According to campaign finance records, $14 million in campaign money has changed hands in 2013 to date, more than $11 million of it since June, when candidates first became eligible to receive contributions for 2014. (Donors were able to give to political action committees, or PACs, before June.)
Republican candidates have picked up $6.8 million of that cash, while Democrats garnered only $861,000. Political action committees pulled in $6.3 million over the same time period.
The bulk of that money comes from well-monied power players. More than half of the money in the campaign so far — $7.6 million — came in donations of $5,000 or more. That includes itemized cash donations by people, corporations or PACs.
The numbers come from Alabama's new all-digital campaign finance reporting system, which was launched in June.
The state’s top-spending PAC was A-VOTE, an affiliate of the Alabama Education Association, a well-known player in Alabama politics. The biggest corporate spender, state records show, was the Drummond Company, a Birmingham-based coal company that has given $464,000 to PACs and candidates this year.
Lawmakers passed a bill lifting the cap on corporate donations in the last days of the 2013 legislative session, but it’s difficult to tell whether the change increased the amount of corporate donations in Alabama politics. Before the Secretary of State’s office launched its new online reporting system in June, campaign finance reports were filed mostly in paper form and were often incomplete.
The new online system was created as part of a raft of campaign finance reforms passed after Republicans won the Legislature in 2010.
Despite those reforms, The Star found, major donors are still using families of PACs to put distance between themselves and the candidates they fund.
A big spender
The Alabama Education Association remains the biggest kid on the campaign-spending block, despite efforts by Republican lawmakers to shut off its main source of money.
The group’s PAC, A-VOTE, has spent $733,133 so far this year, and has $4.5 million left to spend.
AEA is the state’s largest professional association for teachers, and it’s those teachers who make the group a money powerhouse. Teachers in the state’s public schools can elect to have a portion of their paychecks withheld to donate to the AEA and A-VOTE, and the group collected an average of $191,000 per month in payroll-deduction donations since June.
That may come as a surprise to critics of the AEA, who in 2010 convinced the newly GOP-led Legislature to ban state agencies from authorizing payroll deductions for political organizations. Critics of the practice argued that state resources shouldn’t be devoted to a political purpose; AEA leaders said the ban was an attack specifically on the AEA, designed to reduce its membership and funding.
AEA spokeswoman Amy Marlowe said the payroll deductions are still being made, because an AEA lawsuit against the 2010 bill is still pending in court.
In fact, donations to the group through payroll deduction seem to be up. Records from the years before 2010 are incomplete, but seem to show the organization collecting about $900,000 to $1 million per year in payroll-deducted donations.
Marlowe confirmed that donations are up, but wouldn’t comment on why, citing the pending court case.
“It’s one of those things I can’t talk about,” she said.
Of the A-VOTE money spent so far this year, some went to consultants, for get-out-the-vote efforts and other services — but most of that money went to candidates. That includes donations of $50,000 each to five candidates:
— Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden
— Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence
— Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham
— Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville
— Rep. Todd Greeson, R-Ider
The group also weighed in on Anniston-area races. It put $25,000 behind Democrat Michael Gladden, who is running for the District 29 House seat held by Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden; and it gave $30,000 to Republican Tim Sprayberry, a primary challenger to Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville.
A place at the table
The second-biggest spender so far this year — and the biggest corporate donor — is the Drummond Company, a coal company with mines in Alabama and in Colombia.
Drummond has given $464,000 so far this year, and only a small amount of that money went directly to candidates. Republican Gov. Robert Bentley got $25,000 directly from Drummond. So did Republican Attorney General Luther Strange.
Most of Drummond's money went into a wide range of PACs, with nondescript names such as BIPAC, EDPAC and FAXPAC, in increments of $25,000 or less. Those PACS then donated, often in smaller chunks, to candidates for office.
The Montgomery lobbying firm Fine, Geddie and Associates handled more than half of that money, with $275,000 of Drummond funds going into 11 of its PACs. Those PACs gave $100,000 to Bentley, $30,000 to Strange and $55,000 to House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, among others.
Multiple attempts to reach Drummond officials for comment last week were unsuccessful. Lobbyist Robert Geddie said Drummond doesn’t have a specific piece of legislation it’s concerned about in 2014.
“They really don’t have anything they’re trying to pass,” he said. “They watch a lot of legislation.”
Environmental activists are currently locked in a battle with Drummond over Shepherd’s Bend, an area near the Warrior river. Shepherd Bend LLC, a company owned by members the family that owns Drummond, has plans to mine in the area, though the group Black Warrior Riverkeeper has opposed the plan, saying it will threaten drinking water.
Eva Dillard, staff attorney for the group, said the people making the decisions about Shepherd’s Bend — the Surface Mining Commission and the trustees of the University of Alabama, which owns some of the land where mining is proposed — don’t receive campaign money. But campaign spending, she said, allows Drummond to be heard, in a way that environmental groups are not.
“It gets them a place at the table,” Dillard said. “We don’t always get a place at the table.”
Riverkeeper spokesman Nelson Brooke noted that the Drummond Company may already have profited from a tax incentive, aimed at coal producers, that the Legislature passed in 2011. At the time, he said, the bill was marketed as an effort to bring jobs to Alabama. But coal companies, he said, typically go where the coal is.
“These coal companies, opening these coal mines, are going to produce the jobs anyway,” he said. “So it’s really just a handout.”
Geddie said he couldn’t recall whether Drummond has asked him to lobby for the tax incentive bill.
“We generally lobby for anything they ask us to lobby for,” he said.
Attempts to reach Hubbard for comment on the contributions were unsuccessful.
Rebekah Mason, spokeswoman for Bentley’s campaign, said the campaign is usually aware of the original source of money when it accepts a donation from a PAC.
“There is a due diligence that is done,” she said. Mason said Drummond and other donors give to Bentley largely because they support conservative positions he’s already taken.
"We appreciate the fact that they show support for the governor’s conservative message,” she said.
Clusters of committees
Drummond wasn’t the only contributor to the Fine Geddie PACs. Great Southern Wood Preserving, the company that produces Yellawood treated lumber, gave $275,000 to those PACs in early October, making it one of the top corporate donors in the state.
Great Southern spokesman James Riley said the company's owner, Jimmy Rane, has been involved in politics since the George Wallace years.
Rane is moderately famous as the yellow-clad cowboy in Yellawood's television commercials, and is a member of Auburn University's board of trustees.
The Birmingham-based insurance and financial company Protective Life also gave $66,000 to the Fine Geddie PACs. Attempts to reach officials of the company for comment were unsuccessful.
Fine Geddie isn't the only lobbying firm running clusters of campaign committees. Republicans are typically the biggest recipients of that PAC-filtered money, but at least one donor is willing to spread the love to Democrats.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, operators of casinos in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka, has given $350,000 since June to three PACS run by lobbyist John Teague.
Those PACs — AL PAC, T PAC and SPEED PAC — gave much of their money to Democrats. Sen. Roger Bedford. D-Russellville, led the group with a $20,000 contribution from T PAC, reported on Thursday. Rep. John Rodgers, D-Birmingham, was the second-biggest recipient with $17,000 from the PACs. Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, came in third at $12,000.
Attempts to reach Poarch Creek officials for comment on the PACs were unsuccessful.
John Teague, operator of the PACs, declined comment on them.
"I don't talk about my PACs," he said.
AEA isn't the only big spender powered by employee contributions. The Alabama Power Employees PAC has spent $315,323 so far in the campaign, with $610,822 left at the beginning of this month. The group came in a distant second to A-VOTE among the biggest-spending PACs of the 2014 campaign to date.
Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said the company itself doesn't make donations, as a matter of policy. He said the PAC was solely a creation of the company's employees — who can give directly to the PAC or who can have money taken out of their paychecks.
"The employees' PAC is looking out for the interests of Alabama Power employees, Alabama Power customers and the shareholders," Sznajderman said.
The PAC has made contributions to lawmakers across the political spectrum.
Locally, the the PAC gave $1,000 each to Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston; Rep. Koven L. Brown, R-Jacksonville; Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden; Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford; and Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks. The PAC gave $5,000 each to Sens. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville and Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga.
Sen. Del Marsh, the Republican president pro tem from Anniston, got $10,000. Gov. Robert Bentley got $20,000.
A party function
Former Gov. Bob Riley hasn't been seen on the campaign trail yet, but he's running a PAC that's already involved in the GOP's bid to hang on to its legislative supermajority.
Alabama 2014 PAC has spent $295,570 helping Republican candidates working on re-election. Created in 2011, the group is headed by Robert Riley, according to its paperwork.
"I'm not really involved with that PAC, my dad is," said Riley's son Rob Riley, who works from the same office as the former governor.
While the group has given some cash to candidates — most notably, a one-time gift of $40,000 to the re-election campaign of Sen. Phil Williams of Rainbow City — Alabama 2014 spends most of its money on polling and consulting for GOP candidates around the state. At the beginning of October, the group still had more than $1 million left to spend.
The group has a wide range of corporate donors — from the Drummond coal company to the owner of a Tuscaloosa towing service. They include a cluster of medical- and pharmacy-related interests.
The American Pharmacy Cooperative, a drug-buying group formed by independent pharmacists, gave $20,000 to the PAC last week. The group presented a proposal last week to a state panel looking at ways to reform pharmacy benefits under Alabama Medicaid.
Another of the campaign's top-spending PACs say that so far, very little of its spending has actually gone to campaigns. The Trust Representing Involved Alabama Lawyers, or TRIAL, has spent $212,000 since June.
The group is funded mostly by donations from lawyers and law firms. More than $150,000 of those donations went to the Alabama Association for Justice, or ALAJ, a nonprofit. Officials of the group say that money actually pays for the ALAJ staff who run the TRIAL PAC.
One thing is clear about the early donors of campaign 2014 — they don't care for underdogs.
Attorney General Strange, who is unopposed so far, has collected $914,000 in campaign funds. Bentley, the sitting governor, topped the $2 million mark this month.
Bentley's only announced opponent so far, Republican Stacy Lee George, has $45.
Mason, the Bentley campaign spokeswoman, said that despite the governor’s lead in fundraising, the campaign wasn’t taking anything for granted.
“As my governor likes to say, you always play like you’re 10 points behind,” she said.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.