Rival Democrats spar over fundraising maneuvers in Washington governor’s race

State Sen. Mark Mullet, left, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, right, are both running as Democrats for governor in 2024. (Photos courtesy of Mullet and Ferguson campaigns)

In their race for governor, Mark Mullet thinks it’s fishy how frontrunner and fellow Democrat Bob Ferguson is going about raising money for the state Democratic party.

Mullet, a state senator, is convinced something’s amiss with a six-figure “donation” that Ferguson, who is currently attorney general, made to the party in April.

He’s contested, thus far to no avail, the appropriateness of that $750,000 transfer, which Ferguson made from a “surplus” account containing funds raised for past campaigns.

Mullet also wants to shed more light on the $1 million Ferguson says he’s raising for the party’s statewide efforts to elect Democrats. Ferguson won’t disclose from whom he’s getting the money, just that he’s halfway to the goal. Party officials are mum as well.

That silence reveals the extent to which the party and Ferguson are aligned in this Democrat-on-Democrat duel, working to isolate Mullet and prevent him from achieving his objective of finishing second in the Aug. 6 primary. That outcome could allow Mullet to square off with Ferguson one-on-one in November.

But Mullet is struggling mightily to gain traction as a viable alternative to Ferguson and leading Republican Dave Reichert. A spate of polls find him in single digits, well behind those two and nearer Semi Bird, the GOP candidate endorsed by the state Republican Party.

That’s led him to intensify his criticism of Ferguson.

“Bob is willing to bend or break the law if it will help him get elected,” Mullet said last week.

Ferguson’s campaign has dismissed Mullet’s accusations as “desperate” attempts by a flailing campaign to gain relevance.

“Respectfully, we just aren’t spending time responding to these attacks. The State Party’s fundraising is public, just like Bob’s,” Bayley Burgess, Ferguson’s campaign manager, wrote in an email Thursday.

Political gambit

On June 7, Mullet filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission contending the $750,000 Ferguson transferred to the state party should have come out of his gubernatorial campaign stash instead of his surplus account.

He argued Ferguson earmarked those dollars to uphold his end of a deal with Democratic officials. Ferguson earlier this year agreed to a $1 million “buy-in” to the party’s coordinated campaign – with half due by June 1. With the buy-in, Ferguson is assured inclusion on party materials to turn out voters. Mullet also had a chance at the buy-in but couldn’t afford it.

Burgess called Mullet’s June 7 complaint “a desperate attack from a dying campaign.”

But four days later – before commission staff informed Mullet there was no evidence of a potential violation – Burgess sent a note to Shasti Conrad, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, characterizing the six-figure check as a donation “to use as you see fit” – as opposed to money specifically dedicated to cover the buy-in cost.

“If this is in any way inconsistent with your understanding, I trust this clarifies the intent,” she wrote.

And, she went on, Ferguson has “helped” the party raise approximately $500,000 “and are well on our way to reaching $1 million. Please consider these resources Bob’s ‘buy-in’ to the Coordinated Campaign, which, as you wrote in your Prospectus, ‘benefits all Democratic candidates on the ballot’.”

Burgess, who forwarded a copy of the letter  to the Public Disclosure Commission, declined to answer questions on the note, fundraising details and why the transfer was not considered for the buy-in obligation.

Conrad, through a Democratic Party spokesman, declined to comment. Party officials would not confirm the $500,000 fundraising figure cited by Burgess.

Mullet, upon learning of the letter, said it was Ferguson’s attempt “to cover his tracks.” He said he will amend his complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Money trail

The state Democratic Party funnels money into campaign activities through two committee accounts – one labeled “exempt,” the other “nonexempt.” Both are regulated by the Public Disclosure Commission.

There are no limits on contributions to these committees from individuals or the surplus funds of candidates. Unions, corporations, political action committees and other entities have a $6,000 per year contribution limit for the nonexempt account. There’s no such cap for the exempt one.

Money collected can be spent on a host of things including get-out-the-vote campaigns and writing and distributing literature such as slate cards and how-to-vote guides. But direct contributions to candidates can only be made from the nonexempt account.

Meanwhile, the 2024 coordinated campaign – which Ferguson’s buy-in would go toward – is run through the party’s federal account, known as the Washington State Democratic Central Committee. Reporting requirements are enforced by the Federal Election Commission.

Ferguson sent the $750,000 in April to the party’s nonexempt account. A few thousand dollars have gone out from that account, primarily to Democratic groups in various legislative districts.

Mullet says by sending the money to this account, Ferguson is circumventing contribution limits. Donors could give the maximum $4,800 donation to his current campaign for governor and have their older, unspent donations in the surplus account sent to the party, where they will also help support his bid.

If Ferguson is raising money for the federal account, the details will emerge soon. Reports on contributions and expenditures are compiled monthly. Information on May financial activities should appear online as early as this week.

A pattern?

While Mullet’s latest accusations against Ferguson deal with the details of campaign finance rules, he argues that they fit a broader pattern of Ferguson resorting to aggressive and sometimes questionable campaign tactics.

In May, Mullet accused him of going too far in his effort to get two opponents who share his name out of the governor’s race.

Ferguson also pressed Secretary of State Steve Hobbs to redo the order of candidates on the ballot if the other Bob Fergusons didn’t withdraw. Hobbs declined, saying state law didn’t give him authority to do so. The other Bobs withdrew making it a moot point.

Mullet filed a complaint with the state Executive Ethics Board, insisting it was wrong for one state official to ask another to violate state law. The State Auditor’s Office is handling this complaint because the executive director of the ethics board is an employee of the attorney general’s office. No action has occurred.

Mullet also is not bashful about reminding voters what happened last year when Ferguson came under scrutiny for shifting $1.2 million of contributions from his surplus fund into the account for his 2024 run for governor.

A complaint filed by a Seattle-based attorney argued that the individual donors of those contributions had to be identified and their past donations – originally for Ferguson’s reelection as attorney general – should count toward contribution limits in his campaign for governor.

The commission eventually clarified its rules on the issue, Ferguson complied and disclosed the donors’ names. He did return roughly $80,000 to his surplus account, presumably because it came from donors who had already given the maximum amounts.

The buy-in

But Mullet is particularly galled by what has transpired with the coordinated campaign deal.

It reflects how much he’s been iced out by the state’s Democratic Party establishment as it has gravitated toward Ferguson in the governor’s race.

For years, Ferguson has been widely viewed as the next Democrat in line for the job after Gov. Jay Inslee, who is not running for reelection. Mullet, on the other hand, is a business-oriented moderate with a reputation for slowing progressive priorities in the Legislature.

Party officials offered Ferguson and Mullet the same million dollar buy-in option in March but said only one would get it. An ad hoc committee of appointed party officials interviewed both and made a recommendation.

Mullet said he was asked if he was in a position to send the party $500,000. He wasn’t.

Though Mullet has raised $1.27 million, he’s spent roughly two-thirds. Much of the remainder is only available for the general election – if he gets through the Aug. 6 primary. By contrast, Ferguson has raised $7.4 million and Reichert $3.7 million.

Mullet said he learned April 11 that Ferguson “received the endorsement and agreed to meet the buy-in requirements.”

“Eight days later Bob sent them $750,000. It was 100 percent crystal clear this was not about doing joint fundraising events,” Mullet said. “It was about cutting them a check.”

by Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and X.

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