Effort to kill light rail bankrolled by less than a dozen people, records show

By: - August 26, 2019 8:09 am

A Phoenix light rail train at the Central Avenue and Camelback Road station in 2009. Photo by Michael Ruiz | Flickr/CC 2.0

A broad coalition of companies, nonprofit organizations, individuals and political action committees has invested nearly one million dollars in the effort to preserve Phoenix’s long-planned light rail expansion, a sharp contrast with the small group of about 10 well-heeled individuals who have financed the effort to stop any future light rail projects.

Phoenix voters will decide Aug. 27 whether to stamp out light rail expansion projects or keep them on track. Campaign finance data maintained by the City of Phoenix, which include contribution and expenditure transactions through Aug. 10, reveal who has supported each campaign. 

The effort to pass Proposition 105, which, if approved, would halt light rail expansion in Phoenix, has taken in about $459,000 since formally filing organization documents with the city in August 2018, according to the city’s campaign finance database. 

The committee trying to halt light rail in the city, called Building a Better Phoenix, has been financed by a small group of individuals. The group’s single largest contributor, Mel Martin, the owner of Martin’s Auto Museum in north Phoenix, accounts for almost 40% of the money reported by the campaign to halt the rail extensions, with about $187,000 contributed to the effort. 

The city’s campaign finance database shows almost all the rest — about 95% of all the pro-105’s financing — came from only about 10 other individuals. 

In all, only 25 individual contributors have given to the effort. 

One of the contributors to Building a Better Phoenix was Scot Mussi, who runs the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, an influential libertarian lobbying organization that has received money from political groups funded by the Koch brothers. Mussi personally contributed $40,000 to the campaign. As Phoenix New Times reported earlier this month, Mussi was heavily involved in shaping the referendum and the messaging around it.

Building a Better Phoenix has reported spending about $394,000, with the biggest expense being the paid signature-gathering effort that qualified the measure for the ballot, which cost about $176,000. 

On the other side of the referendum, a broad coalition of individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations, with the assistance of a handful of outside political action groups, are financially supporting the effort to preserve the planned light rail projects. 

Phoenix’s campaign finance database shows that the primary committee fighting to keep the light rail expansion plans moving forward, called Invest in PHX, has collected about $931,000 since forming in May. 

The bulk of that, about $774,000, has come from corporations and nonprofit organizations. The single largest contributor, Devil’s Advocate, a nonprofit group whose website describes itself as a political advocate for Arizona State University students, gave $125,000 to Invest in PHX. ASU Enterprise Partners, Arizona State University’s nonprofit foundation, also gave the group $50,000. 

Invest in PHX also got $95,000 from We Build Arizona, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization associated with the Arizona Builders Alliance. When 501(c)(4) organizations, who aren’t required to disclose their donors, spend in elections, they’ve been dubbed “dark money” groups. 

A smattering of other construction companies also gave to the group. 

Business advocacy groups also gave to Invest in PHX: Greater Phoenix Leadership, Inc., a 501(c)(6) trade association that promotes Phoenix-area businesses, gave $75,000 and Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, another 501(c)(6), gave $10,000. 

A who’s who of local, politically active companies have also supported the effort to preserve the light rail plans, from SRP, Cox Communications and Southwest Gas to Banner Health, American Airlines and the local Sierra Club chapter.

Longtime Arizona political players Bert Coleman, of Coleman Dahm Layeux, and Jim Pederson, who served as chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, top the list of individual contributors to Invest in PHX, with $10,000 each. Former Arizona Attorney General and Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard supported the committee with $1,000.

Unions have also given large sums to the effort to defeat Prop. 105. Laborers Pacific Southwest Regional Organizing Coalition – Issues PAC, a California-based political action committee representing unions, gave Invest in PHX $50,000. The Phoenix Fire Fighters Local 493 (FIRE PAC Committee) gave $36,000 and SEIU United Healthcare Workers West Political Issues Committee chipped in $10,000.

The largest portion of Invest in PHX’s spending has gone toward direct mail to voters.

Two other committees have spent money to help defeat Prop. 105, protecting the light rail expansion plans. AARP Arizona for Livable Communities spent about $28,000, and Protect Phoenix, a group advocating for Hispanic voter mobilization, has spent about $61,000.

In addition to voting on the future of light rail, Phoenicians will also cast a vote on Proposition 106, which would dramatically curtail new city spending if public safety pensions are not 90% funded, earmark revenue to pay down pension debt and require city officials to reimburse employer contributions to their pensions. The campaigns have largely been run in tandem, with proponents of Prop. 105 also advocating for Prop. 106, and vice versa.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Evan Wyloge

Evan Wyloge is a California-based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, The Center for Public Integrity, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, the Arizona Capitol Times, Huffington Post, Mashable, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, France24 and Phoenix New Times. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Arizona State University and a bachelor's degree in political science and French from Northern Arizona University.