Point Austin: Just How Super Is Your PAC?

"Outside money" hits Austin, and the reverberations begin

Point Austin

Welcome to big city politics. Politicos all over Austin were rushing around last week, shocked – simply shocked – that there is gambling taking place in Casablanca.

That is, official eyebrows were raised at the entry of the South Forward PAC, an "independent expenditure" political action committee based in South Carolina, into Austin mayoral politics. South Forward was live-calling hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Austin voters to oppose candidate Steve Adler, with an opposition message ("his tax plan would only help wealthy homeowners") suspiciously akin to that of opponent Mike Mar­tinez (and, a little less so, to that of Sheryl Cole), although only Adler's name was mentioned in the calls.

As we reported on Newsdesk Oct. 24, according to South Forward's Federal Election Commission filings, the calls were funded by the Southwest Laborers' District Council PAC, whose local affiliate is the Laborers' International Union of North America, Local 753. Neither the local nor the Council (both of which have endorsed Mar­tinez) responded to inquiries, but Jay Parmley, executive director of South For­ward, acknowledged the campaign, said it was similar to those pursued across the South, and added, "While we understand that some people may disagree, we believe Austin has better choices for mayor than Steve Adler." (South Forward has duly filed a notice letter of its FEC filings with the city clerk, and Parmley insists it has followed all applicable Texas and federal laws.)

The Adler campaign was outraged at this invasion of "old style dirty politics" into Austin, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell cited the PAC campaign as a final reason ("We don't need super PACs from South Carolina telling Austinites how to vote") for his long-rumored endorsement of Adler earlier this week. Adler campaign manager Jim Wick told me that the deluge of negative calls could conceivably hurt his candidate – especially with otherwise low-information Nov­em­ber voters. But it may also be a double-edged sword, in that the Martinez campaign has now had to spend several days disassociating itself from the outside PAC.

First One in the Pool

Indeed, that's the whole point of "independent expenditure" campaigns – enabling allies to support a candidate on their own, without subjecting themselves to direct campaign finance limits. There are several local IE groups – business groups as well as labor unions – now spending in support of their preferred candidates, increasingly incentivized by Austin's extremely low $350 limit on direct individual contributions. Political money finds a way to get spent, and the Austin Board of Realtors, the Austin Firefighters Association, the Real Estate Council of Austin, Home Builders Association of Greater Austin ... and so on, get jiggy with it, sometimes in large doses, at campaign time.

What's different in this case is the external "Super PAC" (IRS "527 organization") enabled in the aftermath of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision to allow essentially unlimited "independent" spending. Attorney Buck Wood, an authority in these matters (he helped rewrite Texas campaign finance law in the Seven­ties), says even the relatively modest South Forward campaign ($10,000, at least) represents "the camel's nose under the tent" of Texas campaign law. "It may not look like a big deal," Wood said, "but it is a big deal, if they get away with it. ... If they get away with it, everybody will be doing it."

Wood said he believes this is the first instance of a 527 PAC getting involved in a local Texas race. "I'm not really worried about the Laborers Union," he continued. But once the wall is breached, he said, "Everybody else will be seeing it as a way to evade Texas campaign finance laws."

Buy Yourself a Chair

Several of the groups mentioned above are already spending several times more than South Forward in the Council and mayor's race, supporting their candidates with mailers, signs, doorhangers, and phone calls. The city's campaign finance postings reflect more than a dozen independent groups spending a few hundred, several thousand, or (on the local transportation bond) hundreds of thousands of dollars either on candidates or particular initiatives. (One labor observer described LiUNA as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight," for not simply spending the money locally, ideally in union shops).

Add to that those candidates lending themselves thousands of dollars – with Adler at the top of the list, having lent himself more than $300,000 (with likely more following). Especially in westside districts, wealthy candidates are demonstrating a major flaw of low contribution limits: If you can self-finance, you can outspend dramatically any candidate relying on soliciting a long list of individual supporters to compile just an adequate campaign kitty.

Even with LiUNA's out-of-state diversion, it seems finicky to howl with outrage at $10,000 spent by a labor union against a candidate they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as closely aligned with their bosses rather than with working people, while ABOR, RECA, and the rest shovel money into their pro-business campaigns. Until Citizens United is overturned, labor groups are going to be running to catch up with business PACs – which is yet another reason not to let the camel into the Texas tent.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Mayoral & City Council, November 2014 Election, campaign finance, Citizens United, South Forward, Steve Adler, Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell, LiUNA, super PACs

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