Running for the California Assembly from a San Diego city council seat has its advantages, including being up close and personal with the wealthy tenants of a raft of city-owned real estate.
In the case of Democrat Todd Gloria, seeking to replace termed-out current Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, that includes SeaWorld, the controversial aquatic animal operation that wants a permit from the state coastal commission to build a new complex to hold its captive orca killer whales.
The plan has come under fire from animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which asserts on its website, "This project is window-dressing intended to mislead the public into thinking that the orcas are no longer suffering."
Those with considerable interests in the welfare of local commerce have come to the park's defense.
They include the Union-Tribune, now owned by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, which argues in an editorial that SeaWorld is "inspected at least once a year by a federal agency and the park is accredited by two major zoological associations that both demand rigorous standards."
The paper also disses allegations that a SeaWorld employee, now under investigation by the company, had acted as an undercover operative.
"A new backdrop to the controversy — one that is probably no coincidence of timing — is the accusations and counter-accusations of improper corporate espionage by both SeaWorld and PETA. The spy-and-counterspy allegations are entertaining, but wholly irrelevant to the issues before the Coastal Commission."
U-T publisher and ex-investment banker Austin Beutner was the youngest partner of the Blackstone Group, netting him a lucrative return.
Following Beutner's tenure there, Blackstone bought SeaWorld in 2009 for $2.7 billion and took it public in 2013 after loading it with debt.
In January of last year, Blackstone cofounder, chairman, and chief executive Stephen Schwarzman blamed SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Branchea for causing her own death in the jaws of an orca.
SeaWorld "had one safety lapse — interestingly, with a situation where the person involved violated all the safety rules that we had," Schwarzman said during a CNBC interview. The company later said the executive “misspoke.”
According to Gloria’s financial disclosure filing of July 27 covering the first half of this year, Orlando, Florida-based SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Inc. contributed $2500 to his campaign on May 5. On April 8, SeaWorld San Diego park president John T. Reilly gave $2000.
Plenty of other city-related special interests also chipped in, including Sempra Energy ($4200); Developer Morgan D. Oliver ($4200); Cox Communications ($2500); Cush Enterprises’ Stephen Cushman ($1000); his brother Larry ($4200); Ace Parking's Keith Jones ($1000); and Robert Gleason of Evans Hotels ($500), a longtime Gloria backer.
The councilman has been especially friendly to SeaWorld, saying in March of last year during a controversy over whether to adopt a legislative ban on orca shows, "SeaWorld San Diego is a key city partner and a great contributor to our region, and I support its ongoing operation."
In January of this year, a SeaWorld news release quoted Gloria in support of its whale tank effort, called the Blue World Project.
"I am grateful to SeaWorld for the investment in these new facilities," said Gloria's statement. "The changes will enhance the experience for the animals, workers and visitors of the park, and help ensure that SeaWorld remains a hallmark attraction in the city of San Diego."
In addition to its contribution to Gloria, the company has given the 2020 state senate campaign fund of Assembly Speaker Atkins a total of $8400, and Republican Assemblyman Brian Maienschein’s committee $1000, according to its major donor filing with the California secretary of state’s office.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, SeaWorld’s political action committee last year spent a total of $147,915 on contributions to members of Congress; the top recipients, with $5000 each, included Democrats Scott Peters and Susan Davis. Republican Duncan Hunter received the same.