City Controller Alan Butkovitz had a conversation with the American Beverage Association eight weeks before the May 16 primary election that could prove predictive since he just lost his bid for a fourth term.
Butkovitz met with the group on March 22 to talk about how the city collects and reports money raised since January by the “sweetened-beverage tax," passed last June by City Council at Mayor Kenney’s urging.
Butkovitz said he framed the tax, opposed by the ABA, as not just damaging to consumers and employees of beverage companies, but also as a threat to food stores operating on thin profit margins in poor neighborhoods.
“I think the city’s recent approach of cherry-picking particular industries and then taxing them out of existence is a self-defeating and unfair approach,” Butkovitz said last week.
Butkovitz, who was defeated by Rebecca Rhynhart in the Democratic primary, says he plans to remain “outspoken” when he leaves office in early January.
“And, as I said on election night, I am by no means giving up on politics,” he said. “And, actually, my punch line in my concession speech is: No elected official’s job in Philadelphia is safe until I figure out what my next move is.”
Let’s pause here to look at some math and recent history.
The American Beverage Association has reported spending $12.8 million in 15 months, from January 2016 to March 31, lobbying in Philadelphia against the 1.5-cent-an-ounce tax on sugary and diet beverages, which pays for prekindergarten and other city programs.
Super PACs, political action committees that operate independently of candidates and campaigns, can spend above and beyond the city’s political contribution limits.
A Super PAC spent $1.45 million to support Larry Krasner, who just won the Democratic primary for district attorney.
Two Super PACs spent nearly $12 million to support two candidates, Kenney and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, in the 2015 Democratic primary for mayor.
Could the ABA be considering a Super PAC to help challenge Kenney in the 2019 primary?
“All our energies right now are focused on educating Philadelphia’s elected officials about the destructive impacts of a tax that is costing Philadelphia jobs and raising prices for working families,” said Anthony Campisi, a spokesman for the ABA-funded Ax the Philly Bev Tax coalition.
Marty O’Rourke, a spokesman for Kenney’s political action committee, said the mayor has heard no rumors about a Super PAC-supported 2019 challenger.
“The beverage people are going to do whatever they’re going to do,” he said with a shrug.
Butkovitz told me he advised the ABA in March that "they look like they’re focusing on a commercial campaign and that the Kenney administration is focusing on a political campaign of demonizing soda.”
He let out a hearty laugh when I asked whether the ABA seemed receptive to his ideas.
“Oh, yes,” he exclaimed.
He was less forthcoming when asked whether he spoke to the group about a mayoral bid.
“I think that’s about as far as I want to go,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, said last week that he heard Butkovitz, who considered a run for mayor in 2015 but stayed out of the race, has a renewed interest in the office. Brady hadn’t heard that Butkovitz has been talking to the ABA.
“I guess that would be the way to go,” Brady said. “You could really tap a resource there.”