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Political Contributions Hang Over Seattle Gigabit Efforts

Are Comcast’s campaign funding tactics a sign of things to come in local races where community broadband is involved?

by / November 26, 2013

Outgoing Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn championed a public-private partnership between the city, the University of Washington and Gigabit Squared earlier this year that will bring cheaper high-speed Internet service to 12 neighborhoods in 2014. But with incoming mayor — and current state senator — Ed Murray’s campaign being financed in part by cable giant Comcast, time will tell if that project retains the support of Seattle’s political leaders.

While Murray has publicly countered criticism that he’s Comcast’s puppet, he has otherwise remained silent on broadband issues. Yet the donations to his campaign beg the question whether Comcast’s contributions were an isolated occurrence, or part of a larger strategy to influence local elections when there is support for lower-priced competition in the future?

Like big oil, telecommunications companies have a history of lobbying and donating to the campaigns of state and federal lawmakers. But diving headfirst into local political races with fistfuls of cash could be the next wave of attacks on communities wanting to create their own broadband networks or support smaller high-speed connectivity providers.

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national expert on community broadband issues, thinks it’s clearly a strategic move by big cable to drill deeper into local politics. He believes the Seattle mayoral election was the start of a larger trend, primarily because cable companies are becoming more powerful through consolidation.

For example, Bloomberg reported that Charter Communications and Comcast are considering a joint offer to buy Time Warner Cable. Combining companies in this manner will undoubtedly provide more resources that could be used to influence decision-makers at all levels of government.

“I think that’s going to be the driver,” Mitchell said regarding big cable acquisitions. “I think we are going to see more [campaign funding] attempts, but at the same time, I’ve got to think they are going to be trickier about it. Because they really don’t want a Washington Post story about how they are trying to influence an election.”

Mitchell refers to an Oct. 31 story that analyzed the various political contributions Comcast made to Murray’s campaign in Seattle. According to the report, the Broadband Communications Association of Washington PAC — which received 94 percent of its 2013 contributions from Comcast — donated $5,000 to the group People for Ed Murray. Comcast also sent $5,000 to the PAC called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, a group that donated $54,500 to People for Ed Murray.

Comcast issued a statement to The Post denying that its donations had anything to do with Mayor McGinn’s activities. It was silent on which activities the company was referring to. Murray declared his support for Gigabit Squared following The Washington Post article.

Emails sent to representatives of both McGinn and Murray for further comment on the issue were not immediately returned. Matt Weinland, a spokesman for Gigabit Squared, said no one in the company was available this week to speak to Government Technology about the topic.

Mitchell added that because of the media attention that Comcast’s involvement in the Seattle mayoral race has received, Murray will have to be much more publicly supportive and ambitious about the Gigabit Squared partnership than he may have intended.

“Any time he does anything that appears to be good for Comcast and then bad for consumers, I think people are going to bring up that Washington Post story,” Mitchell said. “So to some extent … he’s going to have a different kind of pressure on him than he would have had, just because of how public it was that he got so much money from Comcast."

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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