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Originally published February 2, 2012 at 9:22 PM | Page modified February 2, 2012 at 9:35 PM

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State slow to embrace super PACs — for now

Washington state donors have given nearly $200,000 to so-called super PACs, those new political committees that are reshaping presidential campaign landscape.

Seattle Times political reporter

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Retired Bellevue tech executive Michael Darland doesn't like the direction America is headed under President Obama, and he's found a fresh outlet for his views — and his money.

Darland is among the biggest Washington donors to the new unfettered class of political-action committees known as "super PACs," according to campaign filings. He and his wife, Myrna, gave $50,000 in December to FreedomWorks for America, a tea-party-affiliated super PAC organizing to defeat Obama and elect conservatives to Congress.

With their ability to accept unlimited campaign donations, super PACs are emerging as one of the biggest political players of 2012. The groups — legally independent but frequently run by close allies of politicians — have spent more than $40 million to influence the presidential election, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

Only a small slice of that has come from Washington state so far.

Donors here have given nearly $200,000 to super PACs through the end of 2011, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) data maintained by the Sunlight Foundation. That includes itemized donations of $200 or more — names of smaller donors do not have to be disclosed.

The names of many super-PAC donors became public for the first time this week, with the filing of year-end campaign reports with the FEC.

Most of the local super-PAC cash flowed from several larger donors who, like Darland, wrote big checks to Republican-leaning groups.

"What I hope they use it for is to find people and support people who believe as I do in following our Constitution," Darland said of his donation. He views Obama as holding a "derogatory" view toward constitutional limits on big government.

Darland said he was attracted to FreedomWorks' free-market viewpoint — he opposes the minimum wage among other government regulations — and donated after receiving a phone call from the group's president.

The retired founder and chief executive of Digital Systems International, Darland said he hasn't decided which presidential candidate to support.

Super PACs emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. That decision said political spending by independent groups is free speech and cannot be limited by the federal government.

The decision has been loudly criticized by Democrats and some public-interest groups, which have launched a campaign to amend the Constitution to restore campaign limits.

"I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg on super PACs," state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said. "To me, the thing that's remarkable is how little money is being donated now. When are we going to see someone write a $300 million check?"

Major Democratic donors have been slower to embrace the super PACs locally.

The pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, took in one reportable donation from Washington state last year — $250 from a Wenatchee doctor.

That was easily outdone by perhaps the most famous super PAC of them all: comedian Stephen Colbert's Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which reported $2,850 in $200-plus checks from Washington donors. The group likely received even more local support, but most of the more than $1 million the Colbert group has raised comes from smaller, unitemized donors.

Todd Kopriva, of Seattle, who works in technical support at Adobe System's Fremont offices, gave $1,000 to the Colbert effort. He says it's the only political donation he's ever made.

Kopriva said he was motivated by the "comedy gold" of Colbert using his super PAC to satirize the influence of corporate money in politics.

"He doesn't even have to write anything. He just lets the system be absurd — he just puts it on stage," Kopriva said. "Nobody is going to read academic articles about it. I thought that by supporting his effort I could get him to keep doing more of it and show how ridiculous the whole system is."

Other major local donors have given to more serious super PACs backing various GOP candidates.

State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said the unlimited political spending by wealthy donors doesn't bother him at all. "It's called liberty," he said. "These are people who have done well, and they have a stake in the system."

The largest local super-PAC donation came from cellular billionaire Craig McCaw and his wife, Susan, who contributed $75,000 last year to Our Destiny PAC, the super PAC supporting former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, according to the Sunlight Foundation data. Huntsman dropped out of the Republican presidential race last month and endorsed Mitt Romney.

Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC, received two sizable Washington donations: $25,000 from Walter Schlaepfer, a Merrill Lynch financial adviser from Bellevue, and $10,000 from Wayne Perry, of Medina, who is chief executive of the real-estate investment firm Shotgun Creek Investments. Perry served as chairman of Romney's Washington finance committee in 2008.

Winning Our Future, a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich, reported one donation of $250 from the state. There were no itemized donations reported here to super PACs supporting Rick Santorum or Ron Paul.

While Democrats have not matched local super-PAC donations so far, that does not mean they're sitting idly by in the money chase. Washington donors have given nearly $2 million to Obama's re-election campaign, compared with $1.3 million combined for the Republican candidates. Obama raised $17 million here during the 2008 election.

The president is returning to the state Feb. 17 for an official event, and two fundraisers, including a $17,900-a-person brunch at the home of Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman.

Romney plans a fundraiser in the Seattle area March 1.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628

or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @Jim_Brunner

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