When Tyler Muench first stepped to the podium at a Prince William Board of County Supervisors meeting in February, announcing his affiliation with Americans for Prosperity, a few eyebrows shot up in the sparse board room crowd.
Among political junkies, at least, the group is famous for its role in channeling the anger of the “tea party” movement into political opposition to a variety of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative priorities. And to Democrats, any mention of Americans for Prosperity likely conjures visions of the group’s billionaire backers: Charles and David Koch, a pair of chemical and petroleum magnates turned conservative mega-donors.
But Muench didn’t come to Woodbridge to discuss one of the issues his group traditionally focuses on, like tax rates or healthcare. Instead, he came to rail against the county’s plans to help the Potomac Nationals build a new minor league baseball stadium.
Though county supervisors never intended to follow the lead of other localities around the country and directly subsidize the construction of the stadium, the board’s nascent plan to essentially loan the team the $35 million it needed to build a new home still attracted the group’s attention.
“Corporate welfare is something that we’re really concerned about, and public stadium subsidies are a really good example of that,” said Muench, the group’s senior field director for Northern Virginia. “The first meeting I showed up to, when I introduced myself, someone immediately came up to me, just a private citizen, said ‘Thank God, you’re here, we need your help with this.’”
Muench proceeded to help the organization, commonly known as AFP, lead a series of advocacy efforts out of its Woodbridge office designed to defeat the stadium deal. While a variety of factors surely contributed to the current standstill in negotiations over keeping the team in Prince William, it’s impossible to discount AFP’s role in shaping the debate around the project over the last few months.
According to interviews and email correspondence released to InsideNoVa through a public records request, the group mounted a series of ad campaigns through robocalls and online advertising to turn public opinion against the project, and AFP staffers constantly lobbied supervisors already opposed to the deal to shore up their positions.
Muench pull quote
‘This is not a one-off. We’re here to stay.’ —Tyler Muench, AFP senior field director for Northern Virginia
Now, as the November election nears, AFP is also backing a series of direct mail advertisements promoting Republican incumbents in the House of Delegates in the county.
But the group’s focus on Prince William has made county Democrats intensely suspicious of its influence, and provided a useful boogeyman for the party’s House candidates to fundraise against.
“The Koch brothers want to control Virginia from Wichita, Kansas,” said Harry Wiggins, chair of the county’s Democratic committee, in an allusion to the Kochs’ home state. “They want to influence elections in bellwether counties like Prince William. So if they take over the county, they’ll take over the state.”
LOBBYING THE BOARD
Muench disputed Wiggins’ characterization of the group, asserting that “we’re not some shadow organization controlled from Kansas” and that they are largely driven by grassroots activists. Indeed, he said it was an alert from AFP activists in Prince William that even brought his attention to the stadium project in the first place.
Muench first started speaking at supervisors’ meetings in late February to oppose the project. Emails from supervisors and staff show that the group began communicating with Supervisor Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan, as early as March 15.
While Muench said the group has had an office off Smoketown Road in Woodbridge since 2015, both supporters and detractors of the deal said this represented the first time they ever heard from AFP on any county issue.
“It sort of surprised to hear from a national-level advocacy group at all,” said Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles.
But Muench said AFP has intervened in a variety of stadium fights around the country, even at the local level. Even though the county would have merely issued bonds and built the new facility, giving the P-Nats 30 years to pay back that amount rather than directly subsidizing its construction, Muench still felt sufficiently concerned about the project’s risks to taxpayers that he wanted AFP to get involved.
“People aren’t always aware of what’s happened elsewhere,” Muench said.
Muench said his primary goal was “education,” and emails show he sent studies and articles to supervisors detailing how the economic benefits of sports stadiums often fail to outweigh public investment in the buildings.
In particular, AFP focused on the four supervisors who most vocally expressed reservations about the stadium — Anderson; Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac; Pete Candland, R-Gainesville; and Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville. Emails reveal the group also orchestrated a series of conversations with Anderson and an aide to Candland through late July, and Nohe says he even sat down briefly with Muench.
“I’d already read every scrap of paper I could about the stadium before I ever heard from them,” Anderson said. “But AFP personnel were still helpful in that process, because they’ve seen this all over the country.”
But the group did more than simply lobby supervisors. Muench said AFP paid for a series of robocalls and Facebook advertisements, alternately urging county residents to contact their supervisors about the stadium deal or thanking any supervisor who voted to oppose the arrangement.
On June 2, in particular, Muench even sent a Candland aide the script of a proposed robocall that was aimed at encouraging people to show up to a June 20 meeting to support Candland’s proposal to send the deal to a ballot referendum. That measure failed on a 4-4 tie, amid team owner Art Silber’s assertions that the delay involved with a referendum would kill any potential deal.
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It was those robocalls that particularly frustrated stadium supporters like Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge. He noted that some of the calls claimed that the stadium would be paid for with taxpayer money and cost a total of $72 million. Recordings of calls released through InsideNoVa’s public records request confirms that assertion.
“I have no idea where they got $72 million, and the mortgage is paid for by the team, not taxpayers,” Principi said. “You can have your own spin, but don’t get the facts wrong, and that was the message I had to carry to them over and over again.”
But Muench said that the amount takes into account the money the state Department of Transportation would use to build a parking garage adjacent to the stadium, and noted that the county was set to spend millions to prepare the stadium site for construction.
Yet the group’s influence in the county seems to extend beyond just any discussion of the stadium.
Over the last few months, AFP has sent a series of direct mail pieces applauding Prince William area lawmakers like Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th District, and Del. Rich Anderson, R-51st District (who’s also the Occoquan supervisor’s husband).
Rather than supporting their re-election bids directly, the group’s nonprofit status means they can merely support certain lawmakers for voting a certain way. In Marshall and Anderson’s cases, the mailers laud them for supporting a bill to create a system to let parents of special needs students use state funds to help their kids attend private schools.
“We can’t be all stick, we need to be carrot, too,” said Lorenz Isidro, an AFP spokesman.
But Anderson said he only got word about the mailers from friends and neighbors, and he said he needed to look up AFP online to learn anything about them.
“Obviously I’m down as a conservative, and they’re a conservative group,” he said. “To be quite honest, I don’t know much about them.”
But emails show that AFP still engaged with both Andersons on some level — Muench invited them to speak at a July 10 event in Woodbridge laying out the group’s 2018 legislative priorities, and they both accepted.
“They wanted me to say a few words at their event,” Ruth Anderson said. “And they talked about how they want to encourage private enterprise, and I can’t disagree with that.”
Yet House Democrats don’t view the invitation quite so innocently, highlighting AFP’s consistent opposition to Obama’s Affordable Care Act around the country.
“Rich Anderson is so passionate about Americans for Prosperity’s positions that he even took the stage at their meeting,” said Katie Baker, spokeswoman for the Virginia House Democratic Caucus. “I’m sure his constituents would love to hear what he said while he stood firmly with a group that works to strip health care from millions of Virginians.”
Going forward, Principi wonders how, if at all, AFP might get involved in other county debates as there is no other movement on the P-Nats’ stadium. Muench said he isn’t tracking anything just yet, but he won’t be afraid to jump back in if his activists flag something for him.
“This is not a one-off,” Muench said. “We’re here to stay.”
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