SPI POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE STARTING SMALL BUT AIMING HIGH

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WASHINGTON — The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s first foray into political fund raising paled in comparison to the cash generated by trade groups for chemicals and competing materials, but SPI officials hope to build on their fledgling efforts.

SPI's political action committee, PlasticsPAC, raised about $10,600 last year, its first, and gave out $8,250 to members of Congress.

That compares with $96,000 spent by the American Forest and Paper Association, $58,500 by the Chemical Manufacturers Association and $18,000 by the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Larger SPI members also have their own PACs, such as Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn., which handed out $89,000 in 1996.

``Obviously at the level of $10,000, that is not enough to be a player,'' said Harry Ussery, PAC treasurer, president of Beacon Plastics Inc. in Greenville, S.C., and SPI vice chairman. ``We feel it will grow significantly.''

The largest contributions, $1,000 each, went to PACs controlled by two Republican heavyweights: Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference, and Rep. Thomas Bliley of Virginia, chairman of the Commerce Committee.

SPI gave money to 19 campaigns, 15 of which won. Several people received $500, including Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., who owns a controlling interest in Plastic Packaging Inc. in Hickory, N.C., and who heads House efforts to revamp the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and Rep. Dan Schaefer, R-Colo., who chairs a key House subcommittee on electric utility deregulation, an important industry issue in this session of Congress.

Lori Anderson, SPI's director of government affairs for economic and international issues and the staff coordinator of the PAC, said SPI ``wasn't seeking to change the world.'' The figures are good for the first year, she said, considering that the association did not start soliciting funds until midsummer and that running the PAC is about 10 percent of her job.

Many people already had committed their political dollars by the time SPI began fund raising, Ussery said. It also solicited money primarily through the mail, ``the worst way to raise money,'' but may step up in-person soliciting at SPI division meetings, Anderson said.

SPI plans to review its PAC and may set fund-raising targets, she said. Similar-sized associations often have PACs with $25,000-$60,000, SPI officials said.

Starting PACs can be expensive, and can require spending three times what you plan to raise initially on expenses such as developing donor lists and promotional materials, said Peter Kennerdal, executive director of the Public Affairs Council. The Washington-based council advises corporate public affairs professionals.

SPI probably spent less than $10,000, although precise figures would be hard to determine, Anderson said.

How money is spent can be just as important as how much a PAC has, Kennerdal said. Small PACs that target money to strong challengers can have more impact than PACs that simply give small amounts of money to a lot of people, he said.

SPI gives to pro-plastics candidates who either have significant plastic manufacturing in their district or who are in influential positions, such as Schaefer, Anderson said. SPI does not avoid putting a small amount of money into a battle, even if its efforts are likely to be dwarfed by others, she said.

Patrick Murphy, Ballenger's chief of staff, said industries are not influential because they have PACs. Ballenger is likely to listen to groups that have pro-business, fiscally conservative philosophies, Murphy said.

Norman Bornstein, director of product safety and regulatory compliance at W.R. Grace & Co.'s Duncan, S.C., office, said PAC money is crucial because it opens doors.

Bornstein said many members of Congress express an attitude of: ``Look, I have a lot of expenses. If my time is full, given the option of someone who says, `I'm ordinary Citizen Joe,' vs. `I'm Citizen Joe and I've given you a couple hundred bucks,' who's going to get through the door?''

Anderson said SPI was effective before the PAC, but with money ``your voice gets heard a little bit more above the din.''

Fund raising for PACs is highly regulated, requiring member companies to sign a form saying they agree to be solicited before they can be asked for money, she said.

Some companies may not want to give to SPI's PAC because they have their own or give donations through ``soft money,'' often larger contributions that are given to political parties ostensibly for party-building activity.

For example, Greenwich, Conn.-based Tenneco Inc.'s PAC gave $656,000 in 1996, according to Federal Election Commission records. The PAC represented all of Tenneco's businesses, which had $6.5 billion in sales. Tenneco Packaging had $950 million in sales last year.

And some companies, such as Palm Beach, Fla.-based W.R. Grace, make sizable soft money contributions.

The company gave about $65,000 to various political party organizations and fund-raisers in the 1995-96 election cycle, even as it was not putting much effort into its PAC, company officials said.