Our Voice: Election campaigns should not be influenced by one wealthy man

Even though his candidates didn’t get in, it is still disconcerting to know a billionaire from California was heavily involved in Washington state election campaigns.

Tom Steyer, a retired hedge fund manager and environmental activist, is behind a Political Action Committee that sunk $1.4 million into three state Senate races in the hopes of electing candidates who would back Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate change agenda.

The plan did not work. All three Democratic candidates are trailing the Republican incumbents they were trying to unseat. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that one wealthy, outside businessman potentially could have had so much influence over Washington state policy.

Big spenders always have been involved in political campaigns during election season. But Steyer was not simply helping a candidate he wanted in office, he was strategically attempting to change control of the Washington Senate. The idea that one rich man possibly could circumvent public discourse in order to get what he wants is unsettling at best, and frightening at worst — especially since he does not live in Washington.

Steyer was on a national mission and reportedly spent around $50 million to help those sympathetic to clean energy get into office around the country.

Although Steyer’s money failed to influence Washington voters this go-around, his attempt has set up caution lights for elections in the future. When people see a barrage of campaign ads, it’s wise to consider how much they cost and who exactly is footing the bill. Voters need to be watchful of outside interests involved in our election process.

As part of Steyer’s plan, he used his money in an effort to provide more legislative support for Inslee’s ambitious proposal to curb carbon emissions in our state.

Inslee has had a difficult time gathering acceptance for his sweeping reforms, which likely will include either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program. While everyone is in favor of cleaner air, how to achieve it is up for debate. Republicans worry Inslee’s plan could make it tougher for working families and businesses who are barely getting by as it is. Inslee has said the state can find a way to reduce greenhouse gases and stimulate the economy at the same time.

Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen from Whatcom County has been the most vocal critic of Inslee’s proposals to cut carbon pollution and Republican Sen. Andy Hill of Kirkland-Redmond is the Senate Republican’s chief budget writer. These two, along with Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban of Pierce County were the primary targets of Steyer’s PAC.

All the incumbents appear to have retained their seats. But there’s no telling what might happen in future elections.

It is admirable when those with money want to help better the world, but spending millions on election campaigns appears sly and self-serving. Voters should be on guard.