When I’m asked, as I often am, why city mayors and other elected officials continue to eagerly throw money at pro sports subsidies even as all evidence shows that it’s a massive waste of public funds, I generally point questioners to this article I wrote for The Nation eight years ago, helpfully titled “Why Do Mayors Love Sports Stadiums?” Among the myriad causes of pols’ decades-long crush on sports spending — bogus economic impact studies, the “edifice complex” that gives precedence to shiny new construction projects that mayors can install an “I built this” plaque on — is the spending on lobbyists and campaign donations that team owners can throw around to encourage local officials to vote their way. It’s usually not a direct quid pro quo, I wrote, but more a way for team owners to gain access to policymakers, allowing the sports barons to supply talking points that will provide cover for anyone who votes their way.
Usually, that is. And then we have cases of campaign spending that doesn’t even pretend to be anything but an outright cash payoff, like that from Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver:
Nine days after the Phoenix City Council approved a controversial deal to renovate the Phoenix Suns home arena, Suns owner Robert Sarver donated $50,000 to a campaign PAC supporting a councilwoman who cast a crucial vote.
That donation to Councilwoman Vania Guevara last month came after she flipped her “no” vote to a “yes,” with Sarver’s pledge to spend $2.6 million on Head Start programs in her district.
Sarver followed up his donation to Guevara with a $100,000 contribution to a firefighter PAC backing the mayoral campaign of Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, also a supporter of the arena deal.
Okay, you’re saying, “outright cash payoff” is a bit strong — maybe Sarver just really liked the cut of Guevara’s and Valenzuela’s respective jibs, and the timing of the donations was just coincidental? (You’re probably not saying that, but it’s possible someone out there might be.) But then check out Sarver’s press statement explaining the donations:
“I care deeply about the future of the city of Phoenix. I am proud to support candidates who have the best interests of the city at heart, particularly those who are committed to job creation and improving education. I gave openly, not behind a veil, and I look forward to the exciting days ahead for our community.”
That’s about as close to “They voted for my project, so I gave them a briefcase full of unmarked twenties” as you’re going to get in the American political process. (“Job creation” is a typical euphemism for “spending money on private development projects”; “improving education,” if that one puzzles you, is likely a reference to Guevara’s acquiescence on the arena project in exchange for $10 million for preschool programs and other goodies.)
There isn’t a whole that can be done about the influence of money in local politics — other than publicly shaming officials who take cash from deep-pocketed interests whose projects they just voted for, which, to its credit, the Arizona Republic did nicely here. And maybe repealing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that opened the door to massive corporate and dark-money election spending. Or, you know, a massive redistribution of wealth such that self-interested individuals can’t pour so much money into electoral races that they swamp the influence of public opinion and small-money citizen donations. Okay, so actually there’s a lot that can be done, but some expressions of concern about “corruption” notwithstanding, most of our elected officials don’t seem all that eager to do much of it — which surely has nothing to do with who’s funding their campaigns, and paying for the lobbyists they hobnob with. It all makes one long for the day when “Oooh, shiny!” is the only political impulse that campaigns to rein in sports subsidies have to overcome.