Capitol Alert

Hispanic chamber not opposing tobacco tax hike after all

Campaign ad: No on cigarette tax commercial misleads

Tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have enlisted a Long Beach public school teacher to convince voters to reject a $2 cigarette tax increase on the November ballot. But The Bee finds that it's a stretch to say the initiative “cheats sc
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Tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have enlisted a Long Beach public school teacher to convince voters to reject a $2 cigarette tax increase on the November ballot. But The Bee finds that it's a stretch to say the initiative “cheats sc

In a pair of television ads, tobacco companies say the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce opposes a $2 cigarette tax increase on the November ballot.

But on Thursday the chamber asked the campaign to remove its name from the spots, saying it hasn’t taken a stance on the measure at all, according to Frank Montes, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors.

“It was just a miscommunication, a misunderstanding,” Montes said. “There is no one to blame. It’s one of those things that happened.”

Montes and others at the chamber cast the situation as the organization’s error.

The chamber’s legislative committee recommends positions on measures and other political campaigns to its board of directors, which ultimately determines the organization’s official stance. Montes and others said chamber staff members signed onto the tobacco campaign before the board voted on the measure.

The chamber is often opposed to measures that create additional taxes and supported the tobacco-funded campaign that defeated Proposition 29, a $1 cigarette tax increase on the ballot back in 2012, Montes said.

He assumed the chamber would oppose the new tobacco tax this time around, too. Early on, the legislative committee also expected to recommend that the board oppose the measure and communicated that to deputy director Juan Garcia, according to the co-chairman of the committee, James Duran. Garcia could not be reached for comment.

Acting on what Duran describes as “incomplete information,” Garcia added the organization to the tobacco-funded “No on 56” coalition in August. Montes’ signature appears on a consent form allowing the campaign to use the chamber’s name and logo as an opponent of the measure, according to documents provided by the tobacco campaign.

But Duran said Garcia acted too soon.

“That’s because he’s being seized by all these interest groups that are climbing all over him,” Duran said. “Even the best of us might be compelled to say something too soon.”

Campaigns push hard for endorsements and some groups that were in the tobacco camp on past tax measures have flipped or remained neutral this time around.

The California Chamber of Commerce opposed Proposition 29 and declined to take a stance on Proposition 56. The NAACP opposed a failed tobacco tax increase 10 years ago, stayed out of the fray in 2012 and supports the measure this year.

Duran said campaigns on both sides of Proposition 56 have been seeking the chamber’s support for months. Through its network of smaller local chambers, the chamber represents the interest of more than 800,000 Hispanic business owners in California.

The anti-tax campaign gave the Hispanic chamber a $10,000 civic donation on Sept. 20, according to state filings. The money allowed the campaign to serve as a “bronze level” sponsor for the chamber’s annual convention in Riverside on Sept. 21-23, according to tobacco campaign spokeswoman Beth Miller.

The Hispanic chamber’s legislative committee had rethought its position on the measure by late September. Duran said it was “leaning toward a neutral” stance in an email to the “Yes on 56” campaign on Sept. 29. At that point, the tobacco companies were already airing commercials promoting the chamber’s opposition.

“We are not an organization that wants our agenda defined by any other special interest groups or organizations,” Duran said. “We are defining our own way in the world based on what works for our membership and constituency.”

Duran and other members recognized the flub when they saw the tobacco ads, he said. Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, also sent the chamber a letter saying he was saddened to see the organization listed on the tobacco ad and disappointed it supported an industry that “is preying on our state’s Latino and LGBT communities.”

To correct the error, the chamber asked the tobacco companies to pull its name from the ads pending a board of directors vote on Oct. 21, Montes said.

The tobacco campaign said it’s extremely diligent about obtaining signed legal consent forms for all members of its coalition and this instance is no exception.

“It is unfortunate that some at the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce got ahead of themselves by officially signing our legal release form to use their name without their board’s vote and approval,” said Miller, the spokeswoman. “To the extent possible, we will remove their endorsement from our materials and ads.”

Miller said the campaign used the chamber’s name on ads, mailers, stationery and the “No on 56” website.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

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