Follow the Money
Wednesday, October 13, 2021
FOLLOW THE MONEY: That enormous campaign war chest of the Whatcom County Republican Party appears to have evaporated—if it existed at all—according to a complaint filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, the watchdog agency tasked with keeping money transparent in local politics. In May, a week before filing for office opened, the Whatcom County Republican Party reported total assets on hand of $233,500. But by Sept. 6, that cumulative total had dropped to $106,292, according to a complaint filed with the PDC.
The complaint asks, What happened to the missing $127,208? It appears to include the $68,640 over-reported amount, as well as $58,568 in unexplained receipts. Where did the money go? Did they ever have it at all?
The complaint, filed by Whatcom Democrats, alleges WCRP violated PDC rules, hid contributor’s names and amounts, corrected numbers without explanation and failed to correct other errors, resulting in more than $140,000 in misreported, over-reported and unreported contributions.
The shambolic shenanigans of Whatcom Republicans—once the proud party of accountants and bankers—utterly defeats the purpose of financial disclosures as a tool for voters to follow issues and candidates: Who is buying our government? Compounded over successive election cycles for more than a decade, WCRP’s persistent nonfeasance/misfeasance/malfeasance in the accurate filing of such disclosures indicates a pattern of incompetence (in the most generous reading) of sinister proportions.
“The degree to which the Whatcom Republicans are playing fast and loose with public financial disclosures is scandalous,” Andrew Reding, chair of Whatcom Democrats, said in a statement. “These laws exist to ensure transparency in our elections, and this shady bookkeeping does the opposite.”
Whatcom Republicans got knocked in the head by a similar complaint filed in 2019, when a PDC enforcement investigation found the group had failed to accurately report details on campaign contributions and expenditures. And again in 2017, where they were advised to educate themselves on compliance with PDC reporting requirements.
One wonders how long the agency will continue to consider these cyclic errors that systematically deceive voters as honest mistakes or unhappy accidents.
In other election news, the Seattle metro area is spending a lot of money to transform Bellingham.
Four initiatives on the city ballot are aimed at improving social outcomes for lower incomes and at-risk communities, regulating rent, working conditions and policing in the city. The fourth initiative, which among its protections would require a hazard pay supplement of $4 per hour for wage-earners during a declared state of emergency, is perhaps the most problematic, as it is unclear who the exposed party would be in the event of a labor complaint (city taxpayers?). “State of emergency” is a broad and unspecified category, typically (and frequently) invoked by local governments as a tool to access state and federal relief for fires, floods and earthquakes.
People First Bellingham, the group who placed all four initiatives on the ballot, have raised more than $65,000 in support of their measures, with the largest single donation of $50,000 coming from a Seattle health foundation. Bellingham Initiative Four has received the largest amount of organized opposition, with more than $90,000 coming from organizations in Olympia, according to PDC reports. Together, these are amounts elevated from those typical in a city ballot measure.
Similarly, the campaign of Kristina Michele Martens for Bellingham City Council’s at-large position has attracted an out-sized portion of outside money. Martens has raised nearly $60,000, or about three-quarters that of all other candidates for all other city positions combined. Of this amount, nearly 20 percent has arrived from contributors outside the city.
A dynamic, talented and telegenic recent transplant from Seattle, Martens has made no secret of her desire to pursue an office higher than this she currently seeks on Bellingham City Council—a two-year term. She declined to attend the recent candidates’ forum sponsored by the Whatcom League of Womens Voters, citing a prior engagement.
Her opponent, Russ Whidbey, has raised less than a third than Martens. All but a fraction of that amount has arrived in small contributions from Bellingham and Whatcom County donors. A financial advisor and graduate of Western Washington University, Whidbee serves as adjunct faculty at Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College.
The bulk of Martens’ campaign expenditures have been among Seattle-area political consultants. Of her total expenditures, nearly half has been spent on campaign staff salaries rather than direct voter outreach—a trend increasingly common in local elections.
Whidbee, meanwhile, has spent his contributions more modestly—and locally.
In the lead-up to the general election, Martens dramatically outperformed Whidbee in the August primary, collecting 55 percent to Whidbee’s 31 percent. Whidbee’s campaign and fundraising had barely begun, how-ever, and this race could be more competitive than those earlier primary numbers suggest.
“Follow the money” is a useful tool that allows armchair analysts to cross-tab contributions large and small. The aggregate is often less revealing than a more forensic examination of the line items. The trend in Whatcom County political races is that they are in many cases getting more expensive, and they are attracting greater portions of outside money. The work of the Public Disclosure Commission—itself created by voter initiative in 1973—can help us understand these trends, provided campaigns and candidates are honest in their transparency.