By Brenda Cunningham
Who tracks the money?
As we open our ballots and ponder who should get our valuable vote we should spend a bit of time exploring a free resource at our fingertips, the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) website. The PDC is a state agency that houses the information candidates and political committees are required to report about donations to their campaigns and how they have spent the funds. The website is easy to use. And, if there are any questions, the staff at the PDC are very responsive and polite.
Step by step: How to find out
Let’s walk through an example from Skagit County. Once you see how easy the website is to navigate, I hope you will explore the campaign reporting sites for all the candidates on your ballot. To look at finances, first choose what sort of campaign you want to explore.
When you click on the “Browse” button you will have to choose whether to look at the records from candidates or political committees. The first 2 choices are simply different ways of searching for a candidate, such as a person running for the House of Representatives or for a local city council. First let’s try looking at a Ballot Measure, the County Charter campaign of 2018. This is an example of a political committee.
From the “Browse” menu select “Ballot Measures”. Once the page has loaded, click the dropdown menu for the year and choose “2018’”. Once that has loaded click on the tab for local initiatives because the charter campaign was just in Skagit County, not statewide. You can see that there were local initiatives in nearly every county. To make it easy to find the charter campaign, click on the jurisdiction menu and choose Skagit. You should see 3 entries. You can see how easy it is to get distracted looking at all the other campaigns and candidates.
Let’s explore the Home Rule Skagit Committee finances and those of the No On Charter Committee. We immediately see a large difference (more than 2.5 times) in the amount of money raised by the 2 sides of the issue. Where did all that money come from? Well, finding that out is why the PDC site is so valuable and interesting!
Go ahead and click on the Home Rule Skagit Committee. You quickly see that Home Rule Skagit raised nearly $22,000. If we click on the “contributions” tab, we get a summary and a list of the top 45 contributors, nearly all of them individual donors. The pie chart gives you a quick illustration of the types of donors. If you hover your mouse over the pie chart it will give you total dollars for the categories. To see the complete list of contributors, click on the “View/Download” button.
The No On Charter Committee raised nearly $60,000. When we click on the contributions tab for that campaign, we see the contributors are distributed differently, with one large individual contributor and nearly a quarter of the contributions coming from businesses. You may also notice that a portion of the contributions came from a political party, and there were contributions from outside Skagit County.
What about the candidates?
This same method can be used to examine the sources of funding for candidates. To explore candidates, go back to the PDC homepage and start over. You can choose candidates from the Browse menu. Or you can narrow down the search starting with your home address. There are many ways to find the candidate you are looking for.
A quick search of Skagit County positions shows us the candidates who have filed to run for Skagit County Commissioner. Citizens should feel free to contribute to the candidate of their choice without repercussions, but I am always watching to see what sort of businesses choose to support a candidate. Businesses have an interest in who sets policy in the county, and they will spend money supporting the ones they think will make favorable decisions for their industries.
Also note that the overview page for each candidate will show you the amount of funds they are carrying over from previous campaigns, giving the incumbents a financial advantage that may have been years in the making. For instance, although thus far Ron Wesen has not brought in as much in the way of contributions in this campaign as has his major opponent, Mark Lundsten, he has an additional $7,000 in funds available from his previous campaign in which he ran unopposed. So his balance of funds available this year is greater. Ken Dahlstedt is in a similar position, having set aside more than $2,000 from a previous campaign. Add this to the advantage of name recognition and you can see how great the advantage is for incumbents.
There are a couple more ways to make the analysis of funding interesting. If you have concerns about the influences of a particular industry, try downloading the list of all the contributors (clicking on view/download) and click on the “Employer” tab. All contributions over $100 must include a record of the contributor’s employer.
You may also want to become familiar with the names of people on the boards of various industry associations of concern. Sometimes a group of board members decide to contribute as individuals, rather than making the contribution from the association. Some examples to watch for are board members of local real estate or builders’ associations, banks, or even the Farm Bureau. The PDC does a good job of making this information transparent, but sometimes we need to dig a little deeper.
I also look for the names of people I know, in hopes of asking them for more information about a candidate. Certainly, if an individual or business chooses to spend hard-earned money on a candidate, they will likely be willing to tell you why. In this age of growing doubt about what information is trustworthy, the PDC website and the connections it can lead you to make with neighbors and friends are valuable tools. I encourage you to use them.
Brenda Cunningham, a Mount Vernon resident for the past 28 years, is a retired biologist and manages a native plant display garden in Skagit for the Washington Native Plant Society.