Fifteen political action committees trying to influence mayor and council elections
While mayor and City Council candidates are scratching to raise every dollar they can for their campaigns, political action committees (PACs) are sitting on a pile of campaign cash and have already spent more than $194,000 on so-called independent expenditures to help selected candidates win outright on November 4—or at least get into a runoff.
Independent expenditures are monies spent for electioneering communication or express advocacy to support or oppose a candidate without consulting with a candidate’s campaign.
These PACs still had a combined total of more than $856,000 in contributions on hand as of their latest contribution and expenditure reports and may spend a hunk of that money in the last days of the campaign and then weigh in again for the inevitable runoffs to be decided December 16.
The independent expenditures and funds on hand are detailed in the attached spreadsheet, Independent Expenditures for 2014 Austin Mayor and City Council Elections through October 27, 2014.
Not every PAC reported independent expenditures and many have not disclosed their top donors in advertising or other electioneering communication, as required by the Austin City Code. The requirement to report independent expenditures and include the names of top donors in communications took effect for the first time in this election.
This requirement was incorporated into the Austin City Code in August 2012 but the city has done nothing to publicize it. By way of contrast, candidates are given a packet of instructions that detail their reporting requirements. Nothing akin to that was provided to PACs participating in this election. Each PAC is left to seek its own legal guidance and report properly.
This article focuses on locally reported independent expenditures in support of or opposition to mayor and council candidates. In a related matter, the Austin American-Statesman reported October 23 that South Carolina-based South Forward IE PAC has been calling Austin voters to bash mayoral candidate Steve Adler.
OpenSecrets.org reports that South Forward IE PAC spends to support Democrats and oppose Republicans. Both Adler and the other leading mayoral candidates, Council Members Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, are Democrats.
Open Secrets lists that PAC’s total spending just $18,503 as of today—all to oppose Republican Mark Sanford, a South Carolina candidate for U.S. Representative. Expenditures for calls to Austin voters have not been reported.
Local independent spenders
The biggest independent spender so far is the Austin Board of Realtors PAC, which reported expenditures of more than $106,000 in October to back five of the candidates it endorsed: Steve Adler for mayor, John Sheppard for District 2, Greg Casar for District 4, Chris Riley for District 9, and Robert Thomas for District 10. Thomas alone got $50,000 for campaign mailers, robo calls, and online advertising. Riley got more than $24,000 in “campaign activities/consulting,” while the other candidates got the rest in campaign mailers.
ABOR PAC treasurer Emily Chenevert, who filed the reports of independent expenditures, despite several attempts, could not be reached for comment or to clarify the expenditure supporting Riley.
The ABOR PAC campaign finance reports list only two donors this year. The Texas Association of Realtors PAC provided a total of $38,632 through contributions in April and July. All other PAC funds were provided by the Austin Board of Realtors itself.
While the Realtors PAC accounted for 55 percent of all independent expenditures reported through October 27, the Austin Police Association PAC has spent nearly $30,000 to boost the chances of seven candidates it endorsed. That figure includes $10,000 for consulting services, the rest for campaign mailers.
Austin Police Association PAC chairman, Sergeant Andrew Romero, did not respond to a request for an interview left with the association’s office manager and PAC treasurer, Valencia Escobar.
The Home Builders Association of Greater Austin has two PACs sitting on a combined total of more than $133,000 but so far has not reported independent expenditures to support the 10 City Council candidates it has endorsed. Instead, the Association has mailed three postcards designed to get people to vote, said Executive Vice President Harry Savio. (See links to copies of mailers at the bottom of this article.)
Like some other political organizations, such as the Sierra Club Austin Group and the Austin Environmental Democrats—groups in which the mayoral candidates didn’t muster the number of votes needed to win backing—the Home Builders chose not to endorse a candidate in the mayor’s race, but for a different reason.
“I don’t know that our endorsement will be helpful in mayor’s race,” Savio said. “Historically the support of the Home Builders Association has been used to beat up on candidates.”
While the Home Builders, Police, and Realtors PACs have so far focused mostly on direct mail, the Austin Firefighters Association’s two PACs have focused on a ground game by paying for signage, door hangers and block walkers, spending a combined total of almost $11,000. (Several other independent expenditures were reported today, after the deadline for this article.)
Although the Firefighters have spent little so far the association will nevertheless be a force to be reckoned with, because it has a campaign budget of $200,000, said Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association.
One of its two Firefighter PACs is the recently formed Public Safety Fund, to which members elected to contribute an extra $7.63 in dues for 16 pay periods over eight months, Nicks said. With 1,010 dues-paying members that adds up to more than $123,800. In addition, AFSCME, (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) contributed $5,000 to the association, he said. The remainder of the $200,000 budget will come from a separate Austin Firefighters PAC, he said.
While $200,000 is a substantial sum to spend on these elections, “It’s not as much as we thought when spread among so many races,” Nicks said. “We still have to be thoughtful about how to spend.”
First election for new reporting of independent expenditures
The 2012 Charter Revision Committee (now defunct) grappled with a number of major issues and made many recommendations to the City Council, in addition to recommending that electing council members from 10 geographic districts be put before voters.
One of those additional recommendations was to require reporting of independent expenditures made to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure. As a result of this recommendation the City Council enacted Ordinance No. 20120802-069 August 2, 2012. The Ordinance repealed and replaced an existing section of the Austin City Code.
The new section defines independent expenditures and express advocacy, requires reporting of such expenditures, and in addition requires a statement to “conspicuously disclose” on political ads, electioneering communication or express advocacy “the names of the five largest donors in the preceding 12 months to the person making the independent expenditure.”
Independent expenditure reports filed with the Austin City Clerk in accordance with Austin City Code Section 2-2-32 are sworn under penalty of perjury “that each independent expenditure was made without prior consent, cooperation, strategic communication, consultation, or sharing of material information regarding the communication’s content, intended audience, timing, or method of dissemination between an affected candidate, the candidate’s campaign staff, the candidate’s campaign committee, and the person making the expenditure, or that person’s agent or employee.”
One of the PACs—ChangeAustin.org—made independent expenditures but did not file these reports.
And in The Austin Bulldog’s examination of readily identifiable communications paid for with independent expenditures, none included information about the top donors.
The Better Austin Today PAC, for example, paid for half-page ads in The Austin Chronicle of October 24 to support District 3 candidate Susana Almanza, District 7 candidate Melissa Zone, District 9 candidate (and incumbent) Kathie Tovo, and District 10 candidate Jason Meeker. None of these ads list the top donors to BATPAC.
For the record, BATPAC’s top five donors, based on The Austin Bulldog’s review of its campaign finance reports, are: retiree Danette Chimenti, $5,000; Mersha Zenaw, treasurer of Lone Star Cab, $3,000; retiree Mary Sanger, $2,000; Christino Padilla, owner of EZ Frame Fixer, $1,500; and retiree Joseph Caroline Reynolds, $1,400.
ChangeAustin.org’s PAC paid for a” three-quarter-page ad titled “Reject Riley in the October 17 Chronicle that also does not list the PAC’s top donors. They are preservationist Kirk Mitchel, $14,000; real estate investor Brian Rodgers, $5,924; and four others who gave $1,000 each: attorney Bill Aleshire, historic preservationist Richard Hardin, attorney Lorri Michele, and retiree Jim Skaggs.
The Real Estate Council of Austin filed a report of independent expenditures but also is not identifying its top donors in electioneering communication. For example, a robocall made to The Austin Bulldog’s telephone number October 28 in support of District 9 candidate (and incumbent) Chris Riley stated that RECA’s Good Government PAC paid for the call but did not disclose its top donors. (A link to the recording is provided below.)
New requirements not well understood
BATPAC board member Lynn Marshall and ChangeAustin.org treasurer Linda Curtis said confusion surrounds the new reporting and disclosure requirements.
Marshall said she had sought information from the City Clerk’s office about how to properly report and was told that such advice could not be provided by the city. Elections Clerk Ann Franklin confirmed that her office is not permitted to provide legal advice. “We give information about where it is in the code. We’re not allowed to give instructions on how to fill out forms.”
Absent such guidance, Marshall said, organizations “don’t know if the material you send is required until you find out you blew it. No one I know is intending to not report properly. We’re all worried about making some kind of misstep and getting ourselves in trouble.”
Curtis said ChangeAustin.org is General Purpose Committee that has met its PAC reporting requirements and the money it spends for supporting or opposing candidates has been included in those reports. So it was not understood that ChangeAustin.org PAC also needed to file a separate report of independent expenditures.
“We have been advised that we have met the requirements,” Curtis said in responding to The Austin Bulldog’s questions. “Our understanding is that General Purpose PACs (which ChangeAustin.org has been since 2008) is required to report all expenditures and contributions. We have disclosed everything and have filed our reports timely.
“Though the law is a bit confusing, it’s clear to us that it makes no sense to require us to report as doing independent expenditures—since we already disclose everything,” Curtis said.
ChangeAustin.org’s actions, however, are not consistent with the fact that every other PAC that did file sworn reports of independent expenditures is also a General Purpose Committee.
Attorney Fred Lewis, who was a member of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee and was instrumental in bringing the issue of reporting independent expenditures to the forefront, said the ordinance that ultimately passed has had unintended consequences. “It’s poorly drafted,” he said.
Lewis says that the requirement to report expenditures in two places—in the periodic PAC reports and in the independent expenditure reports—is duplicative and possibly unconstitutional.
Lewis also said that the requirement to disclose the top five donors in electioneering communication was “designed for entities that don’t report contributions and only report expenditures” so they would have to list their top five donors for the last 12 months.
The lack of compliance and confusion raises the question of whether the City of Austin has issued any guidance, or publicized in any way, the need to report independent expenditures in accordance with this new section of the City Code.
The Austin Bulldog posed that question to the City’s Public Information Office. Alicia Dean, a senior information specialist, stated, “We have not provided any additional details beyond what Ann Franklin shared with your yesterday.”
Recording of Real Estate Council of Austin Good Government PAC Robocall on behalf of District 9 candidate (and incumbent) Chris Riley