MOORHEAD, Minn. — A political action committee that supports the beet sugar industry in Minnesota and North Dakota has made “no decisions” on changing its support for any of the 147 members of Congress who, on Jan. 6, voted against the acceptance of Electoral College votes that ended with the election of President Joseph Biden.

The American Crystal Sugar Co. political action committee (PAC) is supported by about $1.5 million in donations per year from shareholders and staff of the Moorhead, Minn., company. That amounts to about $3 million in a two-year congressional cycle, given to U.S. House and Senate members, from both Republicans and Democrats.

The farmer-owned cooperative has 2,600 shareholders who grow sugar beets on about 400,000 acres and whose five factory employees make them into sugar, generating billions in economic activity in the Red River Valley. Its importance as a specialty crop is heightened by the fact that all of the processing is done locally and that the farmers own it.

American Crystal was among 30 companies contacted by The Washington Post who gave the most to election-objecting lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-CD7.

Fischbach was endorsed by Donald Trump and knocked off former House agriculture chairman Collin Peterson, D-CD7. The Post reported that 20 of the companies said they would suspend “some or all payments” to their PACs. Ten companies were “still evaluating,” including American Crystal Sugar, following Home Depot and Koch Industries. Also on the list was BNSF Railway.

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American Crystal Sugar Co. Vice President Kevin Price is the administrator of the American Crystal Sugar PAC. He said decisions on campaign support are ad hoc. Historically there is a “slow down” in PAC activity just after an election and busier close to an election. Price acknowledged that the PAC had given $5,000 to the Fischbach 2020 campaign immediately after the election, to help retire campaign debt.

Price said the PAC tends to support representatives from both parties in the region.

“If she (Fischbach) decides to run for re-election, we’d look forward to having a political relationship that would be helpful to her and to us,” he said.

Harrison Weber, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, based in Fargo and representing owners of the co-op, said he has received no public input on the PAC stance.

‘Nonpartisan’ entity

Price said the PAC will continue to operate as a “nonpartisan entity, designed to provide support to the campaigns for Congress — House and Senate — who have similar views as we do.”

The PAC priorities are issues about agriculture and producing food, and sugar in particular. It is primarily focused on the farm bill and other related matters.

"It’s not ideological,” Price said. “We support candidates from the farthest left to the farthest right because that’s what Congress is made of.

“My job is to make friends on behalf of American Crystal Sugar Co.," Price said. “If and when we have needs, we have the opportunity to make our case. There is no guarantee of anything in politics.”

Further, Price said contributions are not based on a “single vote,” even ones of high profile.

Republican supporters of Fischbach earlier in the campaign had tried to argue that Peterson had influenced American Crystal PAC in support of Rep. Ihlan Omar, D-CD5, who is controversial for her liberal views. Peterson — a conservative Democrat — said he had nothing to do with PAC decisions and that he had little, if anything, in common with Omar’s political agenda.

Fischbach issued a news release at 2:22 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 6, just as the Capitol was being breached, announcing she would vote against Electoral College certification because the election was “shrouded in allegations of irregularities and fraud too voluminous to ignore.” Others, including former Trump ally and former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, had said there was no significant fraud. Fischbach said there should be “proper investigation to consider these claims” and said it was needed to prevent Americans from “losing faith in the integrity of their elections."

Peterson, who had been a long-time recipient of American Crystal Sugar PAC support, predicted future PAC decisions for any of the companies listed in the Post story would made on a single vote will not be permanent.

“These companies are not going to stick with that on any long-term basis,” he said. “I’m guessing in six months or a year they are all going to forget about it.” He noted most PACs don’t give money to first-time congressional members until the second year of their term.

Peterson said companies' PACs considering withholding funds may be getting pressure from their board of directors or consumers.

“They feel it’s going to hurt business,” he said. “But given the way people are split, you make half of the people happy and the other half mad. I’m not sure you’re gaining.”

American Crystal has a strong retail American Crystal brand which is nationwide but especially strong in the Midwest, accounting for about 10% of its sales, Price said. The bulk is to sold other large confectionary companies and food manufacturers. American Crystal Sugar markets its sugar cooperatively with other companies in United Sugars Cooperative.

‘Very strategic’

U.S. Rep Collin Peterson
U.S. Rep Collin Peterson

Peterson said that as a former PAC recipient, he never knew of specific reasons for the donations. However, he said the American Crystal PAC has always seemed “very strategic” in protecting the programs that allow the U.S. sugar industry to survive and thrive.

“I can’t imagine they wouldn’t make decisions that’s not the best for their growers. That’s what the PAC is all about,” he said.

In a separate but related matter, Kelly Erickson, a farmer from Hallock, Minn., who farms near Kennedy, Minn., was the chairman for a “Super PAC” — the Committee for Stronger Rural Communities — which was spearheaded by friends of the sugar industry and supported Peterson in his re-election bid against Fischbach.

Erickson, current board vice chairman for the American Crystal Sugar Co., said the Super PAC had a goal of raising $1 million, especially supporting Peterson's clout as House Agriculture Committee chairman. The Super PAC was disbanded after the election and spent all of its money. Erickson said he had nothing to do with the separate co-op PAC that Price oversees for American Crystal. Erickson said, however, said that a sugar PAC withholding support for punitive purposes not directly related to agriculture would be a “slippery slope.”

Fischbach on Jan. 13 also voted “no” on impeaching Trump, saying that with less than seven days in office that Congress should be “focusing on moving forward and getting back to work on behalf of the American people.”

Peterson said a bigger issue than the Electoral College vote is the underlying “problems with the campaign finance system.”