ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- When the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited campaign contributions in the 2010 Citizens United case, most experts and advocates said it would lead to an overwhelming flood of donations from corporations and wealthy individuals.
In the first election cycle since that decision, business money indeed poured into so-called "independent expenditure" groups in Alaska, including $115,000 alone from one business group in Washington, D.C.
But state labor organizations doubled down. Their affiliated Super PAC, the Putting Alaskans First Committee, raised nearly twice the combined amount of the two main business Super PACs operating in the last election, The Accountability Project and We Are Alaska.
"People thought it was going to be 'Katie bar the door' for corporate money, and as it turns out, organized labor has taken advantage of Citizens United to a degree that at least equals, and in a lot of cases exceeds what the business community has," said Scott Hawkins, chairman of The Accountability Project and a businessman with ties to the oil industry. "That's not what the water cooler narrative was."
Vince Beltrami, chairman of Putting Alaskans First Committee and president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for most of the state's labor unions, said the effort was deliberate and sustained.
Unions were expected to maintain their superiority in the "ground game" -- the phone banks and door-to-door, get-out-the-vote effort that requires organization and volunteers. But outspending the company bosses?
"It was a conscious effort to get more active than we've ever been," Beltrami said in a recent interview in his midtown office, which doubles as a studio for making message videos. "Frankly, while we always have had a good ground game, you know the Citizens United decision that allows you to spend unlimited money? We built a Citizens United-compliant organization."
OIL TAX BATTLE
The money from both sides went primarily into the battle for the state Senate, which for the past four years has been tied 10-10 between Republicans and Democrats. The Democrat-dominated bipartisan coalition that ran the Senate last session blocked an oil-tax cut pushed by the Republican governor, Sean Parnell, and the Republican House.
Parnell said the cut was necessary to encourage oil companies to drill in Alaska. The Senate coalition agreed with that goal, but said Parnell's plan would have given away up to $2 billion a year in revenue with no requirement that producers do anything for their windfall.
The issue is of great interest to organized labor in Alaska, which is dominated by state and local public sector employees and by trade groups that benefit from state-fueled construction projects. If a billion dollars or two were to suddenly vanish from the state treasury, the budget crisis could be far-reaching, with unknown but likely effects on state workers, teachers, police and others, not to mention road pavers, steel workers and electricians.
Beltrami said unions feared that a big loss in the Senate would lead to Wisconsin-style legislation in Alaska to gut the rights of organized labor in the public sector.
Some businesses also benefit from capital projects. But one of the state's most active business groups, the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, solidly supported the tax cut. Its members are the contractors, transportation companies, service providers and others doing business with the major oil producers.