SeaWorld's Tentacles of Influence
SeaWorld donates significant cash to San Diego-area politicians and serves on several high-profile local boards.
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 political and community investments aren’t outside the norm for a company of its size.
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.
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.
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.
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 story – Lessons from History on the SeaWorld Debate – and the next in our series – What We Learned About SeaWorld.