Business Community Realizes City Council May Actually Matter

Unlike federal law, which requires corporations to donate to campaigns through political action committees, local rules say businesses can give money to their favorite candidates just like individuals. So PACs in Seattle municipal races aren't commonplace.

But after years of not paying much mind to the Seattle City Council, the business community has formed a fledgling PAC called Forward Seattle. And though the group can only donate $700 apiece to individual candidates, the $100,000 it has raised to date constitutes a potentially healthy down payment toward things like TV and newspaper ads, as well as direct mailings, in the run-up to the upcoming council elections.

Joe Quintana, who founded the group with fellow public-affairs guru Don Stark, says Seattle businesses have been complacent for too long. "Shame on us in the business community; we haven't been paying attention to the city," says Quintana. "And shame on the council. It's abdicated its policy role and allowed the executive to walk all over them."

Quintana says business community dissatisfaction reached critical mass last fall after voters approved the council-backed "Bridging the Gap" package, a wish list of transportation improvement projects valued at more than $500 million and financed in part by a new commercial parking tax and an annual $25 tax per employee on businesses. This was the last straw, says Quintana, because "the city is disproportionately taxing businesses for government services enjoyed by all."

The PAC is the political arm of the Seattle Business Coalition, a policy group also formed late last year. The coalition's roster of members reads like a who's who of neighborhood and business groups: the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association, the Neighborhood Business Association, and the Building Owners and Managers Association.

Kate Joncas, executive director of the Downtown Seattle Association, says she hopes the coalition will ensure the voices of local businesses are heard at City Hall.

"We suddenly realized that there are very few people [on the City Council] with business experience, business backgrounds, or [who] are sympathetic to business interests," she says, adding that the reason businesses stopped paying attention to the council in recent years was because the economy's been so good. "But when the economy slows down, we want to be sure we stay competitive."

Joncas says it's a good idea for the business community to get engaged in the electoral process, "to talk to candidates about business issues, work together to help them understand what it takes to run a business and make Seattle a better place to do business."

Fund-raising consultant Colby Underwood—who this year is raising money for the campaigns of council challengers Venus Velázquez and Tim Burgess and incumbents Tom Rasmussen and Jean Godden—says Forward Seattle represents the awakening of a sleeping giant.

"This is definitely a paradigm change," he says. "I think there are some issues that businesses are becoming concerned about. They want to be organized to have a seat at the table. The environmental community and the labor unions are so good at that; it's natural for the business community to become more organized and develop deeper roots into the political system."

Underwood calls the $100,000 figure "a good chunk of change," and says it's also natural for the effort to be spearheaded by the likes of Quintana and Stark. "Joe and Don are communication specialists, and the clients they represent include both businesses and government," says Underwood. "Having them on the front lines of this is a good idea."

As of April, donors to Forward Seattle have included Martin Selig Real Estate, developers like the Vance Corp. and Tarragon LLC, construction groups like American Civil Contractors and Builders United, concrete and gravel supplier Glacier Northwest, and Asian specialty supermarket Uwajimaya Inc. Quintana says that initially interest was top-heavy in the real estate and development sector, but that disclosure forms for May (due to the Seattle City Clerk's Office June 10) will reflect more diverse participation.

In explaining his participation, Uwajimaya CEO Tomio Moriguchi says it's too easy for politicians to play "Robin Hood." "They perceive that businesses have more money, but a lot of small businesses have as much limited capacity as everybody," he says. "There has to be an awareness that you can't mine one field without considering the consequences."

According to city records, Uwajimaya gave $2,500 to the PAC in March. The effort, Moriguchi says, can be summed up by that old squeaky-wheel adage, a saying he notes is common to many languages. "To allow people to speak up, occasionally you have to do it collectively," he says.

Rodney Kaufman, executive director of the local chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association, says some of his members have already donated to the PAC, and he's encouraging the others to pony up. He says BOMA is tired of the city looking at one issue at a time. "No one looks at the cumulative effect of taxes and fees on business," he says. "We want to pay our fair share but don't want that fair share to get lopsided."

According to numbers provided by the coalition, the business community pays 54 percent of all taxes in Seattle, while bringing in 70 percent of the city's revenue. But Marty McOmber, a spokesperson for Mayor Greg Nickels, says the mayor has done much to improve the business climate since taking office in 2002. "One of the top priorities was creating jobs, and we've done exceptionally well at fulfilling that promise. The economy in Seattle is probably at the best point it's been in the city's history," McOmber says, adding that the mayor has "always been open and listening to the business community."

For his part, council President Nick Licata wishes the PAC "the best of luck." He says this is just another chapter in the ebb and flow of competing interests. "The city goes through cycles where the business community says they're going to take control of the council and cut spending; then the [general citizenry] decides they're going to take control of the council and stop the business community from running it," says Licata.

When it comes to "Bridging the Gap," Licata says it's easy to point the finger at the council, but notes that the mayor's original proposal was more expensive than what the council ultimately sent to voters. Licata adds that the business community is made up of diverse interests, some of which have voted to increase taxes in the past. "I'm always reluctant to take at face value people who say they represent a whole section of the city," he says.

The coalition plans to start its full-court press on the council this month. Quintana says they've already met with the mayor, "who was polite but has yet to give a real response."

Asked how much Forward Seattle hopes to raise, Quintana is cagey, simply saying "more." And the coalition hasn't decided how it's going to spend it yet, either. Quintana says they'll wait for the June 8 filing deadline and the candidate recommendations of the Alki Foundation (the political arm of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce) later this month before honing a strategy.

In general, he says, Forward Seattle's goal is not to target one candidate or council member but to "change policy for the city's own sake."

"There's a general recognition that [businesses] need to get involved much more than they have in the past," Quintana adds. "We've learned in the past that policy suggestions fall on deaf ears without some political muscle behind them."

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