SeaWorld scored a big win this week when a bill targeting the company was sidelined – but the park’s influence extends far beyond Sacramento.

The company’s political action committee has funneled more than $100,000 to federal candidates and national lobbying groups since 2012. In the same two-year period, the company itself has sunk another $12,500 into the political arms of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, the California Restaurant Association’s local chapter and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Its executives also wrote checks to city politicians including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Council President Todd Gloria totaling more than $5,000.

SeaWorld’s local influence doesn’t just come from donations. SeaWorld San Diego executives serve on the boards of some of the region’s most influential groups. Here are some of the most notable ones.

SeaWorld's local board representation

SeaWorld’s local political and community investments aren’t outside the norm for a company of its size.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

SeaWorld is one of San Diego’s largest employers, and leaders associated with other major businesses across the country also serve on boards and make hefty political donations. Executives from big local companies such as Sempra Energy and Qualcomm, for example, appear on boards and in politicians’ campaign finance disclosures.

But SeaWorld’s outreach may help shape San Diego leaders’ views of the company as it battles continued criticism over its killer whale shows and captive breeding programs, fallout that was launched by the documentary “Blackfish.” Many San Diego politicians and community influencers have been silent about SeaWorld San Diego’s 10 killer whales.

A lot of them have received money from SeaWorld.

Local Donations

Here’s a visual of just how many San Diego-based politicians have received donations from SeaWorld executives, the company itself or its political action committee since 2012.


If not all those faces look familiar, they are: Rep. Susan Davis (D), state Senate candidate George Plescia (R), former state Assembly candidate Mary England (R), House candidate Carl DeMaio (R), Assemblyman Brian Jones (R), Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins (D), Rep. Scott Peters (D), Faulconer (R), Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (R), Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R), Gloria (D), state Sen. Marty Block (D), Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D), City Councilman Scott Sherman (R), former mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher (D), former City Council candidate Ray Ellis (R), former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R), City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf (R) and state Sen. Ben Hueso (D).

SeaWorld has also donated to Gov. Jerry Brown and state Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, who leads the committee that put the so-called “Blackfish” bill – which would have ended killer whale performances and stopped the park’s captive breeding program – on hold earlier this week.

Rendon has said he supports the tabled legislation but others who’ve received SeaWorld-affiliated donations are some of the bill’s most vocal opponents.

Faulconer and Zapf, who both publicly criticized the bill, recently introduced a city resolution to celebrate SeaWorld’s 50th year in San Diego. Each has received more than $1,000 in contributions from company executives since 2010. (Faulconer, who once worked in public relations, also counts the affiliated Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute as a former client.)

And Atkins, who collected $1,000 from SeaWorld President John Reilly last year, recently appeared at the park’s anniversary party. She never said publicly whether she planned to support the “Blackfish” bill.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the only San Diego lawmaker to publicly support the “Blackfish” bill, hasn’t received any donations from the company.

Federal Donations

SeaWorld doesn’t just donate to San Diego-area politicos.

SeaWorld started its federal PAC in 2011, the year after SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau was attacked and killed during an interaction with a killer whale.

It began donating to politicians and lobbying groups about a year later.

A SeaWorld spokesman said the company directs its donations toward officials who represent its employees but also to those who hold key leadership and committee positions and whose voting record aligns with issues significant to the company.

Among the company’s largest first-year checks were $5,000 to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, which is of particular interest to SeaWorld given its long-running dispute over regulatory mandates following Brancheau’s death. Prominent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida also received a hefty donation.

But most of SeaWorld’s recent PAC payouts went to politicians on both sides of the aisle, most of them from states that house SeaWorld parks, and to groups that push tourism interests.

Last year, SeaWorld contributed $5,000 each to the political action committees of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions and the U.S.Travel Association.

The company contributes far more to lawmakers and often drops numerous checks in equivalent amounts on the same day.

In two days this January, SeaWorld contributed $1,000 apiece to 28 federal lawmakers, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Recipients included California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, plus San Diego-area Reps. Susan Davis and Scott Peters. Republican and Democratic lawmakers in other states with SeaWorld parks also received donations.

That $28,000 was more than SeaWorld’s PAC donated in all of 2013.

The latest donations came within months of the debut of “Blackfish” on CNN and Netflix but before the “Blackfish” bill was introduced.

Board Memberships

SeaWorld, like many other big companies, doesn’t just write checks to influencers. Its executives serve on numerous boards with community and business leaders – arrangements that can benefit both parties.

SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz, who serves on both the Fleet Week and Bowl Game Association boards, said the company prioritizes community engagement but many workers seek out board posts on their own.

“For many of us, our involvement in boards and committees reflects the pride we have in our city and is a way to give back and help make San Diego a better place,” Koontz said.

That service can also help build the company’s reputation and even galvanize crucial fans.

The Taxpayers Association, Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corp.  – all of which include a SeaWorld executive on their boards – publicly opposed the “Blackfish” bill. (Corrine Brindley, SeaWorld’s director of government affairs, serves on the Taxpayers Association board and Reilly serves on the latter two.)

The leaders of two of those organizations told Voice of San Diego SeaWorld executives’ positions on their boards didn’t influence their public stances.

“I’d imagine the reason SeaWorld is a member of the Taxpayers Association in the first place is the same reason we opposed AB 2140 – we both support growing the tax base and growing the economy,” said Sean Karafin, the group’s interim president.

EDC chief Mark Cafferty, who traveled to Sacramento this week to testify against the bill, said he asked Reilly to join his group’s executive committee for the tourism industry perspective he could offer.

Cafferty said Reilly’s efforts to help promote the region and invest in youth job programs, for example, have partly shaped his view of SeaWorld.

“I think an awful lot of folks who are critics of SeaWorld have a whole lot less interaction with them than I do,” Cafferty said.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous storyLessons from History on the SeaWorld Debate – and the next in our series – What We Learned About SeaWorld.

    This article relates to: News, Quest, Quest: SeaWorld, SeaWorld, Share

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Muriel subscriber

    SeaWorld is a wonderful jewel in the crown of San Diego. They have been great corporate citizens in our community for almost 50 years. One left-wing activist video by a Hollywood liberal should not be the basis of legislation!  

    cewing2301 subscriber

    yea right, seaworld "cares" only about who they can pay off, I am glad at least TWO have changed their tune to seaworld and KUDOS to Lorena for not taking ONE RED PENNY!!  seaworld, more and more the truth about you comes out as the sleepers awaken.  Common Sense should come into play with these animals, not profit!

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    Nothing new here, this is what anyone, any company; any organization does to protect its interest and promote itself and/or mission. SeaWorld is like many other companies and organizations and uniquely contributes to the local economy through generation of employment and tourism both of which benefit San Diego. SeaWorld is a good corporate citizen and has changed over the years and will continue to do so - as a homegrown San Diegan I wholeheartedly support SeaWorld and hope they are here for years to come. I am more concerned with the small loud minority of fruitcakes that want to control and direct my life, don’t tell me what to eat, drive and wear  . . .

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    It's called "buying buddies" and is an old San Diego tradition. Special interests give politicians big "campaign donations" in return for the politicians doing favors for the special interests. In other arenas this is called "bribes", but in the political world, its just business as usual. And don't expect politicians to ever voluntarily change the system, since they profit from it.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Much harder to influence the courts. Today, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. lost its appeal in US Court of OSHA's ban on waterwork -- e.g. SeaWorld trainers in the water with the orcas, not behind a physical barrier.

    "Abatement is “feasible” when it is “economically andtechnologically capable of being done.” Baroid, 660 F.2d at 447 (citing Am. Textile Mfrs. Inst., Inc. v. Donovan, 452 U.S. 490(1981)). After Ms. Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld required that all trainers work with Tilikum from a minimum distance or behind a barrier, and “waterwork” ceased with all of its killer whales. As in ConAgra, Inc., McMillan Co. Div., 11 BNA OSHC 1141, 1983 WL 23849 (No. 79-1146, 1983), implementing the ordered abatement is feasible because it would involve extending these practices to all killer whales and into the future. See id. at 1145, *5. As the ALJ noted, SeaWorld had not argued the Secretary’s proposed abatement was not economically or technologically feasible and had already implemented abatement for at least one of its killer whales and needed only to apply the same or similar protective contact measures it used with Tilikum to other killer whales.

    "Consequently, the Secretary was not required to specify the precise manner in which abatement should be implemented. That the ALJ subsequently granted SeaWorld’s request for a six-month extension of the abatement deadline, in view of SeaWorld’s difficulty in scheduling two consulting experts, does not undermine the substantial evidence that SeaWorld could feasibly abate the hazard. SeaWorld does not dispute that the Secretary’s abatement measures would materially reduce, if not eliminate, the hazard killer whales pose to its employees during performances. SeaWorld’s use of protective contact with Tilikum, the three-year moratorium on “waterwork” after Ms.

    Brancheau’s death, and repeated temporary cessation of “waterwork” with all killer whales or particular killer whales after other incidents support the finding that these changes were

    feasible and would not fundamentally alter the nature of the trainers’ employment or SeaWorld’s business."

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Much harder to influence the courts. Today, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. lost its appeal in US Court of Appeals of OSHA's ban on "waterwork", or SeaWorld trainers being in the water with the orcas, or not behind a physical barrier. "This is a high-profile case that was argued Nov. 12, 2013, at the Georgetown University Law Center, with SeaWorld's legal team including Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP's Eugene Scalia, son of U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia."

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    This ruling renders moot SeaWorld's open threat to CA Legislators on Tuesday that if AB 2140 enacted, it moves its orcas out of state. They can't do waterwork ANYwhere in U.S. ALSO, that SWE made same argument to this Appeals Court about removing waterwork fundamentally impacting its business model. Court didnt buy it.

    alfredokuba subscriber

    Our fascist government working for corporations.  Is the people who are to blame for they allow the 2 corporate parties to be in power. RepubliCrats! both parties are one and the same. Until people revolt and overthrow this fascist government, things can only continue to worsen.  

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    And of course the face of Bi-partisan when it comes to money.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    When one party dominates the elective body you seek to influence, you WILL contribute to the officials of that party ... in CA, that's Democrats. In Florida, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc's contributions are overwhelmingly to Republicans who control the FL Legislature. Big Business 101.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Martha. You realize

    In the long view you've won.

    Blooms bill amounted to a shot across the bow and the issue was "shelved" not killed.

    Sea world management I would imagine will indeed start to steer their business plan, for San Diego/west coast, away from orca shows.

    More than likely they will move them unless they can figure away to make Sea pens profitable.


    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Giffin: I agree with your assessment. I'm not sure though that this is just animal activists versus Sea World. I think it is more of a case of adjusting a business model to avoid over-reliance on any one element. There are probably plenty of people who don't consider themselves animal activists who might adjust their theme park attendance based on perceptions. Sea World probably should have seen this coming and diversified earlier, but over the past five years or so Sea World was being used by Blackstone as a short term investment vehicle and they were not really focused on the long term. Now that the company is public and Blackstone is exiting, perhaps Sea World management will focus on longer term horizons.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Thank you for pulling back the curtain on SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.'s influence-buying, as another mega-corporation seeking to thwart the changing norms of society. The boards of organizations that SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. executives sit on, and to which SeaWorld contributes money, were the 2 dozen supporters who showed up at the mic in Sacramento on Tuesday to oppose AB 2140, along with SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. management. This paled in comparison to the hundreds of supporters for the bill who traveled from around the state, nation and world to pack the 100-seat hearing room and overflow the adjacent hallway outside. All of them weren't allowed to file through the standing-room only hearing room to the mic to express their support for AB 2140, but over 100 of us inside and outside of the room did.

    As Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee Chair, Anthony Rendon, said -- the purpose of AB 2140 isn't financial nor economic, it is moral and ethical. ALL of the opposition arguments presented by SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. and its dead-enders were financial and economic. History always sides with morality and ethics. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. can delay change, but it can't stop it. The sooner it recognizes this, the sooner it can secure its financial future AND do the moral and ethical thing by the orcas who have given their lives for it.