Senate Democrats’ campaign funds run dry

Prosecutors looking into former director’s handling of funds

Staff writerApril 28, 2013 

Depending on when state lawmakers resume their work in a looming special session, the chase for campaign cash could kick into high gear as early as Monday — and the sooner, the better for Senate Democrats.

Disarray in their campaign operation has left them starting from scratch, as they try to defend a crucial Senate seat in Pierce and Kitsap counties.

Democrats are seeing red ink, while Senate Republicans have hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank and a fundraiser scheduled for Monday to gather more.

Even as lawmakers’ budget talks slogged along, Democrats hired a new campaign director last week and prepared paperwork to rename their two campaign funds as part of a fresh start after they alleged embezzlement by the former director.

“I believe we’ll be able to show, once we get out of session and I can actually make phone calls, that we’ve got strong support from our allies and friends,” said Maury Island Sen. Sharon Nelson, the Democratic campaign chairwoman. “I would be more concerned if (Republicans) hadn’t clearly shown what their leadership means to the citizens of the state.”

For now, though, the most recent financial disclosures show one of the Democrats’ funds has just a few thousand dollars and the other has less in cash than it owes.

Even if those disclosures were accurate, they are old. Democrats haven’t filed reports in recent months as they are supposed to do. But Nelson said the campaign committee hasn’t been active in that time.

Prosecutors are looking into how former director Michael King managed the money. The filing deadlines were missed while lawmakers examined bank activity, talked to prosecutors and campaign regulators, and changed treasurers. Nelson said new records should be filed soon.

Democrats’ new director, Adam Bartz, who has worked for House Democrats as a campaign aide and redistricting analyst, takes over a new operation renamed the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign. Nelson said a new fund is being created with regulators by that name and another called the Kennedy Fund (replacing the Roosevelt Fund) to avoid complicating the investigation by putting more money in the scrutinized accounts.

With 2014 elections far in the distance, there would normally be little campaign urgency. But voters elected Democrat Derek Kilmer to Congress from the state Senate, giving Republicans a chance to add to the majority coalition they have formed with two maverick Democrats.

An emergency room doctor from Gig Harbor, Nathan Schlicher, was appointed to fill the 26th District seat on behalf of the Democrats. Port Orchard Rep. Jan Angel, a former real estate agent, is seeking to take the seat for the Republicans.

The legislative campaign committees can raise money year-round, but individual lawmakers can’t during the 105-day legislative session that ends today or any special session.

There would be a temporary thaw in the fundraising freeze if there’s a break between sessions. The slow pace of negotiations seemed to foretell such an intermission, but Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers were still talking Saturday about whether he would call them back immediately or wait. Sen. Tim Sheldon, one of the Democrats who caucuses with the Republicans, shook up negotiations last week by suggesting political fundraising played a role in talk of a hiatus, which Inslee’s office denied.

Both have reasons to want to hit the campaign trail, but Angel likely benefits more than Schlicher from lawmakers staying in session because she starts out with an advantage that Schlicher may need time to overcome. She is more well-known, and the moderate district slants a bit to the Republicans. And Schlicher looks likely to raise money quickly. He got off to a fast start before taking office — with much of the money coming from fellow doctors and medical groups — and quickly surpassed Angel.

There should be plenty of money on both sides, though, with all eyes on the 26th District.

“It will be a very expensive race, probably because not everyone’s out there running this time,” Angel said.

jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com

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