Soda industry political donors still active in Philly

    Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez says she'll look at the merits of the soda tax debate. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez says she'll look at the merits of the soda tax debate. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    As the local beverage industry gears up to fight Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed tax on sugary drinks, they can count on some good will — or at least access — in City Council due to some recent campaign contributions.

    Industry donors gave hundreds of thousands to local elected officials years ago when they beat back a proposed soda tax.

    But a look at campaign finance reports suggests they’ve remained on alert.

    During last year’s municipal election, industry contributors gave more than $73,000 to City Council candidates, even though none of them was talking about a soda tax.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Larry Ceisler, who represents opponents of the tax, said that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

    “Since Mayor Nutter first introduced the tax six years ago, the beverage industry and its allies have always been diligent about staying in touch with City Council and other elected officials,” Ceisler said.

    And writing a check can be a pretty good way to stay in touch.

    An analysis of campaign finance reports shows that in 2015, 15 current Council members got a total of $68,550 in industry-related donations, and another $5,000 went to unsuccessful Council candidates.

    In addition, the donors gave $24,900 to four mayoral candidates, including $5,400 to Kenney’s campaign (corrected from an earlier version of this piece).

    Who’s writing checks

    Nearly all of the contributions attributed to the beverage industry in my analysis come from three sources — the Liberty Bell Beverage PAC, Teamsters Local 830, and the family of Harold Honickman, who owns a large bottling company in Pennsauken, New Jersey.

    Attributing motives to the Honickman family can be tricky. He and his wife, Lynne, contribute to a number of political candidates they have personal relationships with.

    The family’s largest donations to a City Council candidate, for example, went to Realtor Allan Domb, who received $10,800. Domb told me he’s known the Honickmans for many years, and their support wouldn’t affect his consideration of the soda tax.

    The Honickmans also donate to a number of causes, such as gun control, and to charities and nonprofits, including WHYY.

    That said, Harold Honickman was an active opponent of the soda tax proposals advanced by Mayor Michael Nutter in 2010 and 2011.

    I tried twice this week to reach him, but was told he’s out of the country.

    Who got the checks

    The list below shows the 15 Council members who received beverage industry contributions and their amounts. I asked several City Council members about their contributions after Kenney’s budget address.

    Some, including 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla, said they weren’t even aware of the industry donations.

    Scholars, pundits and regulators have long debated just what a political contribution gets you — a member’s support, or just access?

    Ceisler, the industry spokesman, has a different answer.

    “What does it get you?” he said. “It gets you a lot of invitations to fundraisers.”

    Ceisler said many of the contributions to Council candidates last year are the result of candidates reaching out to industry donors added to their fundraising lists in past soda tax battles.

    Councilman Bill Greenlee told me whether candidates ask or donors volunteer, members know their contributors.

    “You know, if somebody that supported us asks to at least have a meeting, we’re going to have a meeting with them, but it doesn’t mean we’ll always agree,” Greenlee said. “I think there’s lots of instances where all of us disagree with somebody that contributed to us.”

    Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said she knows she gets beverage industry contributions, but noted that she’s long supported city business tax reforms that favor local businesses.

    And she’s long been concerned about the hundreds of jobs in a bottling plant in her district.

    Only two current Council members didn’t get beverage industry contributions last year – veteran Jannie Blackwell and newcomer Helen Gym.

    Beverage industry contributions to Council members in 2015


    Allan Domb — $12,050Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — $8,400Darrell Clarke — $5,000Blondell Reynolds Brown — $5,000Bill Greenlee — $4,700Mark Squilla — $4,500Bobby Henon — $4,500Kenyatta Johnson — $4,500Cindy Bass — $4,000Al Taubenberger — $3,400Cherelle Parker — $3,000Denny O’Brien — $3,000Curtis Jones — $2,500Brian O’Neill — $2,000David Oh — $2,000

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal