This Photoshopped image appearing in a mailer sent to thousands of voters by the PAC Moms for Seattle has been widely criticized on social media.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. The article was updated Sunday, Aug. 4 at 11:52 a.m.
Moms for Seattle, a new Seattle-based political action committee, is generating a lot of buzz for an organization that’s only been in existence for two months. Since its founding in June, the group has launched a website, raised $190,022 from 272 contributors (as of August 2) and released its endorsements for Seattle City Council candidates in the upcoming primary election.
But it wasn’t long before articles started appearing online alleging the PAC had a secret far-right agenda with ties to corporations like Amazon. The PAC’s donors were researched, a troubling ad surfaced and cryptic posts began circulating on Facebook warning voters that the group was a front.
Though the PAC’s donor information is publicly available, as required by law, Moms for Seattle founders themselves have, until now, remained anonymous. So, for the average voter, separating fact from fiction in advance of the upcoming election has remained surprisingly difficult. So, who’s behind Moms for Seattle and what do they really stand for?
For the first time since launching, four women have come forward to say that they are the founders of Moms for Seattle. They are: Celeste Garcia Ramberg, a Seattle resident of over 30 years, a writer by profession and mom of two; Jeannine Christofilis, a Capitol Hill resident of 47 years and mother of four; Betsy Losh, a real estate agent and fourth-generation Seattle resident who is a mother of two and a grandmother of six; and Laura McMahon, a Seattle-area consultant and mother of two who has lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for 22 years.
I spoke with McMahon, the group’s spokesperson, to hear what she had to say.
Can you talk a bit about your group and how you were founded?
We're a group of moms who care about our families and our communities and love Seattle and live in Seattle. We've never been politically active before, but just given the state of where things are in Seattle and the crisis that we see that is occurring in our city, we just felt like we couldn't sit on the sidelines any longer and really needed to do something about it. So, really, it was friends coming together and deciding we're ready to get involved and do something.
You talk about a “crisis” in Seattle. What do you mean by that? Can you speak to the specific issues that motivated you to get involved?
Obviously, we're seeing the homelessness issue really just evolving to a scale that nobody can wrap their heads around in Seattle. We all know that the homelessness issue is complex, but clearly we are not keeping up with it, we are not providing people with the housing or the services that they need, and we're not addressing homelessness in an effective way.
What are the issues that concern you/the group most and how do you plan to address them in the coming election(s)?
We believe that if we get the right leaders on our city council, it is the place to start. We’ve seen the ineffectiveness and progress that the current council has made on housing, mental health and drug addiction services. We want candidates who are committed to changing the policy and are committed to taking action around housing first. The current city council has sat on housing for the homeless for four years and has not done anything with it, and so we don't want more of the status quo.
How do you as a group make decisions about which candidates you endorse?
One of the things that was very much a consideration was safe injection sites. Every single one of the moms [the founders] is against safe injection sites. If you had a child who was addicted to drugs, would you seek treatment for them or would you set them up in a room in your house and just let them inject cleanly all day long? As a mom, you know when to put down your foot and say, “No. We're going to get you the help you need.”
We also wanted candidates who were committed to a “housing first” approach in terms of a commitment to getting folks off the streets and into housing. Studies show that housing is the first step to recovery of any kind. Same thing with mental health and addiction. In other cities, they’re using mobile addiction vans that can help provide treatment. We would like to see Seattle at least exploring evidence-based services like these and really learning from what other cities have done.
Why do you think there's been such a backlash related to your organization recently?
We have made mistakes along the way. We are not politicians. We’re still learning as we go.
What are some of the mistakes you’ve made?
For one, we did not disclose ourselves early on. There were reasons for that, but I think the lack of disclosure has caused everyone to make up their own narrative around us. We didn’t come out because, one, we didn't know how big of a deal that was going to be, and two, we were a little bit afraid. I mean, look at the backlash we've already received. We’ve had reporters showing up at our doors. Celeste had her blog hacked; they’ve taken our logos and made fake ads that said, “Kill Democrats.” My Facebook was hacked and they hashtagged my workplace and said negative things about my workplace using my account. Things like that. So, there’s some dirty play here — we have children and I think we were afraid of exactly what’s played out.
The other item that people have been spinning on is the digital media company that we work with. When we got our contract for them it was in the name of Western Consulting, which is their subsidiary. And we asked them, “Why are we signing a contract with Western Consulting and not Strategies 360?” and they said, “Well, this is our campaign subsidiary,” and we said, “Okay, great.” Well, then everybody started searching for Western Consulting, and ironically they’re registered in Nevada. And again, people took over the narrative saying it was this illegal entity, it was a shell, and, you know, made up their own story about it.
Who does fund your organization and where can readers go to research your donations and donors?
All of our donors are public information. You can find that information on the Washington PDC website. There, click on the link “Follow the Money” and enter the name of our PAC in there. It’s all public record. It has to be by law. Our donors are all mostly people we knew within our network. But I want to make it clear that there are no corporations in our donor profile — they are all individual citizens.
There's also been a lot of hubbub about Katherine Binder, who donated $25,000 to our PAC. She lives in Bellevue, but people who live in Bellevue work and play in Seattle, so you know they have their own reasons for wanting to donate. But it’s not a PAC where the more money you donate, the more you get to influence the decisions. All decisions and strategy are decided by us, the four moms, the founders.
Do you have any affiliation with Speak Out Seattle?
Kevin Topping is our treasurer. We came to meet Kevin because he was at so many of the forums. Beyond knowing some of the individuals in Speak Out Seattle, we are not affiliated in any way. We know them, they know us, but we don't collaborate on anything. We do not make decisions with them on anything and they do not influence our decisions. We are very separate organizations.
Ads for Moms for Seattle recently appeared on the alt-right extremist site Breitbart. Can you speak to that?
So, that occurred as a result of purchasing Google Ads, and the way that those ads work is sort of like an aggregator and it distributes them out to various channels. It wasn’t a purposeful decision to advertise on Breitbart News, and when we learned that was happening, we took those ads down.
I've seen a number of Facebook ads sponsored by Moms for Seattle. It has been reported that the images in these ads and your recent mailer to voters appear to be fake. Can you address this?
The images are photoshopped. There are legal ramifications for us to go out and take pictures of homeless people and homeless encampments for the purposes of furthering a campaign.
But [the images on our ads] are not false information. I don't know if people are trying to say that we do not have tents in parks in Seattle, but we absolutely do. Anyone who lives here knows it's an issue, especially in that park in the university area. As a matter of fact, we went out and took photos all around the city and we couldn't use any of the photos. There was a tent 100 yards from the play structure [in the park playground pictured in the voter mailer], but there were people around the tents, and, again, we could not use those photos. So, people looking at these can draw from their own experience. But this is the reality of what's happening in our city.
Can you respond to allegations that you're funded by a far-right interest group?
It is absolutely not true. We did not set out to be a far-right group. We’ve been called a far-right, anti-government conservative group, but none of those things are true. I personally am a democrat, as are the other three founders.
If readers are interested in learning more about your organization, where can they go?
People can go to our website. We actually put out an open letter to people with more information about Moms for Seattle. There’s a place on our site about how to get involved.
*an earlier version of this article appeared without the caption on the above image