Local Election

California billionaire’s money makes its way into Whatcom’s 42nd Senate race


Hundreds of thousands of dollars from a liberal California billionaire have poured into one of Whatcom County’s most watched races — the push for the 42nd District state Senate seat.

As could be expected in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 general election, while Republican incumbent Sen. Doug Ericksen and Democratic challenger Seth Fleetwood have debated one another at local forums, their campaigns and outside groups have taken to TV screens, radio airwaves and mailboxes, dropping thousands of dollars to get their targeted messages across.

A recent mailer sent to 42nd District voters by the Washington State Republican Party shows a man stuffing a tiny Fleetwood inside his suit jacket. The caption reads, “A California Billionaire has Seth Fleetwood in his pocket and he isn’t afraid to use him.”

The ad refers to environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has put at least $1.25 million into his NextGen Climate Action Committee to influence Washington state races.

For weeks, Ericksen too has referenced Steyer money making its way into Fleetwood’s campaign. Fleetwood has denied he has received money directly from Steyer.

When asked what could be done to reduce outside spending in campaigns, Ericksen told an Oct. 1 Whatcom Tea Party forum audience, “It is an issue that needs to be handled. I don’t have billionaires from California handing me big checks, but it is an issue.”

Fleetwood agreed that money in campaigns is a problem, but countered with, “As far as the billionaire reference, I’m not seeing any of that money. You’re the one who’s seen two-thirds of your money from corporations and business PACs.”

In looking solely at direct campaign contributions, that is still the case. As of Oct. 21, Fleetwood had received most of his cash contributions from individual donors and $57,000 from the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign, with no direct contribution from NextGen or Steyer. Meanwhile, Ericksen had received most of his cash from corporations, special interest groups, businesses or political action committees and $81,000 from the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

However, a close look at independent expenditure reports to the Public Disclosure Commission shows that Fleetwood has benefited from at least $185,679 from NextGen via another political committee, Sensible Leadership for Whatcom.

“My campaign has not received anything from Steyer,” Fleetwood said in an Oct. 21 interview. “We cannot coordinate. Those are independent expenditures. It’s the other side of the firewall, as they refer to it.”

Fleetwood and Ericksen’s contest is the only race Sensible Leadership has filed to weigh in on. As of Oct. 21, the committee has received $344,659 from the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund and $52,000 from the Kennedy Fund, both of which have received money from NextGen.

NextGen contributions totaling $750,000 made up 53.3 percent of the Washington Conservation Voters’ total cash contributions reported by Oct. 21.

Assuming the same percentage was used in donating to various sources, $183,703 of the cash the Washington Conservation Voters gave to Sensible Leadership came from Steyer’s committee.

In the same line of thinking, of the $52,000 Sensible Leadership received from the Kennedy Fund on Sept. 17, $1,976 could be attributed to NextGen. On that same day, NextGen gave $50,000 to the Kennedy Fund, to make up 3.8 percent of the fund’s total cash contributions.

Sensible Leadership has paid for mailers, canvassing, phone banks, radio and TV ads in favor of Fleetwood and opposing Ericksen. The committee has so far spent $183,959 to elect Fleetwood, who trailed Ericksen in the primary with 43 percent of the vote to Ericksen’s 57 percent.

Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund also has sent out mailers in recent weeks favoring Fleetwood and opposing Ericksen. The total cost of two mailers reported for Oct. 15 and 20 was $20,343, slightly more than half of which could be contributed to Steyer money, considering NextGen’s 53.3 percent stake in the Conservation Voters’ cash.

When Steyer first donated $1 million to NextGen on Sept. 15, the committee announced it would be supporting two other Senate candidates, Democrats Tami Green and Matt Isenhower. Those two races are among a select few that could decide if Democrats regain control of the 49-member Senate. The committee didn’t rule out weighing in on other races.

There were more Democrats than Republicans elected to the last session of the Senate, but two Democrats formed a Majority Coalition Caucus with 24 Republicans. NextGen has said it is working to put a “pro-climate majority” in the Washington and Oregon legislatures next year.

Campaign rules prevent either candidate from coordinating with outside groups. Fleetwood said he has no control over who contributes to or supports his race through outside committees.

“I’ve gotten the majority of my campaign contributions from individuals,” Fleetwood said. “I think it levels the playing field with my opponent to some degree. There’s a lot of ugly stuff flying in this race — deceptive ads and untruths — and it’s unfortunate, but I don’t have any control over it.”

So far, Fleetwood’s campaign has raised a total of $321,941 and spent $242,499. He’s had a total of $215,904 of independent expenditures for him, and $148,021 spent against him by outside groups.

Ericksen’s campaign has raised a total of $423,806 and spent $242,991. He’s had a total of $70,385 of independent expenditures for him, and $16,896 spent against him by outside groups.

One of the groups that has spent thousands opposing Fleetwood is Working Families. The committee had spent $92,734 against Fleetwood as of Oct. 21.

Working Families received nearly all of its $541,000 in cash from The Leadership Council, which in turn got about $400,000 of its total cash from the Republican State Leadership Committee between two donations Sept. 23 and Oct. 10.

The Republican State Leadership Committee is a federal entity that files out-of-state political committee campaign finance forms, and only needs to file monthly once it first contributes money in the state. According to an Oct. 10 filing, the committee has gotten much of its millions of dollars this year from corporate groups including Monsanto, Comcast, Walmart, tobacco company Reynolds American, and pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer and Novartis.

“Both sides are receiving significant money, enormous money,” Fleetwood said. “Money is coming in in support of or in opposition to candidates, and buying media which is either promoting or opposing a candidate who has nothing to do with it.”