A political action committee partly backed by an affiliate of tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA is helping to promote the reelection bid of Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez and two measures to change L.A.’s election date, according to city records.
The Sacramento-based committee, Keep CA Strong, informed the City Ethics Commission last week that it had purchased space on a campaign mailer for Martinez and for city charter Amendments 1 and 2, which would align city and school board elections with state and federal contests. The election is Tuesday.
Keep CA Strong reported just two donations so far this year: $25,000 from Anheuser-Busch, which has a plant in Martinez's district, and $12,000 from Virginia-based Altria Client Services. That company is a subsidiary of the tobacco giant Altria Group and provides financial services to another Altria company, Philip Morris USA, whose products include Marlboro, Virginia Slims and other cigarette brands.
Former State Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, running to unseat Martinez, criticized the donation, saying cigarette makers traditionally target low-income neighborhoods like those in Martinez's San Fernando Valley council district. "They clearly are coming after something, and they feel they have an ally in Nury Martinez," she said.
Martinez spokesman Roy Behr dismissed that notion, saying the councilwoman recently voted against the wishes of the tobacco industry. Last year, Martinez and her colleagues voted to ban the use of e-cigarettes in parks, restaurants and most workplaces. "She is no friend of tobacco companies," he said.
The mailer began arriving at voters' homes on Thursday. Behr called the size of the committee's payment -- $875 to reserve one side of a mailer -- "hardly significant." He also said Martinez worked to cut red tape for Anheuser-Busch, helping it add jobs.
Representatives of Keep CA Strong did not respond to requests for comment. Altria spokesman Bill Phelps said his company contributed to Keep CA Strong because it backs candidates who understand issues "important to the business community.”
The payment from Keep CA Strong was reported as an independent expenditure, the kind that is not made in coordination with a candidate and does not have to comply with city contribution limits.
Keep CA Strong said in its filing that it had reserved the space for Martinez on slate mailers sent by Pro Active Democrats, a San Fernando Valley-based political group. The committee provided another $437 to put the two election-date ballot measures on the slate mailer. Noel Barajas, listed as a contact person for the Pro Active Democrats, did not return phone calls from The Times.
Keep CA Strong has some ties to Martinez's husband, political consultant Gerry Guzman. Guzman's onetime boss, former state Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, has raised money for the committee, Behr said. Between September and December, Keep CA Strong paid more than $284,000 to Guzman's firm, G7 Strategy Group, for various political services, according to the secretary of state's website.
Behr, the Martinez spokesman, said that more than 90% of that money went to pay Guzman's vendors, not Guzman himself.
Montañez said she doubted that a campaign committee that paid so much money to Martinez's husband was acting independently of Martinez.
Behr said Martinez had no involvement in the payment from Keep CA Strong.
"Independent committees make their own decisions on who to support," he said in an email. "And as long as there is no coordination with the campaign, it is completely legal for them to communicate with voters."
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