Debt collectors, red light camera operators target democratic mayors for influence
Eric Lipton’s “Courting Favor” series for The New York Times revealed that national organizations that fund attorneys’ general political campaigns are often themselves funded by individual and corporate donors who have legal disputes with the state. National groups focused on local level politics are rife with similar conflicts of interest as organizations supporting mayors and city council members on both sides of the aisle raise cash from industries that contract at the local level.
That was part of the story with Community Leaders of America (CLA), a special interest-funded group working to elect Republicans at the mayoral and city council levels profiled by CREW in July, and it’s true of National Conference of Democratic Mayors (NCDM) and Democratic Municipal Officials (DMO), two political organizations supporting the nation’s Democratic mayors and city council members.
Both groups are well-established: NCDM has been around since the 1970s while DMO was created in 1988. Unlike the attorneys general associations profiled by Lipton, NCDM and DMO don’t claim to be focused on elections. Instead, both groups’ stated missions are to connect local Democratic leaders to each other and to the national Democratic Party infrastructure.
Both groups are also structured to facilitate industry connections. By contributing to these groups, donors are offered access to local Democratic officeholders. DMO’s corporate and union donors are organized as an advisory board made up of “associations, unions, corporations and individuals who support DMO with an annual financial contribution and also provide expertise, resources, and information to help our members govern better.” NCDM similarly gives its donors access to officeholder members through the Mayors Alliance for Progress, which “provides leaders in the private sector, organized labor and other fields with an opportunity to share ideas and engage with Democratic Mayors in small group settings.”
Fundraising reports filed with the IRS show DMO has consistently outraised NCDM since 2011, the first year both groups filed their reports online. Labor unions are big donors to both groups. Unions and connected PACs have given DMO more than a million dollars since 2011 and more than $200,000 to NCDM. Comcast, which contracts with local governments, is in a class of its own among the industries contributing to both Democratic groups, giving $120,000 to NCDM and more than $160,000 to DMO since 2011.
NCDM has gone to bat in the past for Comcast. Data available from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that Comcast contributed almost $40,000 to NCDM in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. In 2010, NCDM sent a letter to the chairperson and commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, signed by the mayors of major cities like Philadelphia, Tallahassee, and Minneapolis, urging their support for a proposed joint merger between Comcast and NBC-Universal.
DMO and NCDM both rake in cash from local-level contractors besides Comcast. Engineering and construction management firms, which often seek to score contracts with local governments, have given more than $75,000 to each Democratic group since 2011. Trash collection utility companies like Republic Services and Waste Management have given $83,000 to DMO and $30,000 to NCDM over the same period.
Debt collection companies like Harris & Harris and Professional Account Management, both of which contract with local governments, have also given to both groups, giving $52,500 to DMO and $10,000 to NCDM since 2011. Both Democratic groups have also received contributions from contractors offering local law enforcement tools like parking meter operators and e-ticketing services. Red-light camera operator American Traffic Solutions, which has stirred controversy with the terms of its contracts with local governments, has been a major donor to DMO, giving more than $30,000 over the last three years.
Pepsi’s emergence as a DMO donor demonstrates how emerging political battles can redirect corporate political giving. The soda company, which hadn’t donated to national political groups that focus on the local level in past years, made two contributions to DMO, totaling $15,000, in July and September. The contributions coincide with new conversations about soda taxes in major left-leaning cities like Philadelphia and Oakland, showing how special interest money moves where influence is needed, even on the local level.