Report: Kenney Staff Told Activists to “Corner” Anti–Soda Tax Councilwoman

Top staff members reportedly directed activists to pressure councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez into publicly supporting the tax, which was passed in June.

Maria Quinones-Sanchez | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Maria Quinones-Sanchez | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Some of Mayor Jim Kenney‘s top staffers suggested that a group of activists “corner” Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez at a public event earlier this year to get her to state support for his administration’s soda tax, according to a report from City&State.

According to emails obtained by City&State reporter Ryan Briggs Kenney chief of staff Jane Slusser directed protesters from ACTION United, a group affiliated with Philadelphians for a Fair Future, to pressure Sánchez into signing a pledge not to take funding from anti–soda tax beverage industry figures. PFF, which was instrumental in Kenney’s soda-tax victory, is a dark-money nonprofit, meaning it can collect an unlimited amount of funds without needing to disclose its biggest donors – though it eventually did.

“Have we made any progress on getting them to deliver statement to Maria to pledge not to take soda $$?” Slusser reportedly wrote to pro–soda tax PFF consultant Jessie Bradley. “There is an event tomorrow where we know she’ll be and could corner her out in front with cameras.”

Sánchez was the only Democrat of just four City Council members who voted against the 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax in June; the others were Republicans David Oh, Brian O’Neill, and Al Taubenberger. The now-passed levy will fund pre-K, community schools, and park and recreation systems, but Sánchez was a prominent opponent because, she said, it would hurt the many small bodegas in her high-poverty district in the Northeast, which is also home to a Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Slusser reportedly said in emails that Kenney staffer Vaughn Ross had compiled a list of all City Council members who had accepted campaign donations from the beverage industry, including Sánchez.

“I honestly don’t remember if it looks like more or less compared to other members,” Slusser wrote of the $20,000 in donations from beverage industry figures Ross linked to Sánchez, according to City&State. Slusser then wrote that City Council president Darrell Clarke, who was also opposed to the tax, “probably has 3x this.”

ACTION activists never did confront Sánchez at the press conference discussed in the email, largely due to a delay in obtaining the spreadsheet Vaughn compiled, City&State reports. They did accost her a week later in her office, but the meeting didn’t change her mind.

Sánchez was reportedly “livid” when she found out about the scheme. “This incident goes beyond the pale,” Sánchez told City&State. “It was manufactured by immature campaign operatives given free rein to engage in inappropriate stunts. It should go without saying that ambushing a councilmember is unacceptable.”

Kenney spokesperson Lauren Hitt, who was included in the email exchanges, said the actions of Kenney’s staffers pale in comparison to the beverage industry’s lobbying efforts.

“After the Councilwoman declared her opposition to the tax in a public rally outside City Hall, we worked with ACTION United on a pledge asking her not to take donations from the soda industry,” Hitt told the publication. “It’s an ask we would have made directly if we didn’t think it would have been dismissed by the media as just part of the back and forth … over the soda tax.”

Hitt reportedly said protestors were not paid and that no one had told Kenney about the arrangement.

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