Nathan Gorton with Washington Realtors gets more than a dozen campaign finance solicitations a day this time of year. Photo by Austin Jenkins
OLYMPIA, Wash. - Lobbyists have been pounding down the doors of Washington state lawmakers for the last several months. But now that the legislature has adjourned, the roles have suddenly reversed. Just ask lobbyist Nick Federici who advocates for human services organizations.
“It is a little bit ironic that in a week’s time they went from ‘oh my God I don’t want to talk to you every again’ to ‘oh, by the way, could you send me a check?’”
Here’s the deal. When the Washington legislature is in session, lawmakers can’t raise money. It’s called the “session freeze.” But the day after the last gavel falls, the freeze thaws.
“Personally, I gave everybody a week off myself.” says Democrat Steve Kirby. He chairs the business and banking committee in the Washington House.
He recently sent a fundraising plea to more than 100 Olympia lobbyists. “THE FREEZE IS OVER!!!” screamed the all caps headline. Next to it, a picture of a man holding an umbrella over a snowman to shield him from the sun.
“Just basically remind people that now that the legislature is over it’s time to start concentrating on what’s really important which of course would be re-electing me,” Kirby quips.
That’s Kirby’s deadpan sense of humor on display. You can also find it in his post-session plea to lobbyists. “Could we do better than Steve Kirby” asks the flyer? “Don’t Answer that! Just mindlessly contact your clients, request a contribution for my campaign...”
“It basically kind of lightens up this whole process,” Kirby says.
So who’s on the receiving end of political fundraising pleas like this?
We’re in Nathan Gorton’s daylight basement office in Olympia. He is the government affairs director for the Washington Association of Realtors.
He shows me a folder on his desk. It contains just one day’s worth of requests for contributions.
“I don’t know whether this is impressive or not, but there’s about 15 requests here. In addition to this we’ve gotten another 10 emails and another four or five phone calls.”
Gorton says there’s a lot of pent up demand for campaign contributions this year. Washington lawmakers have been sidelined from fundraising for 50 extra days because of special sessions before and after the regular session. Plus, the August primary is two weeks earlier than last year.
And there’s one more factor: redistricting has created new district boundaries where candidates have to get their faces and names known. That costs money.
Gorton says everyone who solicits a contribution from the Realtors PAC will receive a response.
“It’s kind of a tiered thing. Five percent will hear back right away from us, the next 30 percent that are still pretty good friends but maybe not on quite the best friend level, they’ll hear before June.”
Everyone else is asked to fill out a candidate questionnaire and perhaps even come in for an in-person interview. Then the decision is made whether to write a check of support and, if so, whether to give the maximum allowed for legislative candidates: $1800.
In the political money game, lobbyists often play the role of financial advisor to their clients. Brad Boswell is a contract lobbyist who represents mostly business interests. A key service he provides is helping his clients make the most of their political contributions.
“Usually, you’re trying to focus contributions where they’re going to be most effective either in support of relationships that you have or in areas where you think that contribution can make a difference,” Boswell says.
Boswell and everyone I talked to for this story were adamant there is no quid pro quo when it comes to campaign contributions and votes. But isn’t it a little too close for comfort?
“It does feel odd, but no I don’t think it’s unethical, I don’t think it’s sleazy," says lobbyist Nick Federici. "I think it’s just an unfortunate reality that money is what makes politics and the legislative process run.”
American political history is rife with vote-trading scandals. But Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission has no record of a case where a state lobbyist or lawmaker was busted for buying or selling votes.
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