Soft-drink industry has given heavily in Council races

Fizzy logic: Former Mayor John F. Street, a fitness enthusiast who used to say "drink your water," rails against the soda tax in 2010.
Fizzy logic: Former Mayor John F. Street, a fitness enthusiast who used to say "drink your water," rails against the soda tax in 2010. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 05, 2011

Nearly burned in 2010 with the nation's steepest tax on their product, the beverage industry has turned its attention to City Council to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The soft-drink industry gave a total of $95,300 to Council candidates in 2010-11, a nearly 800 percent increase from 2006-07, when the industry contributed just $10,600 to Council.

The 17 Council members will now decide the fate of Mayor Nutter's effort to revive the tax, which died in Council during budget negotiations last year.

Nutter says the tax would raise $80 million toward closing a gap of more than $600 million faced by the Philadelphia School District. On Friday, he stuck to the idea even after the district announced that it could save full-day kindergarten - the chief concern raised by the mayor and Council.

Well before Nutter returned to the soda tax, the industry was laying the political groundwork for another showdown.

Leading the way were Harold and Lynne Honickman and their children, owners of Pepsi and Canada Dry bottling operations in New Jersey that provide nearly 20 percent of the city's soft drinks.

The Honickmans, prolific Rittenhouse Square philanthropists whose interests include the arts, gun control, and homelessness, contributed $63,300 in 2010-11 after giving just $500 to Council races in 2006-07. Their adult children, Shirley Honickman Hahn and Marjorie Honickman, and son-in-law Richard Hahn joined in the giving.

Other contributors the last two years were the state industry's new political action committee, Liberty Bell Beverage PAC, funded mostly by PepsiCo Inc. The PAC contributed $18,000 to 14 candidates.

Coca-Cola PACs and one Coke executive gave a total of $14,000 in 2010-11, showing no contributions in 2007 Council races.

The Liberty Bell Beverage PAC was formed in response to the debate last year over Nutter's push for a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks to close a gap in the city budget.

"The fact is, Mayor Nutter put a target on the back of this industry and dragged them into the political process," said Larry Ceisler, spokesman for a coalition of bottling companies, local businesses, and union members who oppose the soda tax.

The industry has been joined by Local 830 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose members drive the trucks that deliver the drinks. The union's contributions to Council went from $2,950 in the 2007 election to $9,000 this year.

"Teamsters Local 830 is actively involved in the political arena, and, yes, we were involved to make sure candidates were elected or reelected," said Danny Grace, business manager for the union.

The industry is not a newcomer to the city's political fray. The Honickman family supported several mayoral candidates in 2007, giving Nutter $17,000 and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah $25,000.

And despite the disagreement with Nutter, the family has continued to support him, sending $15,600 to his reelection campaign during the last year. Harold and Lynne Honickman gave the maximum individual contribution, $2,600, in both 2010 and 2011.

The Honickman family could not be reached for comment through a spokesman Friday.

Ceisler noted the Honickmans' other interests, specifically gun control. Harold and Lynne Honickman gave Joe Grace, former executive director of CeaseFire PA, a gun-control advocacy group, the maximum of $5,200 between them in March.

The biggest beneficiary of the Honickman largesse was Democrat Darrell L. Clarke, Harold and Lynne Honickman's district councilman and Council's chief gun-control proponent. He received $15,300 in 2010-11.

The city's campaign-finance records show no contributions from the Honickmans to Clarke from 2006 to 2009.

Councilman Bill Green was a close second with $15,200. Clarke and Green are among Nutter's chief rivals on Council, and both opposed the soda tax last year. Green said Friday that he had formed his opposition to the tax before meeting the Honickmans, but that he has developed a friendship and admiration for the family.

"They're involved in most of the civic issues that are important to the city of Philadelphia," Green said.

Clarke did not return messages Friday.

Nutter has also used his fund-raising ability to cement his relationships. Last year, he gave $10,600 to Councilman William K. Greenlee three days before his budget address, in which he proposed the soda tax. Nutter doled out more than $84,000 to Council candidates this year.

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald declined to comment.

Last year's measure was promoted as an antiobesity measure that would cut consumption of sugary drinks and provide $20 million annually in education and other health- and weight-conscious initiatives.

Council substituted a 10 percent property-tax increase and other measures in its place.

There is no antiobesity funding in this year's proposal. The administration received $15 million in federal stimulus money last year to combat obesity by putting fresh food in stores, increasing biking and walking, and running public campaigns to reduce Philadelphians' sweet-drink intake.

In fact, the surge in political contributions to Council candidates is dwarfed by other steps taken by the industry to avoid a reappearance of the soda tax.

In March, the American Beverage Association, the national trade group, announced a $10 million grant to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The grant was to support "clinical care, policy research, and outreach and prevention efforts relating to childhood obesity" over three years, according to the hospital.

Big beverage spent $99 million on lobbying nationally in 2009 and 2010, up from $38 million in 2007 and 2008. The beverage companies last year won repeal of a sugar tax in Washington state and defeated tax proposals in New York, New Mexico, and California.

Ceisler said the industry's contributions "pale in comparison to many industries and many PACS."

"I don't think . . . one can make the argument that political contributions are going to carry the day on this vote," he said. "There are political contributions, and there are political contributions."

But political cash can't hurt, said Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, vice president of the Committee of Seventy government-watchdog organization.

"When you have a campaign-finance system, it certainly diminishes the opportunity for pay-to-play, but diminish doesn't mean evaporate," Kaplan said. "Campaign contributions do matter, especially when you've got an issue this volatile."


Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.

 

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