Seattle reels in spending by ‘foreign-influenced’ companies

The measure blocks any corporation with non-American investors from giving money to candidates or to independent political-action committees.

By Gene Johnson / Associated Press

SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council on Monday unanimously passed a measure to reel in political spending by “foreign-influenced” companies, following city council elections last year that drew unprecedented spending — including a record $1.5 million from Amazon.

The measure puts the city in the vanguard of local efforts to control corporate political spending. It blocks any corporation from giving money to candidates or to independent political-action committees if that corporation has one non-American investor holding at least 1% ownership, or multiple non-American investors holding at least 5%.

St. Petersburg, Florida, has a similar ban.

“We have an epidemic of big money in our elections, and this step helps to address the appearance and risk of corruption in our local elections,” Councilmember M. Lorena González, the legislation’s sponsor, said in a news release. “Essentially, this legislation closes a loophole that previously allowed foreign persons to use their ownership in a corporation to influence political activity.”

Amazon has not said whether it would be considered a “foreign-influenced” company under the law, but González, who did not vote because she gave birth last Friday, has said she believes it would apply to the company. Seattle City Council staff determined that at least seven of the 20 largest corporate contributors to political action committees in city races last year could have qualified as foreign-influenced.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment Monday. Supporters of the legislation expect a legal challenge.

Critic Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy at the libertarian Freedom Foundation, called the effort a way for the council to disadvantage companies that oppose its progressive agenda.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees with the idea that foreign entities should not be influencing U.S. elections,” Nelsen said. “But it’s pretty clear that this would lock out many large, predominantly American companies with large payroll in the Seattle area from having a say in local politics in their own hometown. It’s limiting political participation by large local employers under the guise of preventing foreign influence in our elections.”

González has also proposed limiting all contributions to political action committees that businesses, labor unions and other interests used to bundle and spend a record $4 million in last year’s elections, but that measure isn’t expected to be voted on until later this year.

Mayor Jenny Durkan supports the measure as a way to counteract the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United allowing corporate spending in elections, spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said in an emailed statement.

“Mayor Durkan believes the Citizens United decision has generated outside spending that has disrupted our representative democracy and favored special interests over the voice of the people,” Hightower wrote.

Amazon directed its contributions last year to the political action committee of the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which supported a slate of seven candidates it perceived as business-friendly. The spending caused a backlash in liberal Seattle, and most of the chamber-backed candidates lost.

The legislation would require companies spending money in candidate races to certify to the city clerk’s office that they don’t meet the definition of a “foreign-influenced” corporation. The companies would still be allowed to spend money to support or oppose ballot initiatives.

Markham McIntyre, the Seattle chamber of commerce’s chief of staff, said that showed the council’s political motivation: Business groups have supported ballot measures for housing and preschool.

“It’s disconcerting to see the Seattle City Council pick and choose who gets a voice in local elections, and when,” McIntyre said in an email. “We fully support more transparency in local elections, but changes need to be legal and free of political motivation.”

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