PACs poured money into Long Beach’s election; sorting who gave and why is a challenge

As the dust settles on the 2020 general election, one thing is clear in Long Beach: Political action committees, or PACs, and unions raised and spent significant amounts of money to support candidates in this election cycle, financial records show.

A prime illustration of this is District 8, where voters saw a contentious election between a well connected nonprofit executive, Tunua Thrash-Ntuk and an incumbent who held a seat on the Long Beach City Council for over eight years, Al Austin.

Two major political action committees, Working Families for Thrash-Ntuk and Ethical Leadership supporting Austin, spent thousands of dollars on mailers and campaign ads.

A common characteristic of PACs is that it’s difficult to identify who’s behind them—and that’s by design, according to Matt Lesenyie, assistant professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach, who has studied how voters respond to campaign finance disclosures in political advertisements.

As a former legislative aide to a political lobbying firm, Lesenyie recalls receiving messages from people trying to learn more about his clients—and not returning the call.

“You want plausible deniability,” Lesenyie said. “It’s tricky, but that’s on purpose.”

The courts have decided that it’s a constitutional right for political action committees to form and raise money, but Lesenyie said the obscurity of PACs may appeal to some that support a certain cause but would rather not associate themselves with messages the PAC puts out.

Taking a deeper look at the names and organizations behind these PACs can begin to paint a picture of who wanted either candidate to fail or succeed.

Contributions and spending

Finance records show that Austin’s re-election efforts mostly received support from real estate groups, labor unions and notably the Long Beach Police Union, while Thrash-Ntuk’s political ambitions garnered support from a key union that represents hotel workers.

A political action committee called the Apartment Association of California Southern Cities spent over $5,000 in October for social media ads in support of Austin. Although the committee did not respond to requests for comment, its website shows the group aids landlords and property owners with services such as tenant screening and legal counseling.

The California Association of Realtors political action committee donated over $50,000 in support of Austin. The association did not respond to requests for comment.

In September, Kambiz Babaoff, who owns multiple high-profile properties in Downtown, donated to the Ethical Leadership PAC, giving $15,000 in total in support of Austin, according to the City Clerk’s campaign finance portal. Babaoff did not respond for comment.

The development of housing will be a pivotal issue in the coming years for the 8th District as residents continue to raise concerns about increased homelessness. Long Beach council members recently adopted an ordinance for North Long Beach that would re-zone major corridors—such as Atlantic Avenue and Artesia Boulevard—as mixed commercial and residential use, paving the way for real estate development.

While Austin did garner support and endorsements from some labor unions, one major group—Unite Here Local 11—supported Thrash-Ntuk’s campaign with a $50,000 donation. The union supports service workers through housing council and fair-contract negotiations.

A union spokesperson declined to comment.

PAC motives

As Election Day neared, fraudulent text messages and dodgy mailers were sent out to voters in the 8th District, raising questions about the type of influence outside political committees can have on local elections. Both campaigns have claimed outside groups organized to hurt their campaigns.

Austin told the Post at the time that there was a lot of “negative outside intervention” and paid campaigns driving influence in the election, and Thrash-Ntuk’s campaign stated that independent expenditure groups wildly spread misinformation about how she collected contributions to her campaign.

Lesenyie said political action committees rally support and raise funds for candidates because they see value in the political offices at stake.

“The seat is seen as having some worth,” Lesenyie said.

But does their investment pay off?

At the national level, over $1 billion was raised for the 2016 election cycle. This year alone, super political action committees, which are committees that can raise unlimited sums of money, raised over $2 billion with over $1 billion spent in support or opposition of political candidates, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

While big money can fund campaigns to spread certain messages and to sway voters, Lesenyie said candidates who spend the most still often lose.

Large amounts of money doesn’t always win an election. The PAC that supported Thrash-Ntuk spent $192,469.88, records from November show, while the PAC that supported Austin spent $189,389.05, according to records from October.

Editor’s note: John Molina, the primary investor in Pacific6, the parent company of the Long Beach Post, donated $7,500 to a political action committee that supported Al Austin during the primaries.

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.
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