Sunday, May 18, 2008

Presidential race turned into $1 milllion mini-boom for Austin

By Jason Embry - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF - Sunday, May 18, 2008

Austin businesses from Tex-Mex restaurants to high-end hotels cashed in when the Democratic presidential primary swung through Texas this year.

A few Austin-based consultants and fundraisers stand to benefit any time there's a presidential election. But March's unusually active Texas primary allowed a whole new class of businesses to reap the rewards.

All told, the three remaining candidates from the major parties have spent more than $1.2 million at businesses since the campaign began in January 2007.

Most of the money went to hotels, production companies, event sites and political professionals such as fundraisers and television ad buyers.

The spending reports also reflect the on-the-fly nature of the campaigns, as workers dropped money at Home Depot, Whole Foods and Party Pig Superstore for office supplies or event materials. Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign spent $12 at Wal-Mart, the company some Democrats love to hate.

Sen. Barack Obama was the biggest spender, dropping almost $700,000 directly with Austin businesses, while fellow Democrat Clinton spent about $400,000. Sen. John McCain, who had all but wrapped up the Republican nomination by the March 4 Texas primaries, spent about $200,000.

Those totals include only direct payments to businesses, not salaries or reimbursements paid to campaign workers here. Also, advertising time on Austin television stations probably was paid through some out-of-town firms that then cut checks to the Austin stations.

For all of 2007 and the first month of this year, Texas was largely a place where presidential candidates flew in to raise money and, on occasion, hold public events or news conferences. But when the Democratic primary continued past Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, the Texas primaries became crucial. Or so it seemed at the time.

The general election isn't likely to be as competitive in Texas, so Austin businesses might not see as much of a campaign impact this fall.

According to campaign reports filed to the Federal Election Commission in late April, all of the remaining campaigns used numerous hotels around Austin. The Obama campaign was most loyal to the Hyatt on Barton Springs Road.

But the Obama campaign also spent more than $10,000 at the lush Barton Creek Resort and Spa, and the senator himself stayed there some of the time, said Obama campaign spokesman Josh Earnest.

"Some of it may have had to do with logistical concerns, and it may have had something to do with availability," Earnest said. "Between staff, Secret Service and the traveling press corps, it's more convenient if they can stay where he does."

The Clinton campaign stayed at hotels all over Austin, including the Four Seasons, the Radisson on Cesar Chavez Street and the Doubletree just east of Interstate 35 downtown.

Hotels weren't the only beneficiaries. The Obama campaign paid more than $200,000 for staging, sound and lighting to Austin-based C3 Presents, which produces the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Lollapalooza.

Earnest, the Obama spokesman, said finding local businesses to help with campaign events was often up to the advance staff, the team of campaign workers who arrive in a town early to plan an event.

"Many of them had done events in Austin before, and so they had personal relationships," Earnest said.

It's personal relationships that made Bill Records of Austin the go-to guy for Republicans who want their picture taken while campaigning in Texas.

More than a decade ago, Records met political consultant Karl Rove, whose wife Records had worked with on some commercial photography projects. Rove asked him if he wanted to shoot photos for a client who was running for governor. Records signed up and became George W. Bush's personal photographer during Bush's run as Texas governor.

Through the Bush team, Records met other Republican candidates and was hired to shoot photos of them when they came through Texas for Web sites, campaign push cards and the like.

During the current presidential campaign, he worked for McCain, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani when they came to Texas to campaign.

"It's not comfortable work," Records said. "You're on the go, and you have to wear a coat and tie, and it's 104 degrees, and you're jumping in and out of airplanes. But those nice little gigs at the Four Seasons are nice. And you're watching history being made."

The wonders of Mexican food in Austin apparently weren't lost on the presidential campaign workers.

El Sol y La Luna, a Mexican eatery on South Congress Avenue, picked up $300 from the Clinton campaign and $100 from Obama's camp.

Nilda de la Llata, one of the restaurant's owners, said she catered a Clinton fundraiser with "Ugly Betty" star America Ferrera at a friend's house, while a group with the Obama campaign, including comedian George Lopez, came in for lunch one day.

"My name always pops up when people are in need of something quick," she said.

Perhaps the best thing de la Llata can do for politicians is promote them on the El Sol marquee, as she sometimes does for local candidates. Although she said she will support the Democratic nominee, neither candidate made the marquee during the hot Texas primary.

"I couldn't," de la Llata said. "I had too many friends on both sides."
Read more in the Austin American Statesman

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