For the burgeoning brood of Seattle residents fed up with downtown developers, the news this week that Triad Capital Partners appears to have offered a political quid pro quo to a City Council candidate vindicates their long-simmering suspicions that the system is rigged to protect developers’ property interests.
The Seattle Times reported Tuesday that Jon Grant, engaged in a heated campaign with Council President Tim Burgess for one of the city’s two at-large seats, was told by a representative of development firm Triad that the company would make certain a $200,000 independent expenditure to oppose Grant would “go away” if Grant would contact a Tenants Union attorney he used to work with and urge him to settle a lawsuit against Triad.
The revelatory story appears to be emblematic of the fear that Seattle developers harbor over the specter that the City Council is veering too far to the left. Many worry that if Grant, the former head of the Tenants Union and a staunch advocate of rent control, is elected, he’ll likely be part of an ultra-liberal coalition on the Council that includes stalwart lefties Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien.
“The developers and chamber-of-commerce types are terrified of the idea of losing control of the City Council,” Grant told Seattle Weekly on Tuesday. “For them to spend $200,000 to try and defeat me, that’s nothing to them. I think this whole thing symbolizes that Seattle is not immune to the corruption of money in politics.”
Philip Locker, political director for Sawant, who is very supportive of Grant’s candidacy, said, “This is a naked attempt at bribery and corruption, and underlines Sawant’s message, shared by Jon Grant, that big money and big business have too massive an influence on city politics.”
Here’s how the story has unfolded to date:
On October 7, The Stranger reported that an independent-expenditure committee called Seattle Needs Ethical Leaders had registered with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and—according to the group’s contact person, Jason Bennett—was to be “a pro-Burgess, anti-Jon Grant” effort. The $200,000 was to be used mostly for print advertising.
Over coffee at an International District coffeehouse on Tuesday, Grant recounted to the Weekly that on Saturday, Oct. 10, Brett Allen, senior vice president of Triad, was waiting for him at the Victrola Café on Beacon Hill, where Grant had come to meet with campaign volunteers.
“He didn’t just ‘bump into me,’ as The Times said. He knew I’d be there,” Grant said. “He told me that he disliked [Triad co-founder John] Goodman, too. He was trying to build trust with me. And then he said he could make it [the $200,000 independent expenditure] go away. So I said, ‘I sincerely doubt that. The guy has a $200K IE out on me,’ and Allen said, ‘Right, well, if we can sit down and work out the legal stuff, I can make it go away.’”
Late Tuesday afternoon, Allen sent the Weekly this e-mail:
First and foremost, I want to apologize. Triad is working with the City of Seattle to build a Civic Square that will result in $10 million to the City to be used for affordable housing. This is a great project. I talked with Jon Grant for the purpose of settling a lawsuit against this project, nothing more . . . There is no independent expenditure planned against Mr. Grant’s campaign by Triad or John Goodman and I should never have mentioned it.
Burgess told the Weekly on Tuesday that he has had “absolutely no involvement at all” in the committee behind the $200,000 independent expenditure, a committee whose membership remains unclear.
One wouldn’t think Burgess needs the help—unless of course he’s seen some worrisome poll data—considering that the eight-year Council incumbent has outraised his opponent by a 6-to-1 margin, amassing, as of Oct. 12, $360,000 to Grant’s $60,000.
At issue is a lawsuit filed in January, with the full support of the Tenants Union of Washington while Grant was executive director. The suit argued that Seattle city officials gave Triad favored treatment on their $400 million Civic Square project, and had violated city law the month before when they renewed a land-use permit allowing the company to build a public plaza, at a cost of $25 million, on city-owned property between Third and Fourth Avenues and James and Cherry Streets.
The suit was dismissed by a King County Superior Court Judge, but is being appealed. Triad has until December 31 to finalize the sale of the property or it goes back on the open market.
Knoll Lowney, the Seattle attorney who filed the petition on behalf of a group called Displaced Tenants for Accountability and Transparency, told the Weekly that much is at stake for Triad. “If the lawsuit is successful, the project will stop,” Lowney said. “If Triad would go to these lengths,” the attorney added, alluding to the independent expenditure effort, “they must be very worried that our suit will be successful.”
In the middle of this political scrum is none other than former Mayor Mike McGinn, whose urbanist group Great City once worked out of the same offices as Triad, which is how he got to know Brett Allen. It was Allen who asked McGinn to get a message to Grant, whom McGinn endorsed two weeks ago, telling him of Triad’s interest in having Grant help them get out from under the lawsuit. McGinn called Grant that same Saturday, following the campaign event at Beacon Hill.
The Times quoted from the phone texts that Allen, who graduated with honors from Harvard, sent to McGinn. They are indeed remarkable, in a clumsy and crass kind of way, and complete with Seattleite passive-aggressiveness.
“Hey Mike, it’s Brett. Any luck in getting Grant to a sit-down? I realize 100% of his focus [is] on election—but nothing else he does today could translate into as many votes. Definitely worth an hour of his time . . .
Just in case I wasn’t clear yesterday: any deal would be contingent on the 200k IE going away. Please tell him that we’re sincere in our desire to get this resolved before any major damage done. We need him to show leadership. As an alternative, Grant could simply instruct his attorney . . . to accept our offer on the table (or make a counter offer). Deadline is Monday @ noon—after which certain bad things can’t be undone. Thanks again for your efforts to try to help us both! And Go Hawks!”
Allen says now that this text was “inappropriate.”
McGinn sent the texts to Grant on Sunday. The next day, Grant called Daniel Beekman, the Times’ City Hall reporter who broke the story.
Meanwhile, Grant’s campaign manager, John Wyble, said Tim Ceis, a former deputy mayor and now public affairs consultant and Triad lobbyist contacted him on Friday, Oct. 9. “He told me to call Knoll [Lowney] and we wanted the $200,000 to go away.”
Ceis, who hosted a fundraiser for Burgess in late September, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Wyble says the Grant campaign is exploring various legal avenues, and may bring a complaint to the political-corruption division of the Seattle Elections Commission.
Though Burgess has an enormous fundraising advantage over Grant, he is taking nothing for granted. On October 6, the day before news surfaced about the formation of the independent-expenditure committee, Burgess sent a letter imploring his supporters to help raise $35,000 by October 15 to purchase additional TV advertising (His first TV ads went up last week.)
In the letter, Burgess wrote: “My opponent rails against our local businesses and me, mimicking the class-warfare rhetoric and approach of Kshama Sawant.” (Burgess and his wife Jolene have contributed $1,200 to Sawant’s opponent, Pamela Banks.)
In a brief interview Tuesday, Burgess did not back off from his criticism. “My opponents clearly want to make it class warfare,” he said. Asked which opponents, Burgess cited Grant; Bill Bradburd, who is running against Lorena González for the other at-large seat; and, to a lesser extent, Democratic activist Michael Maddux, whose District 4 opponent is mass-transit advocate Rob Johnson.
Burgess said he preferred that any questions about the Triad’s alleged attempt to shake down Grant be directed toward his political consultant, Christian Sinderman.
“It is sad,” said Sinderman, “that at a time when there has been an historic alignment between developers and housing activists toward developing affordable housing with the ‘Grand Bargain’ and so on, that we have one bad apple [Triad] that would steal the headlines.”
In the end, though, if the Triad Capital affair convinces enough voters that developers have seriously run amok, it may be Jon Grant who steals the headlines.
Ellis E. Conklin covers politics and development for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4365. Follow him on Twitter at @conkline.