Here's How a Few Rich Guys Are Trying to Control Local Politics

National players are increasingly stepping into smaller scale races in an effort to protect profits, establish precedent — and play a long game with an eye toward the presidency.

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We'll acknowledge at the outset that local politics has long been the domain of the community's wealthiest members, for a variety of reasons. But now national players are increasingly stepping into smaller scale races. From the Koch brother-funded Americans For Prosperity pushing city council candidates in Iowa, as reported on Monday by The New York Times, to wealthy Californians trying to hide their anti-tax efforts in the state, the rich are working to protect profits, establish precedent — and play a long game with an eye toward the presidency.

The latest reports are much more subtle than the one that raised eyebrows last week — but are more representative of the shift in strategy. That report, The Washington Post detailing how Comcast was investing heavily in the mayor's race in Seattle, was pretty straightforward. The company's wasn't to ensure that the light rail gets expanded or to repave 4th Avenue. Comcast would prefer that the incumbent mayor, Mike McGinn, not win reelection, probably because McGinn has been pushing for widely available fiber optic internet access. It's a plan about which McGinn's main opponent, Ed Murray, is less enthusiastic — and which Comcast, which would be competing against in the market, is presumably even less so. Especially if their campaign spending is any guide.

Comcast's donations to political action committees (PACs) suggest Comcast has poured dramatically more resources into defeating McGinn. The Broadband Communications Association of Washington PAC, which received 94 percent of its 2013 contributions from Comcast, donated $5,000 to the group People for Ed Murray less than a month after Gigabit Squared's pricing announcement. That was the PAC's largest single donation.

This is fairly traditional political influence. Company gives to PAC, PAC spends against candidate. States and municipalities have various rules governing how companies can make contributions and how those contributions are reported, but this is one of the more common ways companies influence politics, separating the PAC from the company itself. That has the negative side effect of making donations traceable back to the companies, as Comcast and other companies have discovered. (When asked by the Post, the cable outlet denied trying to block the fiber optic roll-out.)

Many companies — who, after all, have the bottom line at heart — try to mask their involvement in political activity in order to prevent the sort of backlash seen by Target or Chik-fil-A. In California, the rules are more complex than in most places, making it — intentionally — tricky for companies to do so.

The Los Angeles Times reports on one complicated inter-state transaction in 2012 that business interests hoped would hide their involvement in two key ballot propositions in the state. (One would increase taxes on the wealthy; the other, limit the political power of labor unions.) The scale of the investment — $11 million in one case — brought the activity to the attention of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission and, eventually, the network of donors was revealed.

The family that owns the Gap gave $9 million. Charles Schwab gave $6.4 million. A philanthropist gave $1 million. That money went to a Virginia non-profit that could pay for ads against the ballot measures; since it was a non-profit, presumably a 501(c)4, it didn't need to reveal its donors. With a state deadline looming, after which the trail back to the donors might be revealed, the donors looped in the Center to Protect Patient Rights in Arizona. Money went from Virginia to Arizona and then to in-state campaign committees. One of those was the one that received $11 million. But the donors didn't get their money's worth. Both of the initiatives they wanted to block went against the donors. And of the $25 million the Virginia group sent to CPPR, only $15 million ended up in California.

CPPR, as we've noted before, is a big clearinghouse for campaign spending by the now-infamous Koch brothers and affiliated organizations. The Kochs also started Americans For Prosperity, a political group focused on field organizing and one which still receives large amounts of money from Koch-linked groups.

As The New York Times reported on Monday, AFP is working in races much smaller than California or Seattle, looking to influence policy and build relationships with local elected officials across the country. The Times focuses on a small town called Coralville in the always-important state of Iowa.

Tim Phillips, the national president of Americans for Prosperity, said the organization could have a real effect on local races, where it does not have to deal with all the Washington special interests. ... But here, in this town of fewer than 20,000 residents, the group has not been so welcome, and the nonpartisan campaign has become an informal referendum on the involvement of outsiders.

This is another reason that corporate interests and the wealthy try and shield their involvement: people often object to "outside" groups getting involved. The Iowa state director for AFP insists that he decides the group's priorities, which is likely true. But the Times notes that AFP isn't just working in Iowa. It's also working in Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, and Kansas, among other states, focused on blocking tax increases among other things. In each case, it's doing field organizing, looking to build up political infrastructure that it can call on in future races. That could come in handy in Iowa, in, say, 2016.

They still have a way to go before those networks are built, at least in Iowa, as the negative response suggests. But this probably isn't a one-cycle effort. What AFP is doing is the other end of the spectrum from Comcast's more obvious and traditional single-campaign involvement. And over the long term, the Kochs certainly hope, it will lead to much broader political change.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.