Al Kamen: Despite financial woes, SeaWorld still awash in political activity

SeaWorld Entertainment has suffered financially since the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which accused the company of mistreating its main attraction: killer whales.

The company last week reported second-quarter losses, its stock plummeted and its Standard & Poor’s credit rating was downgraded. And for the first time publicly, SeaWorld Entertainment attributed its financial woes, at least in part, to the bad publicity from the film.

But even in the face of money trouble, SeaWorld Entertainment is maintaining its political influence. The company’s political action committee is on pace to spend more on campaign contributions this two-year election cycle than it did in 2011 and 2012.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment PAC has given to about 30 Democrats and Republicans in the House and five Senate campaigns: those of John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

In all, the PAC has spent more than $50,000 on campaign contributions this cycle. Last cycle, it spent $53,000 over the two years, according to OpenSecrets.org database and recent FEC filings.

Donors to the PAC are primarily SeaWorld employees.

Still, SeaWorld’s cash hasn’t shielded it from congressional scrutiny. In June, the House passed a bipartisan amendment to an appropriations bill approving $1 million for a scientific study to examine the impact captivity has on marine animals.

“The documentary ‘Blackfish’ spurred a broader public discussion over . . . whether these animals should even be held in captivity,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored the amendment. “I have serious concerns about the psychological and physical harm to orcas and other large marine mammals in captivity.”

SeaWorld, which has a park in San Diego, gave money to California’s two U.S. senators, but Schiff and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored the amendment, are not beneficiaries of the company’s political donations.

The company also has kept up its lobbying pace, spending $220,000 in the second quarter on, among other issues, “matters relating to study of marine mammals.”

Where the magic happens

Speaking of theme parks, several Republican members of Congress invited donors to be a part of their world this campaign cycle.

At least a handful of GOP lawmakers seem to enjoy the company of Mickey and Goofy (probably more than they do their colleagues these days), and they held campaign events at Walt Disney World in Orlando, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets.org.

It’s easy to see the allure of the happiest place on Earth — a weekend at Disney is the perfect excuse to combine a little work with family time. Rub elbows at a political dinner, then take the kid for a ride on Splash Mountain. Golf with executives by day, catch the Magic Kingdom fireworks display with the kiddos at night.

In March, Reps. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.) held a joint event in Orlando that combined baseball spring training and Disney over a long weekend. “Family time” was designated on the invitation.

OpenSecrets notes that Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is a Disney fan, too. His PAC spent nearly $6,000 there this cycle. He also held an event there in 2012 that included a character breakfast (that’s where you eat eggs as Donald Duck makes the rounds). And according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, new House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) also frequents the theme park, spending nearly $10,000 there for two fundraising events last year.

It’s a small world after all: Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) also holds events at Disney, spending more than $25,000 there this cycle, according to OpenSecrets data.

Although Disney chief executive Bob Iger is a major Democratic donor, the Walt Disney political action committee gives only slightly more to Democratic candidates — 57 percent, compared with 43 percent to Republicans. Disney has spent $1.8 million on lobbying so far this year, and spent $3.5 million in 2013.

However, this campaign cycle, Disney did not return the favor to the lawmakers who held events at the theme park. None were among the dozens of candidates who have received Disney PAC money.

Boosting Defense

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has selected a familiar face from his Senate days to be his new right-hand man.

Rexon Ryu will take over as Hagel’s chief of staff at the Pentagon after Labor Day, an administration official tells the Loop. Ryu was deputy chief of staff and senior foreign policy adviser in Hagel’s U.S. Senate office.

Ryu will replace Mark Lippert, whose suitcase is collecting dust waiting for the Senate to confirm his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea. President Obama nominated Lippert in May, but the Senate logjam on nominees has stalled his departure.

Hagel’s new guy has been serving as deputy to U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, running her Washington office.

In a statement, Hagel said, “Rexon is someone I’ve been interested in recruiting to the Pentagon.” And Power said Hagel was “wise to steal him.”

Ryu worked in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration as well. A confidant of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, Ryu got on the bad side of John R. Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Bolton allegedly tried to have him fired.

An apology

Imagine our dismay Tuesday morning when we opened the paper to read a most offensive subhead atop a Loop item about Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and his staff. The copy editor who wrote it — a brilliant and supremely reliable colleague who had a bad day — was attempting to evoke the Texas origins of the secretary and his aides. He has apologized.

We’ve received a barrage of correctly outraged e-mails, the mildest of which was one asking, “Are you people brain dead?” (We’ll take a pass on that question.)

We are duly mortified, chagrined and abashed and apologize to our readers.

— With Colby Itkowitz

Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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