Point Austin: Dark Money, Sunlight, and Political Soccer Games
Shadowy funding works its way into Austin campaigns
"Dark money" is not exactly new to Austin politics. In the 2014 mayoral campaign, an out-of-state political action committee, the South Forward PAC, spent about $10,000 on a phone-call campaign opposing the candidacy of Steve Adler. The funding source itself wasn't entirely unidentified – federal filings traced it back to the Southwest Laborers' District Council PAC, and indirectly to the local affiliate of the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA). Neither group would answer questions about the money, but it made headlines for a couple of weeks, with then-incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell citing the outside funding as his ultimate reason for endorsing Adler over his former ally Mike Martinez ("Point Austin: Just How Super Is Your PAC?" Oct. 31, 2014).
The outside money might have hurt Martinez as much as helped him, as he spent vital campaign time denying any connection to the South Forward PAC. There was also the dispiriting detail that Adler could provide his own campaign a virtually unlimited amount of money, so that $10,000 was effectively a drop in the losing bucket. As you may have heard, Adler won easily, and the dark money issue became a historical footnote.
It seems to have returned with a vengeance in this cycle, as charges of "dark money" are simmering not only over the mayor's race again, but over the down-ballot propositions – specifically Proposition K, which, if passed, would require the city to hire outside "efficiency" experts to conduct an independent audit of all city operations. Unidentified contributors funded the petition campaign to put the audit prop on the ballot, although the paper trail that does exist makes it fairly clear that the underwriters are Republican operatives closely connected to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, and thereby to the state GOP ("Point Austin: Strange Bedfellows, Stranger Politics," Aug. 10).
Soccer for Sale
In the mayor's race, among Adler, former Council Member Laura Morrison, and now a host of others, the dark money issue is a bit more tangential, although it involves one of Morrison's designated issues – the charge that the plan to enable Major League Soccer at McKalla Place is a "boondoggle" subsidy for the private interests who own the Columbus Crew (aka the would-be "Austin FC"). If you're following that ongoing argument, you've likely noticed something called NoSoccerSubsidy.com running ads in the Chronicle, online, and elsewhere, denouncing "Adler's sweetheart stadium deal" with Crew owner Anthony Precourt. Setting aside the specific arguments – opponents say it's a bad deal, the mayor insists it's a good one – it's not at all apparent who No Soccer Subsidy is, who is funding them, or if they shouldn't be filing campaign finance reports for the mayoral race. The ads (placed in the Chronicle through an agency, so we don't know who paid for them), web page, and Facebook page are professionally produced, and leave no opportunity for feedback or questions. The messages I posted to their Facebook page were not returned.
Speculation over who funded the ads includes soccer competitor Bobby Epstein out at Circuit of the Americas, and the various web content suggests that at least some support comes from Columbus fans who are mightily upset at their team's pending departure. The sudden appearance of the late filers in the mayor's race also raised eyebrows – and increased the possibility of a low-turnout run-off. I asked Todd Phelps, the best known of the new contenders, if Epstein et al. were among the "recruiting" business interests who he says persuaded him to run. He says no, and added that he'll win any run-off.
Blow Your Horn
We'll find out in due course if all this agitation is just campaign sound and fury signifying not very much, or if it becomes central to the eventual voting. In the meantime, it would be helpful to know precisely who is underwriting these explicitly political campaigns. It's particularly amusing to see one-time campaign finance reform firebrand Fred Lewis whitewashing the dark money underwriting the Prop K campaign (most recently in the Statesman), because he happens to support the proposition. Back in 2004, speaking for Campaigns for People, he declared, "Our No. 1 enemy is cynicism." Indeed.
One aspect of that reflexive cynicism is that Austin's municipal campaign limits, currently capped at $350 per person, are so low as to both encourage self-funded millionaire campaigns (at least for mayor) and to more greatly empower independent (including dark money) expenditures that readily overwhelm the legal contributions. Like water, political money finds its way, and in an increasingly unequal economy, the folks holding an exploding portion of that disposable income will be only too happy to turn the rest of us voters into disarmed spectators. We'll still be encouraged, of course, to watch the matches from high above the pitch, eagerly blowing our vuvuzelas.