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Political groups spent more than $200 per vote

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Spending in Santa Fe’s sugary-drink tax election tops $4 million

May 16, 2017, 9:00 pm

In the end, all the bills got paid. All the consultants did, too. Michael Bloomberg spent almost a million-and-a-half dollars in a losing effort and Big Soda spent more than $2 million to win.

Political action committees filed their final campaign finance reports Tuesday for the May 2 special election that saw 58 percent of voters cast a ballot against a proposed tax on sugary drinks. The 2-cents-an-ounce levy would have funded expanded pre-kindergarten programs in Santa Fe.

The American Beverage Association funneled more than $1.9 million into the Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K campaign group. To clear its books, Better Way took in $560,000 after the election, all from the ABA. In the final tally, records show the beverage industry trade group paid for all but $15 of Better Way’s expenditures.

Including in-kind donations, which are supplies and services paid for by outside groups in support of a PAC’s cause, Better Way spent $2.18 million to beat back the tax.

The group presented itself as a coalition of local businesses and citizens, but the reports show it was clearly a Big Soda venture. Most of the money went to out-of-state campaign-related companies. Winning the majority of votes cost the beverage industry more than $189 per vote, an expenditure it considered a worthy investment.  


“Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K … is proud of investing its time and resources to inform voters on the harmful impact of the proposed beverage tax,” spokesman David Huynh says in a text. “We are thankful to the community for listening to our concerns, standing up for working families and small businesses, and overwhelmingly rejecting the proposed tax.”


The Big Soda spending left a bit of indigestion with proponents.


“We’re not surprised that the ABA spent over two million dollars to defeat our efforts to fund pre-K for every child in Santa Fe. They represent corporations that only care about their profits, not about the health and well being of our community,” political consultant Sandra Wechsler tells SFR in a text message.


But tax advocates were hardly a ragtag bunch of progressives looking to fund a popular program with a creative stream of soda cash. They raised, spent and otherwise took in $1.88 million for the campaign. That’s $224 per vote.


While Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales had his name pinned to the effort politically, the unsuccessful attempt to pass the tax was a resounding financial defeat for one man: former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire businessman paid for 78 percent of the Pre-K for Santa Fe campaign, donating $695,000 in cash. Including in-kind donations for things like research and media buys, Bloomberg spent $1.47 million.


Wechsler and fellow consultant Eli Il Yong Lee, principals of a company they named SWEL—using an acronym of their initials—were paid just shy of $62,000 over two months, according to finance reports. SWEL also took in about $19,000 for what appear to be expenses related to the campaign.


Lee has a long past in progressive politics, and groups he’s affiliated with were part of the campaign’s inner circle. Lee and Wechsler co-founded Quadrant Metrics, a company that measures impact of spending by groups like unions and nonprofits. Wechsler tells SFR that Quadrant and SWEL are the same company. Pre-K for Santa Fe cut checks for more than $7,000 to Quadrant, some of which appears to be reimbursement for campaign expenses.


Sara Berger, an Albuquerque attorney listed as the organizer of Quadrant, was paid more than $2,700 by Pre-K for Santa Fe. Wechsler says Berger is the attorney for Quadrant and SWEL.


The Center for Civic Policy, a group for which Lee was the CEO from 2006 to 2010, was paid for $327 for office supplies. A related nonprofit, the Center for Civic Action, earned about $9,300 for data management.

Smart Progress New Mexico, a locally based anti-tax group, took in a few hundred dollars and finished the campaign having raised $13,525. Founder Loveless Johnson III asked the Santa Fe City Council at its May 10 meeting for a chance to discuss options for expanding early childhood education.

 

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