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Mark Mullet says $1M ‘buy-in’ deal by WA Dems favors Bob Ferguson

Mullet has been at odds with state party after backing GOP initiatives in the Legislature

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: April 26, 2024, 8:39am

The state Democratic Party hasn’t officially endorsed Bob Ferguson for governor, but a backroom fundraising deal has stacked the deck fully in his favor, says state Sen. Mark Mullet, Ferguson’s chief Democratic rival in the race.

About a month ago, the state party privately told the two gubernatorial campaigns it was offering an early “buy-in” to the party’s 2024 “Coordinated Campaign” — a combined statewide organizing effort to boost candidates up and down the ballot.

The price tag: $1 million, with $500,000 of that due by June 1.

Only one gubernatorial candidate would be given the buy-in opportunity, with an “ad hoc” committee of appointed party officials interviewing both and making a recommendation, according to a late-March email sent by state Democratic Party Chair Shasti Conrad.

It was essentially a sham process, Mullet says, as there was never any doubt about which candidate would qualify.

Ferguson, the three-term attorney general and clear front-runner in the race, has raised more than $6.5 million and had more than $4.5 million cash on hand as of the end of March.

Mullet, D-Issaquah, has raised about $1.1 million, and had $530,000 cash on hand as of the same date. He said he told the party committee he was in no position to compete for the buy-in.

“I think it’s a horrible precedent to set. You are going to have primary contests for Democratic seats in the state of Washington that are going to the highest bidder. You have to buy their endorsement,” Mullet said in an interview. “It’s putting the thumb on the scale favoring Ferguson.”

According to a fundraising and strategy prospectus sent to Mullet’s campaign by state Democratic Party Chair Shasti Conrad, the $1 million buy-in “guarantees inclusion” in all get-out-the-vote literature and doorknocking scripts.

That means Ferguson’s in — and Mullet’s out — when it comes to party promotional efforts, with the Aug. 6 primary still months away.

The Democratic Party’s embrace of Ferguson is not terribly surprising.

Mullet, who is trying to carve out an electoral path this year as a moderate alternative to Ferguson, has long been at odds with the increasingly dominant left wing of the party. In 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee endorsed a union-backed Democratic challenger in an unsuccessful effort to oust him from his Senate seat.

This year, Mullet has backed GOP initiatives seeking to roll back climate and tax programs, and he has failed to score any endorsements from county or legislative-district Democratic Party organizations.

Conrad was traveling and unavailable for an interview Thursday, according to a spokesperson. In an emailed statement, she all but endorsed Ferguson, saying Democrats are “united and energized” this year.

“After interviewing both candidates, and considering the unanimous grassroots support from Local and County Parties, the Washington State Democratic Party enthusiastically offered AG Bob Ferguson the opportunity to participate in our 2024 Coordinated Campaign and assist our primary turnout operations,” Conrad said in the statement. “In this unprecedented election year we have no time to waste.”

In the prospectus, Conrad wrote the gubernatorial campaign “buy-in” money will go toward an overall fundraising goal of at least $4.7 million. That will subsidize state party operations and pay for some 35 field organizers and directors and 14 field offices across the state, as well as hundreds of thousands of phone calls, texts and paid ads.

In addition to the governor’s race and other statewide offices, the effort will seek to expand the party’s legislative majorities and defend vulnerable incumbents, including U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in Southwest Washington.

Ferguson, in a statement, said he’s been endorsed by Democratic groups across the state “because they know I will fight for reproductive freedom, defend democracy, improve public safety, and center Washingtonians in every decision I make as governor.”

Mullet’s decision to go public slamming the state party’s pro-Ferguson maneuvers — and to release underlying party emails and documents — comes as he trails badly in early polling conducted in the race.

He and his allies have launched TV ads looking for a boost before the upcoming candidate filing deadline.

To make the Aug. 6 primary ballot, all candidates for elected office must file with the Secretary of State’s Office during the week of May 6-10.

Mullet said he still intends to run for governor, and batted down speculation he’ll drop out before the deadline or switch to another race. “I am filing for governor. There is no chance that does not happen,” he said in a text message.

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This week, his campaign started airing 30-second TV ads introducing himself to voters as a father of six and a small-business owner who wants to “bring down housing costs, lower crime and keep illegal drugs illegal.” The ads also spotlight Ferguson’s call in 2021 to eliminate criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs.

A business-funded independent expenditure group called Citizens for Pragmatic Leadership also recently launched a TV ad blitz promoting Mullet’s record on supporting abortion rights and ending gun violence.

While Ferguson and Mullet spar on the Democratic side, Republican activists showed divisions last week at the state GOP convention in Spokane.

At that event, grassroots delegates endorsed former Richland School Board member Semi Bird after turning back an effort by some party officials to disqualify him over what they contended was a lack of candor about past legal problems.

Former congressman and Sheriff Dave Reichert — the higher polling and better-funded contender — withdrew from consideration for the endorsement, slamming the GOP event as a chaotic sideshow.

The state Democratic Party is scheduled to have its own 2024 convention June 21-23 in Bellevue.