Half way through Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s autobiographical account of a year in the life of an over-the-hill major league pitcher, the protagonist gets traded from the Seattle Pilots to the Houston Astros. Trying to make sense of the trade, Bouton realizes that he was never refunded by the Seattle ownership for the $100 of a new sport drink, Gatorade, that he’d bought for his teammates. He wonders if the stated reasons for his trade were just cover for the fact that the team owner didn’t want to pay for the Gatorade.
Similarly, while the stated reasons for opposing CodeNEXT were neighborhood character and affordability, the money spent opposing the code re-write came from a handful of people (if that many) who would be delighted to see every single-family home in this city replaced with a high-rise as long as they could put a digital billboard on the façade.
The main group that organized the petition-drive, IndyAustin (run by petition-gatherer extraordinaire Linda Curtis) raised $31,607. The contribution list was pretty short. There was $5,000 from Lamar Outdoor Advertising. There was $5,000 from Reagan Advertising. And then there was $12,000 from Texas Solutions Group, the lobbying firm that represents Reagan Advertising. So two-thirds of the money that Curtis raised came from the billboard lobby.
TSG also provided $5,000 of the $12,000 that IndyAustin was loaned (the rest came from Curtis and attorney Fred Lewis).
Now, I want to be clear. Not all of the money came from the billboard lobby. For instance, IndyAustin also got $1,500 from anti-public transit activist Jim Skaggs. Highways and billboards usually find a way to get along.
There was a separate group, Let Us Vote Austin, that was started by Lewis and raised about $9,300. From what I can tell, most of its funds were provided by sincere neighborhood preservationists, not special interests with ulterior motives. Let Us Vote Austin ended up transferring about half of its money to IndyAustin.
The two groups combined to raise $36,313. Of that, $22,000, or 60%, came from billboard interests. If we also take into account the loans, then $27,000 of the $50,000, or 54%, came from billboard interests. It’s only if we count the estimated $12,000 in “in-kind” political contributions that IndyAustin received, mostly in terms of donated labor from political consultant Eric Wetzel and Curtis herself, that we can get to a place where the billboard lobby does not account for the majority of the anti-CodeNEXT groups’ contributions.
Granted, I have no idea where Community Not Commodity, one of the main groups opposing CodeNEXT (and another Lewis group) gets its money. Presumably because CNC only engaged in “issue advocacy” (while the electioneering activities were taken over by the other two groups), CnC did not have to disclose its spending or its donors to the city.
So what was this all about? What do the billboard companies want? Whatever it is, I doubt it will enhance neighborhood character.