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Fireworks light up the political landscape

by Jake Harper and Becca Heller

In the spirit of Independence Day, we decided to explore the lobbying and legislature surrounding the fireworks industry.  Wading through the myriad regulations that govern the use of pyrotechnics from state to state, we identified several major fireworks companies and followed their purse strings. Turns out everything's political, even the bangs and zooms with which we celebrate our nation's birthday.Picture of Chinese fireworks

Currently pending in Congress: A measure introduced by two lawmakers from Michigan -- a rust-belt state whose representatives are more often outspoken avocates of domestic manufacturers -- that would temporarily suspend duties for imported consumer and commercial fireworks. Translation: it would cost less to buy stuff from overseas to explode in honor of the USA.

According to paperwork filed with Congress by sponsors Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the beneficiary of the proposed duty suspensions is Wolverine Fireworks, headquartered in Kawkawlin, Mich. The company advertises itself on its website as, "one of the top importers of display fireworks from China," and boasts that it can provide steep discounts as a result. 

Today, most fireworks companies import their commercial fireworks from China, and the number of companies manufacturing them domestically has dwindled to just a few, according to Executive Director of American Pyrotechnics Association Julie Heckman.

"It's just too expensive from a labor standpoint," she said.

The influx of cheap fireworks from China has reshaped the fireworks industry, making it difficult for domestic manufacturers to compete.

"We're one of the last dinosaurs around," said a representative from Western Enterprise, who said his company, located in Carrier Okla., is one of the few fireworks companies that continues to produce fireworks domestically. 

Levin, who wants to open the door to foreign imports in this case, has on other occasions been a strong advocate for growing jobs at home.

"Nothing is more important to Michigan or the nation than spurring job creation and continued economic recovery," the senator writes on his website

Fireworks have also burned their way through the political sphere with contributions to various candidates.

Using Sunlight's Influence Explorer, we found fireworks makers who have given $1,149,280 to Republican candidates and $1,082,834 to Democratic candidates since 1990. Almost 90 percent of the donations went to candidates running for state legislature and other state-level offices, as opposed to Congress or president.

Here's a breakdown of donation activity from employees of some of the largest fireworks producers:

  • Phantom Fireworks has given nearly $110,000 since 2000 to state and federal candidates. The list includes 31 donations to state candidates in Florida. After giving more than $3,300 to the Democratic Party of Ohio in January, 2010, Phantom President Bruce Zoldan donated $5,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich the following October -- less than a month before Kasich won the election.
  • American Fireworks has made $85,500 in political contributions since 1994, mostly to candidates for state office. Notable exceptions include Hilary Clinton in 2008 and Dennis Rasmussen, who ran for Senate in 2006. Many of the company's recipients are Texas politicians.
  • Pyrotecnico has donated $24,850 since 2004. Company President Stephen Vitale has donated $24,100 to Democratic candidates, most of whom ran for federal office. Rep. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has received $3000 for his 2010 and 2012 campaigns, and Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., has received $12,150 since 2006.
  • Zambelli Fireworks has donated the modest amount of $10,975 since 1990, donating mostly to Republican candidates, including both Bushes, Rudy Giuliani, Bob Dole, and Rick Santorum for his House and Senate campaigns. The company also gave to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, and to fellow pyrotechnician, Felix Grucci, Jr., who served one term in the House beginning in 2001.  
  • Grucci, a New York Republican, received $250 from his family's company, Fireworks by Grucci, in his unsuccessful 2002 campaign. The company has donated only $2,050 since 1992, all to Republicans. The former congressman now serves as its executive vice president and chief financial officer.
  • Black Cat Fireworks has not donated at all this election cycle, but has given $19,500 since 2004, mostly to candidates for the Texas state legislature.
  • Since 2002, TNT Fireworks has donated $96,441, almost two-thirds of which went to Republican candidates. Though most of the recipients are state lawmakers, TNT Principal Clyde Anderson has donated to Mitt Romney and Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., this election cycle. Lugar lost his bid for a seventh term earlier this year when he was defeated in his state's Republican primary by Richard Mourdock.

(Photo courtesy Liz Bartolomeo; contributing: Ryan Sibley)