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Execs Open Their Wallets for Political Allies

Published October 2, 2009


Trek president John Burke wanted to say thanks to the industry’s leading advocate in Congress, Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar. So he gathered 400 industry members—most of them Trek retailers from across the country—and asked them to pony up $100 a head for Oberstar’s campaign.

Then, for good measure, he got Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle to drop in.

“We call this a thank you,” Burke told the audience at the August fundraiser, which took place during Trek’s dealer product launch. “I know what he’s done and I don’t think we’ve said thank you.”

Whether it’s staging a 400-person reception for Oberstar, a more intimate fundraiser for Oregon Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer, or a television-friendly helmet giveaway in Detroit with a Republican congresswoman who supports bike paths, the industry is becoming politically savvy.

But it all starts with money. And in the past five years, the industry has gone from a zero presence to a consistent—if small—financial stake in political campaigns through the Bikes Belong Political Action Committee.

Known as BikesPAC, the committee has donated more than $126,500 to candidates since its founding in 2002. The PAC contributed a record $53,500 during the 2007-2008 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Underwriting BikesPAC is a core group of executives representing suppliers, distributors and retailers. (Corporations are not allowed to contribute directly to PACs.) Many of these executives also have written personal checks totaling tens of thousands of dollars in support of individual candidates.

Some of that support has been at the highest levels: F.K. Day, vice president of SRAM, was an elite fundraiser for the Obama presidential campaign. Day and his wife, Leah, raised more than $150,000 last year and hosted an industry fundraiser for Obama at their Chicago home. The Obama campaign identified Day as one of its “bundlers,” or fundraisers who gather contributions from several people and deliver them in “bundles.”

For the industry, the return on its investment has been dramatic, officials say. Federal funding for cycling infrastructure reached an all-time high of $1.4 billion this year—roughly double its previous high, said Tim Blumenthal, Bikes Belong’s executive director. Much of that increase was due to stimulus legislation.

More important, lawmakers are paying attention to cycling.

The National Bike Summit, when the industry gathers in Washington, D.C. to meet with members of Congress, reflects this evolution, Burke said. The summit’s early years were “more of a circus,” he said. “We were few in numbers and not well organized. No one really took us seriously.”

No longer.

“Today, we get a great reception because we’ve been at it awhile, because we have a good organization, because we have good relationships, and because we have a cause that people care about,” Burke added.

To track the industry’s involvement in political campaigns, Bicycle Retailer examined more than 500 federal, state and local campaign contributions, dating to 1997, from industry employees and from BikesPAC.

(Disclosure: This writer contributed $1,500 to the Obama campaign last year. Bicycle Retailer publisher Marc Sani gave $500.)

Making campaign contributions is no guarantee that an industry receives something in return, Blumenthal said. “What you get is respect and recognition and the opportunity to make your case. That is the game.”

Bike-Partisan. BikesPAC tries to maintain a roughly 50-50 division between contributions to Democrats and Republicans. Blumenthal calls it “bike-partisanship.”

“We need to develop stronger, deeper ties with Republican senators and Republican representatives,” Blumenthal said. “Frankly, bicycling has had more Democratic support in Congress than Republican, and that’s finally changed.”

Bikes Belong’s Washington lobbyist, the TCH Group, has longtime ties to Republican politicians. Founder Mike Tongour was staff director for former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.

Key Republicans who have received contributions from BikesPAC include Wisconsin Rep. Tom Petri, a member of the house transportation and infrastructure committee; Florida Rep. John Mica, minority leader of the committee; Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe; and former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman.

This bipartisan stance sets BikesPAC apart from the overall industry, which leans Democratic in its campaign contributions. However, Blumenthal said the last election cycle was an exception as the PAC tilted to the Democrats.

A big reason for the shift was a $10,000 contribution to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which BikesPAC made at the request of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

“That was the biggest check that we ever wrote,” Blumenthal said. But it paid an important dividend: Blumenthal attended a small breakfast with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

“I got to spend some good time with Pelosi,” Blumenthal said, adding that he discussed cycling’s role in climate change legislation with her.

Oberstar’s Challenge. Next to Obama, Oberstar and Blumenauer have been the top recipients of industry contributions.

The bike industry has contributed $36,450 to Oberstar and $28,450 to Blumenauer, not including proceeds from the August fundraisers.

The support is no surprise, as the two men are the industry’s biggest supporters in Congress, Blumenthal said. It was Oberstar, in fact, who urged the industry to get involved.

At the Trek event, Oberstar said he called Burke in 1997 when a budgetary measure to safeguard funding for infrastructure was running into some opposition.

“I told him, ‘I need you here in Washington. We need your voice. We want a firewall, a higher level of funding for cycling projects,’” Oberstar recalled. Burke pledged $100,000 from Trek to finance a lobbying campaign if the rest of the industry matched it, which they did. Oberstar said that was a turning point for industry involvement in Washington, D.C.

At the National Bike Summit five years ago, Oberstar urged Bikes Belong to create a PAC. “I said, ‘Where’s your PAC?” Oberstar said. “I said, ‘look, they’ll eat you for lunch. The truckers, they put $4 million to $5 million into campaigns. You need a structure.’”

Oberstar’s speech inspired four participants at the summit—Chris Fortune of Saris, Jay Graves of Bike Gallery, Chris Kegel of Wheel and Sprocket, and Bill Fry, then of Bell Sports. Over dinner that night, Graves recalled, the four pledged $2,500 each as seed money for BikesPAC, which had been set up in 2002 but had lain dormant for two years.

“I felt like I needed to support the guys who were supporting my business,” Graves said. “My business has grown significantly over the past 15 years in direct proportion with what local politicians and national politics have done to find money for [cycling] facilities.”

Giving ’Til it Helps. Graves, in fact, has contributed nearly $20,000 to BikesPAC and individual candidates since 1997, including $9,600 to Blumenauer. He credits Blumenauer, a former Portland city councilor, for helping make Portland the most bike-friendly city in America—giving his retail stores a huge boost in the process.

Burke, who has given more than $50,000 to candidates, views campaign contributions as a form of bicycle advocacy, of which he is a tireless promoter.

“The bicycle business has given me much. My payback is to do my part to create a bicycle-friendly America,” he said. “Whether that is getting on a plane and going off to Portland [to attend a Blumenauer fundraiser], or giving speeches here, there and everywhere, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Saris’ Chris Fortune, who has given more than $19,000 to candidates since 1998, said it’s essential that the industry support state and local candidates because they have a big say in how federal funds are used.

“Federally, we have proven that we can get the funds, but clearly the battle is at the state and local level,” Fortune said. “It’s activating consumers in local markets. Bike dealers should be the key. They should be the center for the cycling community, to pull together local politicians to understand what we are asking for, what the needs are, and how they can help us achieve them.”

By having a financial stake in the political process, Fortune said, the industry is no longer on the outside.

“They know we’re watching,” he said. “If politicians are taking a position against the interests of bicycling and Bikes Belong, we will mobilize to ensure that the voice of the cyclists is heard.”

(Lynette Carpiet contributed to this report.)

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