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Seattle Times Political Caucus

The Seattle Times Political Caucus is an online community aimed at adding diverse voices to our coverage of politics. How we'll use the Caucus will evolve over time. But the idea is to create a conversation with people of various backgrounds and political beliefs. As the election season unfolds, we'll ask participants to weigh in on key political questions and then post their comments here.

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July 29, 2008 2:35 PM

Campaign contributions: What do they tell us?

Posted by Katherine Long

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are waging what will be the most expensive presidential campaign ever. What issues and concerns are raised by the money being raised, and where it's coming from?

We asked members of The Seattle Times Political Caucus to do a little sleuthing on OpenSecrets.org, a non-profit, nonpartisan Web site that examines contributions to national political campaigns. Here are their answers.

Kristi Brown also used Huffington Post's Fundrace 2008. In her West Seattle neighborhood, she found, 27 Republicans have donated a total of $15,408, compared to 228 Democrats who donated a whopping $189,244.

Brown was intrigued to learn that actor Kelsey Grammer (Frazier Crane, of the Seattle-based sitcom Frazier) is a Republican, who donated $2,300 to Rudy Giuliani in 2007 and $2,000 to Bush in 2004.

She also took a look at campaign contributions made by the CEOs of Washington's largest companies. Surprises? "Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has not specifically donated to either Obama or McCain, but he has donated $1,000 to the ERICPAC -- Every Republican Is Crucial PAC." (Editor's note: We noticed that Ballmer has spread his contributions around, giving money to both Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress and the Senate, as well as to Republican and Democratic PACs. But as Brown discovered, he has not contributed to any presidential campaigns.)

Brown learned that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz donated $2,300 apiece to Sens. Barack Obama and John Edwards. Costco Wholesale CEO James Sinegal has donated heavily to Democratic causes since 2004, "and a noteworthy amount of $28,500 was donated in 2007 to the DNC alone."

Scott Kastelitz of Bothell was surprised that "almost $65 million is coming from the Lawyers/Law Firms category (with 76% going to Democrats). This completely dwarfs any other category except Retired ($62.9 million), which is pretty evenly split. It's amusing to me to see that this is 17 times the amount of money donated from those in the oil & gas industry ($3.8 million). Kind of makes you wonder who really runs (or is trying to run) Washington D.C, doesn't it?"

Paul Graves of Olympia, a law clerk for a state Supreme Court justice, has a theory about that. "Democrats tend to support the expansion of laws allowing individuals to file (and win) more lawsuits, to oppose caps on non-economic damages available to plaintiffs, and are more willing to attempt to punish large companies generally, and with lawsuits specifically. In this cycle, lawyers have given $106M to democrats and $35M to republicans, a 75-25 ratio."

Graves points out that defense lawyers -- "even those representing those same large companies" -- tend to give heavily to Democrats as well.

"Two explanations come to mind for this anomaly, although I am sure there are more. First, lawyers at these law firms are very well paid and have generally strong job security. Thus, they are free to give against the economic interests of their clients to support their core values (lawyers tend generally to be liberal, especially on social issues.) Second, if democrats get elected and enact more plaintiff-friendly policies, companies will pay more for elite legal representation because the cost of losing a case will be higher. As the potential cost of a lawsuit goes up, so does the cost of defending against those lawsuits. In this way, both plaintiff and defendant lawyers have an interest in seeing plaintiff-friendly laws enacted. In fact, if this is true, then defense lawyers are not giving against their own self-interest at all."

"I work in the banking industry and it is no secret to me why the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate industry is donating more money for a change in administration," wrote Patrick Allen of West Seattle. That sector contributed about $42 million to Sens. Obama and Clinton to date, versus $16 million to Sen. McCain. "The shocker for me was that more than double is being donated from the Health industry. My initial thought was that the Health Care industry would be firmly behind McCain and the Republican's backing of a free market Health Care system."

Robert McNeill of Kent, a recent transplant from Illinois, was curious to compare his former home state's contributions to those being made by people in Washington. "The huge difference in dollars was a bit surprising. My Illinois home was a diverse suburban district, with a strong Republican core and a Democratic base that features a mixture of "old" and "new" money, tempered by a strong African-American voting bloc; my Washington home is more evenly divided, but still with traditionally strong GOP and Democratic voting blocs. What the numbers tell me is that while passions are running equally high, the dollars flowing into the ground-breaking Obama candidacy may well bode the difference between a close election and an old-fashioned rout."

A number of caucus members expressed dismay at the role of money in politics.

"I think campaign contributions are one of the most troubling aspects of the election process we face today," wrote Allen, of West Seattle "How can a candidate accept millions of dollars from a company, industry or lobbyist and not feel some sort of obligation to listen to their pleas, vote their way or worse yet, let them write legislation themselves as has happened in the past?"

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