Report reveals Whatcom County's political mega-donors

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 25, 2013 

If Whatcom County's biggest donors to federal election campaigns reflect the political climate as a whole, then the county is evenly split.

Of the county's top seven contributors to the 2012 races for president and the U.S. Congress, three gave to Democrats, three gave to Republicans and one split the difference - contributing almost 50-50 to both parties.

Democrats reaped more from this elite group, receiving $131,217 compared to $82,579 for Republicans.

The county's biggest donors were revealed in a report released Monday, June 24, by the Sunlight Foundation. It pulls together publicly available data on campaign donations from the "top 1 percent of the top 1 percent" of the U.S. population.

Topping the list in Whatcom County is Jim Swift, owner of Rocket Donuts in Bellingham and other restaurants. Swift keeps a low political profile, foregoing bumper stickers, yard signs and speeches to local councils.

But in 2012, Swift gave $64,497 to support Democratic candidates for federal offices, including $5,000 each to the campaigns of Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, who won the seat that represents most of Whatcom County outside Bellingham.

Swift also gave $30,375 to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. He said his donation was less about Obama than it was about his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

"The alternative was not somebody I wanted to spend four or eight years with," Swift said.

Swift also contributed to races in states such as New Mexico, Arizona and Montana, to support candidates who favored clean energy and drug-policy reform. He never checked whether his out-of-state candidates won.

"Whether they won or lost, I just did my part," he said.

The foundation's report lists the top 31,385 donors for 2012, which puts them at 0.01 percent of the entire U.S. population of about 313,850,000. The foundation estimates about 25 million people gave to the 2012 campaigns, which puts the super donors in the top 0.13 percent of all donors.

The study's lead author, Lee Drutman, concluded that campaign influence is concentrated among donors in this group, which gave 28 percent of all donations for last year.

"They become the gatekeeper of elections in the United States," Drutman said in an interview. "If you want to run for office, the first question you have to ask yourself is, 'Can I get a lot of really rich people to give me a lot of money?'"

The study was motivated by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to allow public advocacy nonprofits to donate to political causes without revealing the names of their donors.

"There's $300 million we know of, at least, that went into dark-money groups that don't disclose their contributions," Drutman said of the 2012 campaigns. "Anybody who thinks seriously about democracy knows information is its lifeblood. When you get into the situation where money is given secretly, that puts you in some very disturbing territory."

Swift agreed with Drutman's statement but is concerned about a polarization in political debate that didn't exist when he came of age in the 1950s and '60s.

"There still was a level of civility and a level of appreciation of dissenting opinions, but it seems that certainly the tide has shifted on that," Swift said.

"It's really unfortunate," he added. "It's not encouraging people to be citizens and to really participate in government."

Others on the list from Whatcom County couldn't be reached for comment, except Joe Wilson, the fifth-largest donor and the sales manager at Pederson Bros., Inc. In an email, he had this to say about his $21,950 in donations to Republican and tea party causes:

"Don't tell my wife."

TOP DONORS (PARTY SUPPORTED)

Jim Swift, $64,497 (D)

Martinus Nickerson, $38,699 (D)

Paul Razore, $32,500 (both)

Gerrit Boyle, $27,900 (R)

Joe Wilson, $21,950 (R)

Andria Boyle, $15,000 (R)

Marc Omar Shokeir, $13,250 (D)


SEE THE REPORT

Find the donor report online at sunlightfoundation.com.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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