New Mexico's Martin Heinrich Embraced a Struggling Electric Bus Industry. Campaign Cash from Lobbyists Followed.

Dem senator slammed influence of 'special interest lobbyists' before backing bill pushed by former chief of staff

Sen. Martin Heinrich (AP)
February 20, 2024

When Senator Martin Heinrich's chief of staff Joe Britton left his role, the New Mexico Democrat heaped praise on his former right-hand man, saying Britton would "continue to make a difference in the lives of everyone he meets."

In the years following his departure, Britton did make a difference—to Heinrich's campaign coffers.

After leaving Heinrich's office, Britton launched both a green energy lobbying shop and an electric vehicle trade association, through which he has routinely lobbied the Senate on energy policies that would benefit his clients. Heinrich in at least one case co-sponsored a bill that Britton lobbied the upper chamber to pass, federal disclosures show. That bill, the Bidirectional Act, would have propped up an electric bus industry that has since suffered significant setbacks. One industry leader, Proterra, declared bankruptcy last year, while others have struggled to turn a profit.

In Heinrich's case, however, embracing the electric bus industry appears to have helped his campaign's bottom line. Days before Heinrich co-sponsored the Bidirectional Act, in September 2022, Britton and a partner at his firm contributed $2,000 to his campaign. In March 2023, meanwhile, Britton and his employees gave Heinrich another $8,500—the Democrat again co-sponsored the Bidirectional Act less than two months later. In total, Britton and his employees have contributed nearly $37,000 to Heinrich's campaign since Britton left the Senate in November 2019, according to campaign finance disclosures.

The ordeal contradicts Heinrich's rhetoric on "special interest lobbyists," which the Democrat has argued wield "outsized influence" thanks to a "broken campaign finance system." In 2021, Heinrich vowed to "break special interests' stranglehold on Congress and the White House" through a bill that would create a public financing program for congressional campaigns. Heinrich also attacked former president Donald Trump for embracing energy industry lobbyists.

"Your decisions permit industry lobbyists to advance their agendas in your administration, confer with former clients and employers to craft government policy behind closed doors, and cash out by returning to their high-paying lobbying jobs to take advantage of those new policies," he wrote in a 2017 letter.

Neither Heinrich nor Britton responded to requests for comment.

Britton's foray into the lobbying world began in April 2020, roughly five months after he left Heinrich's office. Britton at that time founded Pioneer Public Affairs, a climate-focused firm that provides green energy companies and advocacy groups with "legislative engagement" and other services. The firm's clients include NextEra Energy and the League of Conservation Voters, both of which have contributed thousands to Heinrich in recent years.

One month later, in May 2020, Britton helped launch the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), a group of electric vehicle providers and other green companies. Britton served as the group's inaugural executive director and remains its "founding board chair," according to his LinkedIn. The group—which advocates for the "full adoption of electric vehicles" by 2030—counts Proterra as a member, as well as a number of electric vehicle charging companies.

"For the first time in a generation, transportation is the leading emitter of U.S. carbon emissions. By embracing EVs, federal policymakers can help drive innovation, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and improve air quality and public health," Britton said at ZETA's launch.

Britton went on to lobby the Senate on behalf of both ZETA and individual green energy companies and groups, such as NextEra and the League of Conservation Voters. In the third quarter of 2022, disclosures show, he lobbied the Senate to pass a slew of electric vehicle-related bills, including the Bidirectional Act, which Britton's lobbying disclosure said would "require the Secretary of Energy to establish a program to encourage deployment of electric school buses and vehicle-to-grid technologies and applications."

One day before the end of the quarter, Heinrich introduced the bill alongside Sens. John Hickenlooper (D., Colo.), Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), and others. In a press release that touted support for the bill from Proterra and Xcel Energy—another ZETA member—Heinrich said the legislation would "make it easier for New Mexico public school districts to afford the upfront costs of replacing their aging diesel vehicles."

"The bus fleets that take our kids to school are an ideal place to demonstrate the long-term cost and health benefits of electric vehicles," Heinrich added.

In the weeks before and after that statement's release, Britton and two other Pioneer Public Affairs employees combined to give Heinrich $7,000. The money continued to flow in 2023, when Heinrich again co-sponsored the electric bus bill—that year, Britton and his employees combined to give Heinrich $13,500. Xcel, an electricity provider, also gave Heinrich $2,500 two days before he co-sponsored the bill for the second time, disclosures show.

While Heinrich touted the ZETA-backed electric bus bill for its ability to help New Mexico school's phase out their gas-powered vehicles, such a phaseout would hurt the state's vibrant oil and gas industry.

New Mexico was America's second-largest oil producing state in 2022, when it accounted for more than 13 percent of the nation's production. The fuel sector employed nearly 30,000 New Mexicans in 2022, a 26 percent increase from 2021.

For Daniel Turner, founder and executive director of energy advocacy group Power the Future, New Mexico's reliance on the oil and gas industry shows Heinrich is out of touch with his state. Last month, Turner's group released a statewide survey showing 66 percent of New Mexicans oppose efforts to phase out oil and gas.

"The only people who dislike the industry, sadly, are the elected officials," Turner told the Washington Free Beacon. "They go out of their way to punish the only bright spot in the state's economy. It makes no sense whatsoever."