Last week, Anheuser-Busch, the onetime icon of American beer that was snapped up a year ago by the Brazilian-Belgian international brewing combine InBev, finally unloaded its chain of theme parks — including San Diego’s SeaWorld — to private equity buyer Blackstone Group. The deal was said to be valued at more than $2.5 billion.
In 1992, during its long reign of ownership, Anheuser-Busch successfully pushed special state legislation allowing it to sell hard liquor at the park — which sits on the edge of Mission Bay on land leased from the City of San Diego — expanding the beer-and-wine-only restriction the firm had previously been forced to follow and thereby increasing the rental value of the property to corporate event planners. At the time, Common Cause calculated that the brewer had made $480,000 in legislative campaign contributions over the previous five years, helping lubricate the bill’s passage. The law was signed that July by then–GOP governor Pete Wilson, the former San Diego mayor and U.S. senator who reported owning more than $100,000 of Anheuser-Busch stock inherited by his wife Gayle before he put it into a blind trust upon taking office.
In the years since, Anheuser-Busch has continued to pump big money into state legislative and local campaigns. In October 2008, for instance, company vice president Ann Cooper gave Jan Goldsmith’s San Diego city attorney campaign $320. She had previously given Marti Emerald’s city council campaign $270. SeaWorld general manager Andy Fichthorn also gave Goldsmith $320 and kicked in $270 each to the failed council campaigns of April Boling and Phil Thalheimer and to the campaign of victor Sherri Lightner. On July 10 of this year, Anheuser-Busch contributed $2000 to help retire debt left over from Democrat Marty Block’s run for the assembly.
The company has also frequently employed gifts of SeaWorld tickets to curry favor among incumbent legislators, a trend that continued at least through the third quarter of this year, according to a lobbying report recently filed by the brewer. Recipients included Edward Morley, transportation consultant for the state Senate Republican Caucus’s Office of Policy, who got $195 worth of tickets on July 21. Democratic assemblyman Tony Mendoza of Norwalk picked up admissions worth $370 on July 28. The same day Eric Johnson, consultant to the assembly’s Committee on Governmental Organization, got tickets worth $305. Kerstin Justus, staffer for GOP assemblyman Kevin Jeffries of Murrieta, received $260 in tickets on August 16.
Farther afield, Anheuser-Busch treated Don Wilcox, chief of staff to Democratic senator Gloria Negrete McLeod, to a Red Sox game in Boston on August 12 with tickets worth $420 and gave John Doherty, chief of staff for assembly majority leader Alberto Torrico of San Jose, a round of golf and lunch at the Granite Bay Golf Club on August 12, worth $89.58.
None of the bills lobbied by Anheuser-Busch, which paid Sacramento contract lobbyist Sloat, Higgins, Jensen & Associates a total of $135,000 through the first nine months of the year, were SeaWorld related; they involved beer and recycling.