A non-profit organization is calling out Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, for ending his pledge to reject campaign donations from tobacco companies.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network routinely asks candidates for statewide and legislative offices to decline any campaign contributions from tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, to reduce the cigarette-makers' influence over elected officials. The pledge has no bearing on financial support to independent expenditure committees that support candidates.
Cooper signed the pledge during his first run for the Assembly in 2014. He did not report accepting tobacco money until he took a $4,400 donation from Philip Morris for his re-election campaign in March.
"We want people to know that he broke his promise not only to cancer advocates, but to voters in his district," said Tim Gibbs, senior director of government relations for the cancer action network. "It's really sort of unprecedented. We’ve been doing this for years and we were very surprised that someone would want to back out of a promise."
Skyler Wonnacott, a spokesman for Cooper, initially said the lawmaker didn't realize the pledge was indefinite.
Gibbs said his organization asks politicians to sign the pledge each time they run for a new office and believes they will remain committed to the policy unless campaign filings show otherwise.
"Cooper accepts money from all sorts of industries, unions," Wonnacott said in an interview early Friday. "Just because you’re getting a campaign donation doesn’t mean that you’re beholden to those people ever. I think he’s now taken maybe one check from the tobacco industry over the last four years."
Wonnacott described Cooper as a strong advocate for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and pointed to legislation he authored to classify electronic cigarettes as tobacco products in 2015.
Wonnacott followed up later and said Cooper kept the money "after being threatened by ACSAN" and decided to use the cash to sponsor events for underserved residents in South Sacramento.
Gibbs said his organization reached out to Cooper's office for clarity after Philip Morris first reported a $4,400 donation to the lawmaker in June 2017. No one responded until early this year when Gibbs notified Cooper's team that he intended to write a press release calling out the lawmaker for the donation, Gibbs said.
Gibbs said Cooper's office told him the 2017 check was never cashed. It was not reported on Cooper's campaign filings, either.
The non-profit reached out again after Cooper reported the 2018 donation and Gibbs told them he planned another round of media outreach related to the anti-tobacco campaign, he said.
"I would dispute their characterization as a threat when we…were giving them the benefit of the doubt and a chance to respond," Gibbs said. He described a "cordial" meeting with Cooper this year over the latest donation.
So far, 18 candidates for statewide office and more than 50 candidates for legislative offices have accepted the challenge during the 2018 election cycle, according to Gibbs.
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