Prop B Campaigns Exchange Charges of Being "Republican"
As election day nears both sides of the debate trade barbs
By Michael King,
9:00AM, Fri. Nov. 1, 2019
The Proposition B campaign – pro and con – has gotten increasingly heated over the last few weeks, especially now that early voting for the Nov. 5 election has nearly ended (Friday, Nov. 1, 7pm). One point of contention is whose supporters are more or less “Republican.”
Prop. B is on the city of Austin portion of the Travis County ballot, and (if approved by the voters), would require a public vote for any substantial expansion of the Convention Center (proposed by City Council), and also move to re-allocate the city's portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax in ways that supporters say are more equitable and city attorneys say state law does not permit.
In the current Chronicle print edition, we report that the two campaign PACs (Unconventional Austin and PHAM PAC) have been exchanging charges that the other is providing cover for Republican (and specifically Donald Trump-supporting) interests (“Election Ticker: Down to the Wire,” Nov. 1). An ethics complaint filed by Prop B opponents charged that UA had failed to timely file a required campaign finance report, allegedly because they wanted to hide as long as possible that they had hired an expressly Republican digital media company (Vici Media). ("Whose Money is Behind the Convention Center Battle," Oct. 11) Asked about the claim, UA shot back only: "Directors of organizations opposing Proposition B have contributed over $1 million in campaign contributions to Republican candidates and organizations, including Donald Trump."
Asked several times to provide some reviewable clarification of these GOP donors, UA eventually replied with the following list: “Members of the Board of Directors of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Ballet Austin, Hispanic Chamber, Real Estate Council and Asian Chamber and hotel owners such as the owner of the Fairmont hotel.”
That was a bit more helpful, although about as wide a human net to cast as possible. We took a look at the boards of those organizations, and concluded that there are undoubtedly plenty of Republicans among them. The Greater Austin CofC has nearly five dozen board members; between them the Hispanic and Asian American Chambers have more than 40; Ballet Austin features nearly 80[!] board members; and RECA sports a relatively paltry 41 literal board members (plus a couple of dozen board advisors). (We also spotted — quelle surprise – a little overlap between the organizations.) If there weren’t both Republican and Democratic board members among these large business (and arts) organizations, it would indeed be quite remarkable.
If Unconventional Austin’s crack campaign staff has actually searched the campaign finance records of all these folks, bless their hearts. We suspect that instead, they checked the GOP campaign contributions of the very conservative patriarch of the Manchester family (with significant ownership interests in the Fairmont Hotel chain), recorded “$1 million,” and threw in “more than $1 million” for grins, so they could make their extremely broad-brush allegation.
For what it’s worth, the accusations running in the other direction are much more specific – large direct donors to the UA SPAC who have extensive GOP histories, and the use of Republican consulting groups to direct parts of the campaign (see previous reports). Based on these associations, it seems fair to speculate that business-interest Republicans (e.g., the Chambers) largely oppose Prop B, and anti-tax Republicans (and their libertarian allies) support it.
But most of the Austinites on both sides of the argument consider themselves progressive Democrats – that’s how we do politics here – and they believe the other side’s charges of GOP-collusion are grossly unfair. Tourism Commission John Riedie, a prominent Prop. B supporter, told the Chronicle, “Republicans and Democrats are on both sides of this one. But only one side is using that as a smear.” He rejected the suggestion that a Facebook ad with a blanket charge that unnamed “directors of organizations” who oppose Prop B have made major donations to GOP candidates might constitute a “smear.”
Similarly, PHAM PAC campaign organizer Jim Wick dismissed any equivalence between the broad-brush UA charge against unnamed board members and the specific Republican consultants involved in the pro-Prop B campaign. "They hired a past and current Trump consulting firm [Vici Media] … and the best they can come up with is that unnamed 'directors' of unnamed organizations opposing Prop B donated to Trump? Give me a break.”
In this overheated campaign context, voters approaching the polls Friday or Tuesday might want to take a deep breath and try, very hard, to judge Proposition B on the merits. For the Chronicle’s perspective, see our endorsements here.
In case you're wondering, nobody on the editorial board is a Republican – or a Trump donor.