Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Super PAC spending could overwhelm candidate cash in next year’s Philadelphia City Council races | Clout

Prepare for big spending from the soda industry and building trades.

MARK LENIHAN / AP File (custom credit)

On this Black Friday, Clout bargain-hunts the best political deals for super PACs in the 2019 races in Philadelphia. We're thinking the big money may land on City Council campaigns, not Mayor Kenney's bid for a second term.

In the 2015 mayoral primary, super PACs spent more than the six Democratic candidates combined. Next year, they could spend millions in races for Council.

The American Beverage Association has already proven it's willing to dig deep to try to overturn the city's soda tax, Kenney's signature achievement.

If the soda industry and grocery store retailers launch a super PAC in the mayor's race, former City Controller Alan Butkovitz would be first in line for that support, having declared his challenge to Kenney last week. State Sen. Tony Williams is not far behind; he is considering another try.

But changing the cast of characters in Council would likely be easier than unseating an incumbent mayor, something that hasn't happened in about seven decades, at least.

For Council, we've already predicted a stampede of candidates for at-large and district seats.

We asked the beverage lobby if it would spend super PAC money in the mayor's race, Council races, or both.

"We obviously think that City Council should do the right thing and eliminate a job-destroying tax that is increasingly being rejected by voters and political leaders across the country," said Anthony Campisi, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association-backed local coalition.

On the other side are the city's building trades unions, which benefit from work created by the soda tax, which supports pre-K, community schools, parks, recreation centers, and libraries. These unions, led by Local 98's John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, were the biggest super PAC spenders for Kenney in 2015.

The soda tax passed by 13-4 in 2016, so the beverage industry needs to win four Council seats to get to a nine-vote majority — and eight to score to a veto-proof majority. Doing well but falling short of these marks could cause some surviving Council members to rethink their soda tax votes.

Team Soda scored some victories elsewhere using campaign donations to punish foes and reward friends. Cook County, Ill., approved and then quickly repealed a soda tax.

The American Beverage Association has not been shy about throwing money around town: It spent $15.8 million on lobbying from January 2016 to October 2018.

Philadelphians for a Fair Future, a pro-soda tax group, invested $3.4 million in lobbying from April 2016 to October 2018. That included $1.7 million from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a longtime foe of the soda industry and potential Democratic presidential candidate.

A Bloomberg spokesman on Thursday declined to comment.

Williams pays $33K for mayoral poll

Is Williams, the Democratic senator, serious about another run for mayor? Well, he paid $32,800 in August to McLaughlin & Associates, a New York polling firm with strong ties to the Republican establishment.

Williams said the firm was "testing several things, including the mayoral field." He shrugged off the firm's GOP ties, stressing the quality of its work.

"I'm obviously more concerned with the quality of the poll. They had done work in Philadelphia before. And they were very accurate. And I didn't have that before."

Sam Pond tied to dark-money group

Remember that mysterious group we told you about that backed Democrats in races for Pennsylvania's state legislature?

Back in September, PA Fund for Change declined to share information about its donors, spending plans, or anything else, really.

Since then, Clout got its hands on documents that show Sam Pond, a Philadelphia workers' comp lawyer, solicited donations for the PAC and raised money for its top funder.

PA Fund for Change, which spent $2.5 million this year supporting Democratic candidates for the state House and Senate, received $1.4 million from PA Alliance Action, a "dark-money" group that isn't required to disclose its donors.

Records filed with the Pennsylvania Department of State show that PA Alliance Action's "incorporator" is PA Alliance LLC. And Pond is "sole member" of that LLC, records show.

Reached for comment, a lawyer for PA Fund for Change said Pond's law firm had "no affiliation" with the group.

An Inquirer and Daily News investigation last year found that pain-management doctors and workers' comp lawyers, including Pond, had sent clients and patients to pharmacies in which they had an ownership interest, then billed their employers' insurance providers for expensive compounded creams.

Such arrangements can raise conflicts of interest, according to ethics experts. Pond later sold his stake in a pharmacy.

More than a half-dozen candidates supported by PA Fund for Change were elected to the legislature.

Mike Stack plans his comeback

President Trump's victory in 2016 broke all the rules. So now all the politicians seem to think they can break them, too.

What else explains the surge in officials who, after losing reelection, consider a return to politics?

Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Stack came in fourth place in this spring's primary amid a scandal and fall-out with his boss. Instead of retiring or accepting a cushy lobbying job, though, he's taking several steps toward a comeback.

Stack's spokesman, Marty Marks, told us he's "making fundraising calls," planning a fundraiser next month, and starting a "restorative justice" nonprofit.

Stack is thinking about running for Council, either for an at-large seat or the Tenth District, currently held by Republican Councilman Brian O'Neill. He also hasn't ruled out challenging Kenney.

Judging by this year's election results, Stack might want to go for O'Neill's job. Sure, O'Neill is a popular, 38-year incumbent who has fended off Democratic challengers. But party voters are energized under Trump.

And consider how Stack performed in this year's primary: He finished first overall in Philly, but received only 38 percent of the vote. Meantime, he won decisively in the wards that make up the Tenth District.

If Stack decides to not to run for anything, his fund-raiser next month will still be a boon to the Democrat: According to his most recent campaign finance report, Stack has nearly $139,000 in debts.