Political action committees laid out $726,000 for independent expenditures to influence voters
Part 1 in a Series
“Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” — Bob Dylan
The chief poet of rock ’n’ roll might have been talking about the use of money in politics when at age 24 he sang these words in one of the songs on his 1965 album, ”Bringing It All Back Home”
Twenty-three local political action committees (PACs) certainly believed, or at least hoped, that spending $726,210 would influence Austin voters to elect—or not elect—certain candidates for mayor and City Council.
When the money spent by these independent PACs is combined with funds spent by the candidates themselves it all adds up to an eye-popping grand total of $6,298,059.
Independent expenditures in Texas law are known as “direct campaign expenditures” made without the prior consent or approval of the candidate who benefited. They are not counted as contributions to the candidate.
The Austin Bulldog reviewed the direct expenditures in every report the 23 PACs filed and recorded them in a spreadsheet. The direct expenditures funded by PACs paid for a wide variety of goods and services including consultants, advertisements, printed mail pieces and the postage to send them, for door hangers, campaign signs, canvassers, phone banks, and block walkers.
The big picture
For a quick snapshot of the overall impact of these direct expenditures, see the accompanying charts:
Independent PAC Spending 2014 Election lists the total spending for each of the 23 PACs, from the Austin Firefighters Association that laid out $280,887 to the Austin Environmental Democrats who chipped in $250.
Independent PAC Favorites ranks the 29 candidates who benefited from the direct expenditures, from mayoral contestant Mike Martinez at $217,951 to Place 7 competitor Jeb Boyt at $50.
Independent PAC Attacks shows the amounts spent going after the candidates these direct expenditures were designed to hurt politically, from $24,820 spent lambasting Martinez to the $1,845 to chip away at his opponent Steve Adler.
We know that too many numbers will make your eyes glaze over and send you into a deep sleep, but this is a story about money. And for that you need numbers. No memorization is required. The sources for all the numbers shown by these three charts are captured in a big fat spreadsheet (Independent Expenditures to Influence Austin’s 2014 Mayor and City Council Election).
The spreadsheet provides a detailed record of each individual expenditure and indicates in dollars how much each helped or hampered candidates.
For those inclined, you can deep dive into the bowels of Excel. Those who do so may discover meanings hidden in plain sight that this story fails to address. Or, if we erred, items that need correction. In which case you are encouraged to add to the ongoing dialogue about campaign finance by writing your comments in the space provided at the bottom of this article.
Political elections are often likened to horse races and betting on candidates is somewhat like wagering at the track. But PACs take it a lot more seriously than a two-dollar bet on a long shot. Who wins office will have a very real impact on the lives and livelihoods of those affected.
Public employee unions wager big sums in hopes of electing candidates more disposed to favor them when voting on raises and benefits in annual budgets. It is no coincidence then that three of the top four PACs in spending power were unions that plunked down a combined $416,558. That’s 57 percent of all PAC outlays in the 2014 election.
Business groups, which back in the day were high rollers in Austin elections, are by comparison pikers these days. The Austin Board of Realtors is the exception, ranking No. 2 in Austin’s wheel of political fortunes with $132,464. When money spent by the Austin Apartment Association, Home Builders Association, Reagan National Advertising, and Real Estate Council of Austin is lumped in with ABOR the total comes to a respectable $181,543 but still far less than half of what the public employees pushed into the pot.
Several PACs backed winners with relatively modest outlays:
Steve Adler— Austin Board of Realtors, Austin Police Association, and Progress for Austin laid out more than $32,000 for Mayor Adler.
Greg Casar—The Austin Board of Realtors laid out two-thirds of direct expenditures totaling $30,195 that helped Place 4 winner Casar.
Ellen Troxclair—The Austin Firefighters Association and the Travis County GOP ponied up $32,000 for Place 8 Council Member Troxclair.
Firefighters spent small amounts to back winners in District 1 Ora Houston, District 2 Delia Garza, and District 5 Ann Kitchen before the November general election, but reserved all but about $40,000 in its campaign coffers for the runoff.
Eleven PACs waited for the wheat to be separated from the chaff in the November 4 general election before spending anything at all. None had a bank account anywhere near the size of the Austin Firefighters Association, whose membership of more than 1,000 men and women voted to build its war chest by paying extra dues totaling $122 each over 16 pay periods.
Of spending that totaled $726,210 for the entire 2014 election cycle these 23 PACs spent more to influence the December 16 runoffs ($427,405) than they did in the November 4 general election ($298,805). The spreadsheet makes it easy to see when the money was spent by displaying all general election expenditures in black type, and all runoff expenditures in red.
The outright biggest gambler in the game was the Austin Firefighters Association, which laid down $280,887.
Fully 70 percent of the firefighters total spending—almost $193,000—was used on behalf of mayoral candidate Mike Martinez, a council member since 2006 and a former firefighter and who once headed this public safety union. Only to see Martinez gain just 33 percent of the votes and lose to Steve Adler by an historic margin for a mayoral runoff.
The firefighters spending on Martinez was proof of what association President Bob Nicks told The Austin Bulldog for a story published December 10: “Firefighters are a loyal group and once we build relationships with someone we will back them to the teeth.”
Austinites for Equity PAC, sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), also backed Martinez to the tune of nearly $20,000 in independent expenditures.
PACs that did spend significant sums before the runoff often bet on the wrong candidates:
The Austin Board of Realtors PAC wagered $50,000 to back District 10 candidate Robert Thomas, who didn’t even make it into the runoff. Thomas may have inspired that bet when he loaned his campaign $100,000 that was reported in his very first campaign finance report filed July 15. (He recouped nearly $64,000 of the loan when he repaid himself after the general election.) Other PACs also thought Thomas looked viable and brought his total PAC support to nearly $64,000.
A number of PACs bet on Riley to best chief opponent Kathie Tovo, the only two incumbents who could run due to term limits. She scored 49 percent of the vote November 4 to Riley’s 40 percent, and he withdrew without contesting the runoff. PACs spent more than $50,000 to assist Riley and only a bit more than $19,000 for Tovo. Almost half of Riley’s PAC support came from The Austin Board of Realtors with $24,589 and the Austin Apartment Association tossed in another $8,250. Tovo’s PAC support came in smaller amounts from the Austin Police Association, AFSCME’s Austinites for Equity, and Better Austin Today.
Other significant PAC support for losing candidates totaled more than $27,000 for District 6 candidate Jimmy Flannigan, thanks to $15,450 from the Austin Board of Realtors and smaller sums from the Austin Police Association and Austinites for Equity.
PACs also laid out nearly $31,000 for District 10 candidate Mandy Dealey, of which $17,457 came from the Austin Firefighters Association and $6,754 from Austinites for Equity.
Political party influences
Although the City Council is a nonpartisan body, the Travis County Democratic Party for the first time provided party-aligned candidates with technology in the form of the Voter Activation Network, as the Bulldog reported August 13, 2014. at a bargain price, making door-knocking more efficient for city-level campaigns. It may be no accident that every one of the eight Democrats elected to the City Council used this technology.
The Travis County Democratic Party PAC spent $8,111 on Austin Chronicle ads supporting candidates Greg Casar in District 4, Jimmy Flannigan in District 6, Ed Scruggs in District 8, and Mandy Dealey in District 10. All but Casar lost.
The Travis County Republican Party laid out $22,369 on consulting and printing to support candidates Don Zimmerman in District 6, Ellen Troxclair in District 8, and Sheri Gallo in District 10. All three won.
Coming in Part 2
In Part 2 of this series The Austin Bulldog will provide a detailed compilation of campaign spending by all 78 candidates running for mayor and City Council in 2014.
This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.
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