted to talk. After the sortie on signs and pay boxes, Diamond and Selig went to court, where both sides accused the other of lying about whether timely warning was given before reaching an out-of-court settlement. It was similar to a pre-emptive strike Selig launched on Diamond in 1985, also snatching boxes and signs, forcing a court battle.
Selig's contributions to the anti-tax initiative campaign—run by a former Seattle cop who sees the estate tax as an element of The Communist Manifesto—are more than double the $355,000 the developer famously gave in an attempt to derail the Seattle Monorail Project in 2004. He also contributed $3,000 to a smaller campaign in 2005 that helped put the $1 billion-a-mile project out of its misery once and for all. Besides issue campaigns, Selig has contributed heavily to local, state, and federal political candidates in recent years. A board member of the national Republican Jewish Coalition, he gives most heavily to the GOP, including state parties in Ohio, Florida, and Michigan, among others. To George W. Bush, he gave $5,000; to John Kerry, $500. U.S. Senate Republican candidate Mike McGavick got $4,200 from him in 2005 shortly after McGavick said he was exploring a run, while McGavick's opponent, Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell, received $3,000 in 2004. Selig has also given to Mayor Greg Nickels and most City Council members, and his daughter Lauren Selig (now her dad's corporate development director) once worked for former council member Judy Nicastro.
Such political largesse puts Selig ahead of Rob Glaser, the RealNetworks chair, who, according to a 2004 Seattle Times study, was previously the region's single largest political donor. Updated figures now show that Glaser has handed out $1.1 million over the past four years— mostly to groups working to unseat President Bush—while Selig has doled out $1.2 million in three years, more than Bill Gates and Paul Allen combined.
Selig won't say why he's supporting I-920. But it's not too hard to figure out: The state takes a bite out of any estate worth more than $2 million in taxable value—those of people like Selig, a near billionaire. It's a rarefied tax class: Only several hundred estates are affected yearly, and are assessed from 14 percent to 19 percent of the estate's taxable value. For example, a $3 million estate could be taxed $390,000; a $7 million estate, $1.07 million. It's unclear exactly what the levy might someday be on Selig's estate—$5 million, $10 million, or more—but if his $800,000 campaign contribution pays off and the tax is wiped out, his savings would doubtless mark a healthy return on investment.
Revenue from the tax, just under $100 million annually, is dedicated to the state education system, in particular the reduction of class sizes. Selig apparently feels this money should go to his three grown kids and the rest of his family. (Selig, an art collector and painter, recently married artist Catherine Mayer, whom he met at a party a few years back at his waterfront home. He and longtime first wife Andrea were divorced in 1995 after a three-year court battle over their vast properties. It was intense: At one point, Selig was under a restraining order not to live within a mile of the couple's lavish Lake Washington home, now assessed at $13 million, where Andrea lived after receiving it in the settlement.)
"Death should not be a taxable event," is all Selig will say about his I-920 motives, reciting the campaign's slogan. He rejected repeated requests for an interview. Others say it's just the Selig Way of doing things. "If he's in," says a business associate who asked not to be named, "he's in big and plays a dominant role." Adds City Council member (and son of Victor) Peter Steinbrueck: "I'm not at all surprised he's opposed to the estate tax. He's got a lot of money, a family, and he wants to pass some of it on."
The I-920 initiative also has the support of Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, who has long crusaded against estate taxes, and of John Nordstrom, the retailer, who has given the I-920 drive $25,000. They think their money is better off left to their families. Conversely, Bill Gates Jr. and Sr. support retaining the tax. It's needed for schools, they argue, predicting that repeal could lead to creation of a substitute tax that might fall on the working stiff.
Selig prefers to let his pen do the talking, and said a lot when he signed twin $150,000 checks on June 30 and on Aug. 8—the same day he sent the campaign an additional $25,000 check. From June through August, he wrote, on average, one check per week to the Committee to Abolish the Washington State Estate Tax, the moniker for the I-920 campaign run by Dennis Falk of Fox Island.
It's unknown if Selig—who was 3 when his Jewish family fled Nazi Germany in 1939—knew that Falk was a leader of the John Birch Society when he hitched his wagon to the cause. The Anti-Defamation League somewhat diplomatically calls the JBS an "intolerant" sect, while others point out that Birchers have long been suspicious of wealthy Jews and their supposed involvement in backing communism and plotting the paranoia-inducing New World Order.
Naturally, the teaming of Selig and Falk has provided an easy target for I-920 opponents. Falk, who has also opposed the federal income tax, says in his campaign material that I-920 is, in part, a crusade against "the Communist Manifesto plank number three which is: 'Abolition of all right of inheritance,'" and thinks state revenuers shouldn't be allowed to hover over estates "like vultures eager to feast." Some dark moments in Falk's background have also resurfaced. He once complained that homosexuals were "actively recruiting" Seattle's children and launched an ill-fated campaign to repeal laws preventing housing and employment discrimination of gays and lesbians. As a Seattle cop in 1978, he killed a mentally impaired, unarmed black burglary suspect, shooting him in the foot and back as he fled (Falk's actions were found justified by an inquest jury, as questionable police shootings historically have been for four decades).
"Dennis Falk's controversial past and fringe political views are well-known and documented," says Sandeep Kaushik, spokesperson for the No on I-920 campaign. "So it strikes us as odd that any member of the state's business establishment would endanger their own reputations by associating themselves with I-920." Falk refuses to discuss the past or his association with Selig. "Our total focus is, and always has been, repealing Washington state's death tax," he says. "We won't be sidetracked by a smear campaign."
It may just be capitalist principle at stake for Selig: the notion that it's unfair to make successful people pay special taxes simply for being rich. Yet wouldn't his heirs and empire benefit from smaller school classes and a potentially better educated workforce?
"Marty's just had such a run of luck with the Bush-Republican federal tax policies, and actually believes the crap economics they're based on," observes a longtime associate, "that he probably thinks he's doing something for someone other than himself."
"He's very practical [and] focused— if cunning—in his pursuit," says Peter Steinbrueck. "He keeps his eye on the prize, whatever it takes. That's Marty the developer and, I guess, now Marty the politician."