Patrons Of Politics: Washington State's Top 50
Seattle Times Staff Reporters
These wealthy folks are the "king makers" and "queen makers" of politics, the prime economic forces behind the candidates and issues that voters see on the ballot. Some you've heard of, but others shy away from the public spotlight.
If the state's top 50 political financiers were all to gather in a room for a photograph, several things about the group would be immediately obvious. They're all rich, some extraordinarily so. And they're all white.
If they were to begin talking, it would be evident they're also obsessed in some way with politics - the sport of it, the celebrity of it, the detailed public policies behind it.
But beyond these broad similarities, it turns out the fattest cats of the local political scene are nearly as diverse in their views about government, the role of politics in American society and even their own relevance to it all as any random group of people plucked off a downtown Seattle street.
As Congress continues to debate whether it should try to ban big money from the political system, The Seattle Times contacted many of the top individual contributors to political campaigns and issues during the 1990s. These people are "king makers" and "queen makers" of local politics, the prime economic forces behind the candidates and issues that voters see on the ballot.
From No. 1 on the list, a billionaire former software designer, to No. 50, a member of the region's legendary timber family, they come from all facets of the state's booming economy and represent its wealth from the new to the old to the inherited.
While many critics contend that the money they give is corrupting government, The Times found a group of people so eclectic in their views that it's difficult to imagine them agreeing on anything, let alone tilting the political direction of the region, state or country.
One gives only to women. Another studies candidates to see if they adhere to the principles of famed English economist John Maynard Keynes. Another, a University of Washington astronomy professor, backs mostly arms-control candidates.
One Seattle couple has given more than $200,000 to politicians in this decade because they want government to go away.
A lobbyist from Maple Valley says his giving is just overhead for "the cost of doing business - you know, the business of politics."
And a top donor to Democrats says the money race in politics is "an American tragedy" - but that's not going to stop him from spending an ever-increasing amount of his own money to advance his liberal philosophy.
"This is the part of the money-in-politics story that is never told," said Herb Alexander, a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Southern California who has written extensively on the role money plays in American government.
"It's been drummed into people time and again that money in politics is bad, that the people who give money are seeking some special favor, that the politicians are all on the take.
"But sometimes it turns out all these wealthy people who give are just expressing their political views. The end result is messy and cluttered and contradictory - sort of like democracy itself."
A small group that gives big
When you get a political brochure in the mail or see a campaign ad on television, it's a pretty safe bet that it was paid for in part with the dollars of one or more of these top 50 contributors. If it wasn't their money directly, it likely came from someone they know. As any politician can attest, the universe of people who put big money into politics is exceedingly small.
So small, in fact, that only 235,000 people nationwide made donations of $1,000 or more in the 1996 election for president and Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C., that studies campaign finances. That's less than a tenth of 1 percent of the population. Together, this elite club donated $638 million - nearly one-third - of the $2.2 billion that was spent nationwide in the last federal election. Another third came from people who gave in much smaller amounts - less than $200 per donation. The rest came from corporations, interest groups and public financing.
Who are these rich people? Why are they willing to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on politics?
"These people are not like the rest of America," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. In June, Green, along with the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, a private, nonprofit think tank, released the results of an intensive survey of 1,118 people randomly selected from among those who had written checks of $200 or more to federal candidates in the 1996 election.
The Joyce study found that 95 percent of big contributors are white, 80 percent are male, and 81 percent make more than $100,000 a year. The demographics of this group call to mind the arguments of campaign-reform groups such as Common Cause: that the true power in politics is held by an elite group of corporate-minded people who are not remotely like the majority of people government is supposed to serve.
Yet when The Times researched the contributions of the state's top 50 and asked many of them why they give, a more complicated picture emerged.
Take Floyd and Delores Jones, for instance.
At No. 13 on the list, the Joneses have given about the same amount of money to politics in recent years as the richest man in the world, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who with his wife, Melinda, ranks No. 11. Yet few people have heard of the Joneses. Floyd Jones does not try to lobby members of Congress. A stockbroker for the past 45 years, he says he has never talked with a politician about investments or his business, First Washington Corporation of Seattle.
The Joneses simply believe that government is good, they say. At their home in Lake Forest Park, Floyd, 70, and Delores, 73, periodically "do their homework" on the candidates to see which ones deserve financial backing. He mostly likes Democrats who have economic philosophies similar to that of Keynes, meaning, he says, that the government should run a surplus in good economic times and a deficit in bad. She favors Democrats who strongly support abortion rights. Both of them contributed heavily to last year's gun-control initiative.
They are fans of President Clinton's policies and have met him more than once, including last winter when they ate dinner with him at the Medina home of Laurie McDonald-Jonsson and Lars Jonsson, No. 18 on the list.
"But we haven't slept in the Lincoln bedroom," Floyd Jones said. "We are privileged to give, and we will keep giving, because it's bothered us for many years to have people in this country always talking the government down, as if it's a source of evil.
"We live for the day when people will say `my taxes are well spent.' "
Across town in a $1.75 million house in Laurelhurst, Richard and Nancy Alvord, No. 9, are not exactly trying to keep up with the Joneses. Many of their checks are written to politicians or groups devoted to stripping the government of its power and reach, or to groups that oppose abortion, such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the National Right to Life Committee.
Richard Alvord, 46, a private investor who works from home, said he and Nancy, 45, are not interested in middle-of-the-road candidates. Their money - $206,000 since 1992, all to Republicans or conservative groups - is designed to promote the free market, he said.
"Guys like me seek out people with similar ideas," he said. "I don't expect a left-wing person to change their mind because I give them a hundred bucks."
Calling themselves "private people," the Alvords are not well-known in political circles. Still, the couple receives so many phone requests for more donations that Richard says it's often impossible to get through dinner without interruption.
Politics likely would be a lively topic at an Alvord family reunion. Richard's parents, the Seattle arts patrons C. Ellsworth and Nancy Alvord, also contribute to politicians, but they back liberal candidates and Democratic, pro-abortion rights groups such as Emily's List, the political action committee that supports only female candidates.
Other contributors have effectively turned themselves into miniature special-interest campaign machines by backing only candidates that meet certain ideological criteria.
Ruthann Lorentzen, No. 43, director of marketing at Microsoft, gives almost exclusively to Democratic women candidates because she has a dream that Congress one day will be equal parts men and women. (The U.S. Senate now has nine women and 91 men, the House 60 women and 375 men.)
"I'm hell-bent on representative government," said Lorentzen, 43. "I look at the numbers and I look at how long I'll probably live, and I realize it'll probably take that long."
Every election cycle, Lorentzen sets aside $25,000 to support female candidates. Starting with Senate candidates who have been tabbed by Emily's List as potential winners, Lorentzen works her way down to House candidates, picking about a dozen Democratic, pro-choice women and giving each $1,000 for the primary election and $1,000 in the general election.
She compares her systematic giving to building a hockey team.
"It's like a feeder system," she said. "If you want a good hockey team you aren't going to get it if they start skating in ninth grade. They are going to have to start skating a lot younger."
In 1996, all but one of the women she gave to lost. But she wasn't deterred. Since then, she has given contributions of $500 and up to nine women candidates in seven states.
`Don't call old Ted'
Other special interests have been closer to home. Ted Hossfeld, No. 5, is near the top of the political-contributors list even though he doesn't pay much attention to politics. His singular passion in his retirement has been the public-education system, which, he says, can be fixed only by granting parents a choice as to where to send their kids to school.
In 1996, Hossfeld, 78, donated $250,000 to an initiative requiring the state to allow "charter" schools, or taxpayer-supported schools created by parents. The voters defeated it soundly. Since then he has given several hundred dollars each to Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, but he says he doesn't like politicians.
"I would give money if there were politicians who deserved it," he said. "They don't even call me anymore. The word has gotten around - `Don't call old Ted Hossfeld, he won't give you a cent!' "
Instead, Hossfeld, a chemical engineer by training who made his fortune in investment banking, is spending his time and personal money setting up an endowment so parents of some public-school students in Seattle can send their kids to a private, parochial school - sort of a privately funded voucher system that will take effect upon his death. Hossfeld did not want the school named, but he said he chose a religious school for no other reason than it was doing the best job of educating kids.
As for the charter-schools initiative, Hossfeld said his $250,000 donation "was the best investment I've ever made" because he believes it raised awareness of the faltering state of public education.
The charter-schools initiative was a transforming experience for another Seattle-area couple. It turned Jim and Fawn Spady, No. 8, from lifelong Democrats into Republicans.
The Spadys, who run the five Dick's Drive-In burger joints and home-school their two children, donated more than $200,000 to the charter-schools measure. About $150,000 of that they borrowed and have yet to pay off.
But Jim Spady, 40, said he has no regrets. He learned two things in the initiative campaign, he says: that Democrats are not the stronger political party for education, as they typically are portrayed. And that there should be more money in political campaigns, not less, particularly if the money comes from people, not corporations or groups.
"People said we were buying the election, but I'm very proud of what we did," he said. "It takes money to have a public discussion of important ideas, and this was worth every penny spent."
The family of Evalyn Flory, No. 37, wonders whether her political activity was worth it.
In a two-year period between 1994 and 1996, Flory, a 90-year-old who lives in a Redmond retirement home, became consumed by making campaign donations to the point that she had no time for anything else, says her sister, Ella Nuckolls. She wrote 144 checks totaling nearly $70,000, much of it to the national Republican Party or the presidential campaign of Bob Dole.
She spent hours each day filling out candidate and party questionnaires, Nuckolls said. She wrote so many checks to Bob Dole that she exceeded her contribution limits, and his campaign was forced to return 11 of them totaling $6,000. Her activity invited more mailings and incessant phone calls, and piles of mail filled her apartment.
"Its just like a contest or anything else, you get swept up in it," Nuckolls said.
Flory has not made a contribution to any candidate since late 1996 because a series of strokes impaired her memory.
Of course, some big contributors have an agenda that doesn't have much to do with a passion for a particular political ideology. The No. 1 political financier on the list, billionaire Paul Allen, is barely involved in partisan or issue politics at all. He spent more than $6 million last year persuading voters to build his Seahawks football team a new stadium. As an investment, it wasn't a bad deal for Allen: He spent $6 million to secure a $300 million subsidy from the taxpayers.
For others, politics is simply a business. From his ranch in Maple Valley, Martin Durkan Jr., and his wife, Jennifer, No. 39, say their political giving is simply "operational overhead" for Martin's political-consulting and lobbying business.
"To be a good lobbyist, you've got to support both sides," said Durkan, 44, who lobbies at the city, county and state level, representing everyone from real-estate developers to tobacco giant Philip Morris. "My contributions have been very good investments for me, my family and my clients."
Since creating the Dura-Kan, those green recycling bins with wheels ubiquitous around Seattle, and selling that business in 1989, Durkan has become one of the region's top political "rainmakers" - he can shake the tree of business and make it rain money, he says. For instance, when television ads attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gary Locke ran in 1996, Durkan says he was asked to try to raise some money so Locke and the Democrats could respond.
"I showed up 10 hours later with $100,000," he said. Only $25,000 of it was his; the rest he raised from what he calls "business titans" around King County. Durkan typically gives smaller donations to both Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government, though he has worked most eagerly for Democrats such as Locke and former Gov. Mike Lowry.
The son of former Democratic state Sen. Martin Durkan Sr., the younger Durkan says private money in politics may look ugly or sleazy at times, but it's essential to preserving the nation's moderate, stable, two-party system.
"Take a look at public-access television, and that's what you'd get if we had public financing of elections," he said. "We'd all be paying to listen to candidates from the Ku Klux Klan and the Naked Butt Party."
While most big contributors are not so blunt about the purpose of their money, about two-thirds of those surveyed by the Joyce Foundation said they had contacted a politician to express an opinion or to seek help with a problem.
Bainbridge Island construction executive Everett Paup is such a person. He and his wife, Andrea, are No. 31 on The Times' list of Washington state contributors. The Paups back Republicans and conservative causes, mostly, they say, to balance out the "staggering" amount of money contributed by organized liberal groups such as labor unions and trial lawyers.
Paup, 66, runs Manson Construction and Engineering, which specializes in marine projects, such as dredging and building or repairing piers. The company often does work for the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But while his contributions may have earned him an audience with members of Congress, he says the money gave him no influence.
"I had to go to talk to a certain politician to whom I contributed about a specific issue. That person disregarded my views entirely," he said. He would not name the politician.
Like many big contributors, Paup said he is uncomfortable that his gifts of money sometimes put him in the public spotlight. "I don't particularly relish the publicity," he said. "Not that I've done anything to be embarrassed about."
Gates gives to both sides
Another businessman who has been exploring the connection between politics and the success of his company is the richest man in the world, Bill Gates. For the first decade after creating Microsoft, Gates didn't contribute to politicians or political issues much at all. When he started in the late 1980s, he gave only to Democrats such as former U.S. Sen. Brock Adams of Washington and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who then was running for president. Later, he backed then-U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley and former Congress members Maria Cantwell and Mike Kreidler.
After declaring publicly that he was a Democrat in 1993, Gates has since decided it might be wise to spread the money around. This election cycle, for instance, he has donated $5,500 to a group devoted to electing Republicans to Congress and $5,000 to a group devoted to electing Democrats.
The Joyce Foundation study turned up another reason some big contributors give: Some people "just really like knowing or hanging out with politicians," Green, the political scientist, said.
That's true of Mercer Island's Jack Spitzer, who says he doesn't like to make contributions to candidates he hasn't met.
For the 80-year-old activist, businessman and philanthropist, who along with his wife, Charlotte, ranks No. 6, the requirement isn't as difficult as it may seem.
Spitzer has dined with leaders all over the world and met with nearly every president since Lyndon Johnson. He has served on philanthropic organizations and spent most of his life contributing to Democrats.
Still, he was surprised that he and Charlotte had given more than $230,000 in political contributions since 1992.
"I had no idea I gave so much," he said. "It goes out little by little."
Spitzer earned his fortune as chief executive of three savings-and-loan organizations. In 1978, he quit to serve as president of B'nai B'rith. He started Covenant Mortgage with an associate in 1984 and still works full time when he is not traveling to Israel or other countries on behalf of philanthropic causes.
The Spitzers also donate about $250,000 a year to various charities. Despite their wealth, the couple live in a Kirkland condominium. He describes himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal who wants to repay the people who are willing to dedicate their lives to public service.
"I don't own a boat. I don't play golf. I don't have a vacation home," he said. "I believe in paying my debt to society. Society has been very good to me."
The Joyce Foundation's major finding was that an overwhelming majority of big contributors believe money is harming the political process and the system should be reformed - even though they are the ones providing much of the cash.
One is Ken Alhadeff, the former Longacres co-owner and now chairman of a private investment firm, who with his wife, Marleen, ranks No. 3 in The Times' top 50. They are stalwart Democrats and say they support gun safety, access to health care and environmental protection.
"I passionately care about the issues," said Alhadeff, 50, who calls himself a liberal and made his first political contribution when he was 21. "My contributions aren't political; they are about social things."
In an ideal world, Alhadeff said, political campaigns would be entirely financed by the public, with the same amount of money allocated for each candidate. Gone would be the emphasis on marketing and glitz, and attention would be focused on the message of each contender.
"It's an American tragedy that someone running for Senate in Washington or Oregon or Idaho has to go to Georgia for a dinner to raise money from people who can't even vote for them," he said. "The men and women in politics don't like it any more than we do."
Harriet Bullitt, No. 14, said she got so fed up with the campaign-finance system that "last year I decided to send no money to anyone until they change the system. Then I broke down. That doesn't accomplish anything except give more power to our opponents."
Still, Bullitt is outraged that "if you want to have good government you have to buy it. Voting is not enough. It ought to be but it isn't. It's not fair."
Giving is escalating
But the major reform pending before Congress - to ban unregulated, unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties - would have virtually no effect on most of the money contributed by the top 50 political benefactors in Washington state. Only a few, such as No. 3 Alhadeff, No. 2 Thomas Stewart and No. 20 Eleanor and Georges St. Laurent Jr., have made large party contributions in recent years. Others back only issue initiatives and individual candidates and therefore could continue donating at the same pace, if not faster.
For instance, philanthropist and KING-TV heiress Patsy Collins, No. 12, has donated nearly $175,000 without giving a cent of soft money to a political party.
"I don't give any soft money, no matter what," she said. "I don't believe in it. I don't know where the money goes - into some dark abyss, some vague euphemism called party building. I'm quite cynical about it, I guess."
Although Collins said disgust with the focus on money in politics has caused her to curtail her giving this year, no one contacted in the top 50 political financiers list said they intend to register dissatisfaction by saying "no" to the next politician who wants money. One, retired high-tech executive Hunter Simpson, who with his wife, Dorothy, was No. 40, declared last year that he would never give money to a candidate again because it was not worth having his ethics questioned by strident critics. But he apparently couldn't help himself - earlier this year he gave $1,000 to U.S. Senate candidate Chris Bayley.
Far from slowing down, most top contributors have escalated their giving substantially in recent years. They reason simply that politics and government will churn on with or without them, so they might as well influence it as much as they can.
After software magnate Paul Brainerd, No. 25, sold his Aldus Corp. for $525 million in 1995, he set out to spend his fortune on saving the environment, not supporting political candidates.
But he quickly realized that it made no sense to ignore politicians because they are so instrumental in determining environmental policy. When it comes to the environment, "you can't carry on a conversation for five minutes without talking about politics," he said.
Now, Brainerd gives exclusively to environment-minded candidates, and he recently has been giving the maximum allowed by law.
"Clearly a lot of people who have goals contrary to mine are spending their maximum contribution limits," he said. "I feel a responsibility to help."
Other top contributors agree - some defiantly so.
"Until the rules change, I'm not going to be ashamed of caring about what I care about," Alhadeff said. "Until the playing field is even, I am going to continue to contribute to the men and women and issues I believe in."
Danny Westneat's phone-message number is 206-464-2772. His e-mail address is: email@example.com
Tom Brown's phone message number is 206-464-2353. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Byrnes' phone message number is 206-464-2189. Her e-mail address is: email@example.com
-------------------------------------- No limit on giving if it's diversified --------------------------------------
There is no simple answer to the simple question: How much money can political donors give?
It depends on the situation, given the maze of federal, state and local campaign laws, all with their own sets of exceptions, but the broad answer is, "as much as they want."
Current law allows people to give federal candidates a maximum of $1,000 per election (typically $2,000 a year), and they can give political-action committees (PACs) $5,000 per year. Each contributor has a total annual limit of $25,000 a year to federal candidates, PACs and party committees that directly influence elections.
But anyone can easily give more than that by donating "soft money," funds used by the Democratic and Republican parties for general activities not directly associated with an election, such as recruiting new members or advertising a general philosophy. These donations are unlimited.
Laws about giving to candidates at the state, county and city levels all have different limits (typically $500 to $1,000 per candidate per election), and donors can give to candidates or campaigns in other states. Further, in Washington, there is no limit on donations to statewide issue initiatives.
Consequently, despite all the discussion of limits, it's possible to pour an unlimited amount of money into the political system.
Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.