When Chick-fil-A announced plans for a Seattle store in 2013, mayoral candidates rushed to denounce the chain. Current mayor Ed Murray said he would “push” to keep the company out of town, and then-mayor Mike McGinn called its leader a bigot, due to CEO Dan Cathy’s financial support of groups opposed to same-sex marriage and his statements opposing it.
But a far bigger bankroller of conservative causes—including anti-LGBT groups—already does brisk business in Seattle. His name is Philip Anschutz, and he is the owner of Anschutz Entertainment Group, or AEG. AEG took over local festival Bumbershoot in 2015, which it produces in a multimillion-dollar partnership with the city. The city also handed over large portions of KeyArena’s management to AEG in 2008, splitting the venue’s revenues. That contract was renewed in 2015.
The county is in business with AEG as well, selecting it to manage the Marymoor Park Concert Series in 2013. The company owns prominent concert venues The Showbox and Showbox SoDo, and produces tours and concerts for local artists such as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who gained early fame for their pro-gay marriage anthem “Same Love.”
The highly conservative history of AEG’s 77-year-old owner gained new focus this month when Coachella, a California music festival run by an AEG subsidiary, announced its 2017 lineup. This prompted outlets such as Vice and The Huffington Post to take a fresh look at Anschutz’s record on LGBT rights. “Here’s something to consider before draining your bank account for [Coachella] tickets,” HuffPo cautioned in its piece, published last Thursday.
Equal Rights Washington board president Monisha Harrell says the city must also reconsider its relationship with AEG. “This is very problematic,” says Harrell. “They always say that when you know better, you need to do better. Now that this information is coming into the light, this is one of those times that is true… . If the head of AEG has a record of supporting those who would do harm to our communities and our rights, we should certainly be looking for another partner for Bumbershoot.”
In a Washington Post editorial last summer, Anschutz was named one of the nation’s biggest “enemies of equality for LGBT Americans.” This charge, leveled by national LGBT advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, was made in connection to his foundation’s donations to three groups: the Alliance Defending Freedom, an advocacy group that has compared being LGBT with committing incest and bestiality; the Family Research Council, a think tank that has lobbied against gay rights and argues there is a “disproportionate overlap” between being LGBT and pedophilia; and the National Christian Foundation, a philanthropy network that has donated over $163 million to anti-LGBT organizations.
Tax records for 2014 show the Anschutz Family Foundation has also supported other groups opposed to expanding LGBT rights, as well as organizations that fight environmental protections and oppose labor unions.
Mayor Ed Murray’s spokesperson Benton Strong says “obviously we’re aware” of Anschutz’s political activities, but would not comment further on the city’s partnership with AEG over Bumbershoot—a festival The Seattle Times notes is “meant to reflect the city’s character” and was originally named the Mayor’s Arts Festival.
AEG Vice President of Communications Michael Roth pointed Seattle Weekly toward a statement from Anschutz, which noted that “Recent claims published in the media that I am anti-LGBT are nothing more than fake news—it is all garbage.” The statement added that the Anschutz Family Foundation would pull support from any organization found to be involved in anti-LGBT activity.
Harrell says withdrawing financial support to these groups would be a welcome step, but not enough. “I personally still don’t eat at Chick-fil-A,” Harrell says, despite its withdrawal of support for antigay marriage efforts. “It’s not enough for them to say we don’t do it anymore. They need to repair the harms they’ve done. On issues of ethics, it’s not enough for them to be neutral, or for us as a city to be. Neutrality supports oppression.”
The disconnect between the generally progressive arts and music scene and Anschutz’s political activity is stark. The former oil mogul and his wife donated over $1 million to Republican candidates and PACs in just the last election cycle. Yet artists, and their fans, who wish to avoid supporting Anschutz and AEG may find it difficult. The company’s venues and events account for 61 percent of ticket sales worldwide.
But that doesn’t mean consumers and artists can’t push the company’s founder to reconsider his activities, says Harrell. In cities like Denver, prominent politicians spoke out against Chick-fil-A by questioning whether their “corporate profits [were being] used to fund and fuel discrimination.” Seattle must raise such questions as well, she says.
“I trust the city will continue to be a leader on these things,” she says. “People can vote with their dollars, and our artists and leaders can say something.”