Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Political action committees are trying to leave their mark on one of San Antonio’s most contentious mayoral elections by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support their preferred candidate.
Last month, San Antonio’s police and firefighter unions’ political action committees spent nearly $130,000 for Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), according to campaign finance reports filed with the state this week. Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy group, spent $113,000 to support Nirenberg.
Texans Opposed to Professional Politicians (TOPP), which is largely funded by the San Antonio Fire and Police Pensioners Association PAC, spent nearly $45,000 on media buys (usually television, radio, and social media) in opposition to Nirenberg. Colin Strother, a local political consultant paid by TOPP, declined to elaborate on the PAC’s goals.
Police and fire union PACs also received large contributions ($20,000 each) from the pension PAC in the last month. The various entities’ reports cover different periods but generally cover transactions between late March to late April. Union leadership could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but their reports show the fire union spent the bulk of its money on contract workers, food, and other supplies. The police union, meanwhile, spent its money on political advertising consultants.
The public safety unions’ increased participation in local elections and politics coincides with contentious labor contract negotiations between the City and firefighters union.
While Progress Texas spent the bulk of its money on media buys, Texas Organizing Project’s PAC report spent about $64,500 on supplies and labor for block walking in support of Nirenberg and other City Council candidates.
Previous campaign finance reports from the beginning of the year show the police union had spent $197,200 and the fire union $71,000 prior to the May election, and these new reports bring their totals to about $300,000 and $126,000. The police union also spent money on other candidates, but the fire union said it is focusing on Brockhouse, who previously worked as a marketing and political consultant for the public safety unions.
And plenty of money has been spent related to the election that is not yet reported, including a $94,400 on-air advertising campaign the fire union purchased with KSAT-12.
The start date for that billing plan is May 27 – two days after the most recent reporting period concluded, according to an order form submitted to the Federal Communications Commission. It’s classified as a “non candidate issue ad,” meaning this ad purchase is likely focused on an issue (firefighter union support), not for or against a specific candidate.
Taking Texas to the TOP, the Texas Organizing Project’s PAC, started spending on Nirenberg’s behalf the same day officials announced TOP was endorsing him in the runoff, said Executive Director Michelle Tremillo.
“All of the funds that we raised [and spent] are reflected in our report,” Tremillo said, adding that TOP, as a separate 501(c)(4) entity has not spent anything outside of the PAC.
Most of the expenses in TOP’s PAC report are listed as benefiting multiple candidates, she said, “but it’s fair to say that a majority of spending has been for Mayor Nirenberg.”
The Texas Ethics Commission, which oversees statewide campaigns and PACs participating in local elections, has different reporting periods than municipal government. PACs are not required to report to the City of San Antonio like candidates are.
This makes for a hodgepodge of campaign finance transparency, said Laura Barberena, a local political consultant, and caps on individual and group/company donations to a candidate in local elections are driving more donors to PACs where they can give as much and as often as they want – as long as they’re not coordinating with campaigns.
By the time the state reports were made available on Thursday – early voting had already concluded, she noted. “For people who really care about transparency, this is the kind of stuff that drives you crazy.”
The maximum contribution for City Council district candidates is $500; for mayor, it’s $1,000. Nirenberg raised nearly $330,000 in campaign contributions, according to a recent month-long reporting period, compared to Brockhouse’s nearly $115,000.
“All [caps do] is put these PACs in a stronger position because they can raise endless amounts of money,” Barberena said. “It’s almost an invitation for outside groups to participate.”