'Moms for Seattle' reveal themselves
In the run-up to the Seattle City Council elections, questions have swirled about a new and mysterious political action committee (PAC), Moms for Seattle.
The group registered in June and has raised roughly $190,000 and spent more than $117,000 on City Council races, according to reports from the state Public Disclosure Commission. The top contribution of $25,000 is listed from Katherine Binder in Bellevue, a charter schools advocate.
The PAC received criticism because mailers they sent out depict tents and trash that have been Photoshopped into a children's playground.
A few things are clear about the group: They want change on the City Council and they’re backing candidates who trend more conservative than the current members.
What remained unknown about the group is who was running it.
Their website initially referred to the founders as a group of concerned moms. For weeks, those women remained anonymous.
Now they’re identifying themselves, days before the primaries, in which seven of nine City Council seats are up for election. They’re doing so to defend themselves against the criticism that they are conservatives hiding behind a shell company.
They are: Laura McMahon, 50, Celeste Garcia Ramberg, 51, Betsy Losh, 66, and Jeannine Christofilis, 47.
They say they want compassion for people living on the streets and they embrace the housing first approach, but they also want people with lengthy criminal records dealt with.
Their mailers include policy goals that are broad. For example: “Ensuring everyone has a safe place to call home, improving public safety, and being an accountable member of city government.”
A look at their candidate choices shows more specifically the policies they endorse. When it comes to people living on the streets, the candidates they support tend to favor continuing or ramping up camp removals around the city – often known as sweeps – with the proviso that more shelter capacity must be created first.
And with the exception of their pick in District 3 (where the PAC is backing Pat Murakami) and in District 5 (where the PAC has made no endorsement), their endorsements align with those of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
The moms told ParentMap they favor candidates who oppose safe-consumption sites, where people can use illicit drugs under supervision in case of an overdose.
Who are these ‘Moms for Seattle’?
The Moms for Seattle are all moms, and they are all from Seattle.
They are also wealthy — they live in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods in large homes worth millions of dollars.
They have individually dabbled in political giving in the past, but not significantly.
Laura McMahon, 50, is a mom of two and a voter in Seattle council District 3. She’s a senior director with Point B, a company involved in things like management consulting and real estate development (Point B is a sponsor of and contractor for KUOW). She contributed $5,000 to the Moms for Seattle PAC.
McMahon has not given money to candidates or initiatives before, according to state or federal disclosure commissions.
Celeste Garcia Ramberg, 51, is a mother of two and a voter in District 2. Garcia Ramberg is a writer and a former marketing manager with Microsoft. She contributed $5,000 to the PAC.
Garcia Ramberg has not given money to candidates or initiatives before, according to state or federal disclosure commissions.
Betsy Losh, 66, is a mother of two and a grandmother. She’s a voter in council District 3. Losh is a residential real estate broker, and according to Luxuryrealestate.com, is “the most successful associate in the metropolitan Seattle luxury market." Losh contributed $5,000 to the PAC.
Losh has given money to Republicans and Democrats in the past.
Jeannine Christofilis, 47, is a mother of four and a voter in council District 3. Christofilis runs a retail business, according to her fellow founders of Moms of Seattle. She contributed $8,000 to the PAC.
Christofilis opposed a state income tax in 2010 and donated $500 to Councilmember Mike O’Brien in 2009.
This election cycle sees her skewing more conservative, giving money to Ari Hoffman, who made waves advocating for the removal of tent camps, and organizing movements against people camping in parks or in RVs in the city.
Why did they form the PAC?
It started with a phone call, according to co-founders McMahon and Garcia Ramberg.
They were talking on the phone about how frustrated they were. They looped in another friend. They agreed the current City Council was ineffective and decided they wanted to get involved in the council races.
All four women were concerned about the situation in Seattle and the response to the homelessness crisis.
“We thought this was the best way for us to actually make a difference,” Garcia Ramberg said.
She said they wanted to make a difference city-wide and not just in their districts.
“And the only way to do that was to really look at how we could get the best candidate in every district,” McMahon said.
They decided the most effective way to reach this goal would be to form a PAC and endorse the candidates they liked across the city.
They attended candidate forums held by the group Speak Out Seattle, which opposed the controversial head tax, and were impressed by several people running for council.
The Moms for Seattle endorsements include Phil Tavel in District 1, Alex Pedersen in District 4, and Heidi Wills in District 6.
McMahon said she didn’t want her kids growing up in a city where people look away when they see someone experiencing homelessness. So she said they got off the sidelines.
Their goal, McMahon and Garcia Ramberg said, is to ensure people suffering on the streets of Seattle get the help they need.
“It is complex, and it will be hard, but right now we don’t feel that we have the leadership to accomplish that,” McMahon said.
It may not happen quickly, but McMahon and Garcia Ramberg said they hope that if their slate of candidates are elected, they’ll work together to address public safety and public health.
McMahon said in a year or two, she would hope to see a long-term, measurable plan in place to address homelessness, temporary and long-term housing first approaches being activated, and barriers to mental health and addiction treatment being lowered.
McMahon also said she wants to see repeat criminal offenders off the street.
“This isn’t about criminalizing homelessness, this is about real criminals that need to be taken off the street,” she said, referring to a controversial report put together by Scott Lindsay, a former public safety adviser to Mayor Ed Murray, which looked at 100 individuals who have cycled repeatedly between the justice system and the streets.
When asked if the group hopes their slate of candidates would ultimately result in a decrease in the number of encampments and a decrease in visible homelessness, McMahon answered, “Absolutely … I think that’s the end goal that everybody is working towards.”
“This does not translate to throw them all in jail as our detractors would like to say. This is about housing first,” she continued. “There really needs to be a temporary housing solution stood up quickly.”
Why stay anonymous for so long?
The general lack of information about who was behind the Moms for Seattle drew criticism online.
Former state legislator Jessyn Farrell called the PAC a “front group for a conservative, anti-government agenda” in an online post and questioned their lack of transparency.
Garcia Ramberg said she finds the "ultra-conservative" narrative about the group laughable.
McMahon said they remained anonymous because they didn't want to be in the spotlight.
Both women said politics in Seattle can be divisive and they didn’t want to put their families through that.
“We really thought this would be more about the candidates than us,” McMahon said. “Clearly that has been a sticking point for many people, which is why we’ve decided to come out today,” she said.
McMahon said communication they’ve received online has been hostile and only made them want to retreat further.
She said they decided to come forward to dispel rumors.
“This really is a group of moms, this isn’t a shell company or some organization created by Strategies 360,” she said.
Strategies 360 is a large consulting firm, which also does crisis communications. It’s doing work for the PAC alongside Clear Path Partners, as reported by The Stranger.
Garcia Ramberg agreed. She said some of the things written to and about the group have been vitriolic.
Criticism of the PAC
Mailers sent out in support of several candidates have been widely criticized on social media.
The fliers include stock images of tents and trash Photoshopped into a children’s playground with the message, "This isn't where people should be living, or where children should be playing ... All of Seattle's residents deserve better."
On Twitter, critics called the fliers fear-mongering and questioned how salient the group’s point is if they have to manufacture a scene to support it.
But McMahon and Garcia Ramberg defended the stock photos.
“We would be equally criticized if we had exploited pictures of homeless encampments or individuals,” McMahon said.
She said the intent of the flier is to send a message that Seattle can do better. She said she believes the outrage over the mailers is about discrediting the group.
Garcia Ramberg acknowledges that not all playgrounds in the city have encampments in them. But she maintains that there are playgrounds that do.
“It’s denial of what is actually going on in the city,” she said in response to criticism of the fliers.
“They can’t refute logically the message behind it,” she said. “So they decided to … obsess about a photo.”
Garcia Ramberg said it’s not about the photos, it’s about thousands of people living on the streets.
“It’s hard to imagine we can’t do better,” she said.
As reported by Erica C. Barnett, the group has also run political ads on Facebook, something that Facebook has said it bans in Washington state but has been slow to enforce.
This post has been updated.