Big Money in Politics: Are Leading Democrats Really on the Wagon (or Still Sneaking a Drink)?

Photo Source thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

For voters concerned about the bad consequences of big business spending on elections, a New York Times report last month promised mid-summer relief. “Tired of Money in Politics, Some Democrats Think Small,” the headline read.

The accompanying article, which focused on a Minnesota Congressional contest, noted that, “in mid-term races around the country…dozens of Democrats [are] rejecting donations from political action committees, or PACs, that are sponsored by corporations or industry groups.”

More candidates are also criticizing Super PACs, which “can legally receive and spend unlimited amounts to influence a race, as long as they do not coordinate their activity directly with a candidate’s campaign,” per the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.

The Times attributed this trend to the “frustration with corporate influence in politics” that “was already evident during the 2016 presidential cycle.” That’s when Senator Bernie Sanders–in contrast to his Super-PAC-backed primary opponent, Hillary Clinton–“rejected corporate PAC money, excelled at attracting small dollar donations, and criticized the political establishment in Washington for being too beholden to the wealthy.”

In 2018, more Democrats have turned campaign finance reform and PAC money rejection into “central selling points for voters.” And, for some, “the small donor donations are adding up.” Sanders’ example two years ago has even led a few 2020 presidential hopefuls to say they won’t accept corporate PAC money either.

Among those taking that pledge are Senators Kirsten Gillebrand, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, all quite beholden to big money in the past.  For example, Gillebrand’s major donors have included Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs. But, after a decade on Capitol Hill, she has now realized that “every ill in Congress, no matter what it is” stems “from the fact that money corrupts politicians and politics.”

Before this abstinence trend draws too much applause, it’s worth noting that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has fallen off the wagon. Two months after the DNC decided, by a unanimous vote in June, to spurn donations from corporate PACs tied to oil, gas, and coal companies, it reversed that action via a resolution introduced by the DNC Chair Tom Perez, former secretary of labor under President Obama. By a 30 to 2 vote in August, the DNC declared its willingness to resume passing the hat among “employer political action committees” in the fossil fuel industry, as long as they represent “forward-looking employers.”

In similar fashion, most of Gillebrand’s colleagues in the Senate minority—not too mention like-minded down-ballot Democrats—have yet to forswear the same kind of “donor class” fundraising that generated more than $1 billion for Hillary Clinton in her Electoral College-assisted loss to Donald Trump (who raised about half as much from his business friends and allies).

No Unilateral Disarmament

When she was running for president, Clinton argued “that the only way to overturn the Citizens United ruling and do away with super PACs is to elect a Democrat.” In the meantime, she explained, Democrats can’t be expected to “unilaterally disarm.” Instead, they must continue to rely on Super PACs like Priorities USA Action, which raised several hundred million dollars for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign from wealthy donors giving far more than the federal limit on direct contributions to a candidate by an individual.

Under pressure from the left lately and in response to strong public support for “clean elections,” putative foes of corporate influence, who backed Clinton (and Obama before her), have been forced to rebrand themselves as “progressives” who are free of “independent expenditure” taint.

One such political contortionist is Buffy Wicks, a 41-year old former Obama Administration official, who seeks to represent California Assembly District 15, covering Richmond, Berkeley, and part of Oakland. Wicks is backed by former President Obama, Senator Harris, and soon-to-be California Governor Gavin Newsom. But she is definitely not a Democrat who “thinks small” where campaign donations are concerned. Like Clinton, she wants us to believe that a candidate can depend heavily on wealthy donors but, once in office, work assiduously to reduce their influence.

Wicks campaigned for Obama in 2008, became a top White House staffer, and then, in 2014-15, became executive director of Priorities USA Action, gaining access to national Democratic Party donor networks. In 2016, after leaving her Super PAC position, she ran Clinton’s successful Democratic primary campaign against Sanders in California. When CounterPunch readers last encountered Buffy, she was on her way to a strong first-place finish in the AD 15 primary this June, thanks to a divided field of ten and a record breaking $1.2 million worth of spending on her behalf.

Corporate Money Free

To the surprise of many, Wicks now faces a general election opponent, Jovanka Beckles, who has challenged the oil industry, backed Bernie Sanders, and denounced big money in politics. A Teamster-represented county worker, two-term city councilor and leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), Beckles raised just $160,000 for her AD 15 primary race as the “corporate money free/people powered” candidate. Beckles didn’t send out a single district-wide, direct mail piece, relying instead on social media, grassroots volunteers, and some union support (now greatly expanded, as reported here.)

Meanwhile, Wicks’ own campaign and two special interest PACs supporting her carpet-bombed AD 15 with 12 glossy mailers, plus other forms of paid advertising. At a cost of $240,000 by June, Wicks employed a consulting firm called 50+1, whose other major objective this fall—in addition to electing her—is helping the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce defeat a tax initiative designed to raise additional city revenue to house the homeless.

Beckles supporters are currently bracing for the general election phase of Wick’s costly “air war.” Prior to June 5, the biggest funders of this effort were corporate lawyers, venture capitalists, tech firm owners and managers, real estate developers, bankers, landlords, and Obama-connected political consultants. About half the primary spending on Wicks’ behalf came from the California Dental Association and Govern for California, a Super PAC with “major funding” from David Crane, a wealthy Bay Area investor, charter school advocate, and opponent of tax reform, who was an advisor Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The dentists have lately been joined by new $8,800 maximum donors like the California Medical Association and the California Realtors Association, a leading foe of Measure 10, a pro-rent control ballot initiative that Wicks also opposes. To fend off a serious challenge from the left in one of the most heavily Democratic and pro-rent control districts in California, Wicks must somehow convince voters that she hasn’t “taken a single penny of corporate money in this race.”

Buffy Kills Puppies?

After making that assertion, during a recent campaign appearance in Richmond, she was peppered with questions about who was giving to her campaign, why, and how.  “The majority of my resources has come from the Obama administration alumni network who have worked in progressive politics for a long time,” Wicks explained. “I’ve raised that money because I need to hire staff, run a campaign, get our message out.” She said that “public financing would be great” and much preferable to the demands of private fund-raising. She also pledged to use part of her campaign funds “to help other Democrats across the state.”

As for Govern for California, Wicks pointed out that “they’ve supported progressive Democrats up and down the state”—an accurate statement, except for the adjectival use of an increasingly plastic “P” word. “Independent expenditures are nothing a candidate can control,” she lamented. “Our campaign finance laws are really messed up. We should not have independent expenditure campaigns… I find that very frustrating, not being able to control the message, which could be ‘Buffy Kills Puppies.’”

I pointed out that “the message” conveyed via $600,000 worth of independent spending in the AD 15 primary was “Vote for Buffy!”—hardly unwelcome by the candidate or unhelpful to her campaign. A day after this Richmond exchange, an email from Wicks’ campaign manager directed my attention to her campaign website, which counters “myths” about Buffy with “facts.” One “fact” cited there—namely, that Wicks has “never worked in any fundraising capacity” and has “no background in political fundraising”—seemed demonstrably false in light of the candidate’s own well-publicized resume. If running the Democratic Party’s largest super PAC, which focuses on high dollar donors, does not involve “fund-raising,” what was Wicks doing for Clinton—independently, of course—as director of Priorities USA Action?

A Shared Vision?

What better way for Wicks to shift the AD 15 debate away from political fund-raising than holding a joint campaign event with California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom this Thursday in Berkeley? Well, not exactly. Being underemployed as Jerry Brown’s under-study left the Hollywood handsome Newsom with plenty of time to cultivate rich donors and amass what the Los Angeles Times described last week as a “massive money pile” for his current bid to succeed Brown.

Who contributed to Newsom’s $45 million stash? It was a “high dollar” donors like those in Buffy Wicks’ local and national fan club. Newsom benefactors include access-seeking lawyers and lobbyists, high rollers from real estate, securities, insurance, and investment firms, Hollywood and Silicon Valley—not to mention fellow friends of Wicks in Sacramento like the California Medical Association. Thanks to his own fund-raising prowess, Newsom now has a four-to-one spending lead over his hapless Republican opponent, a San Diego businessman worth $100 million.

Since one of Newsom’s signature issues is single-payer healthcare, one might wonder why, in AD 15, he favors the candidate who doesn’t support SB 562, the single-payer measure promoted by his own union backers, like the California Nurses Association. But, that bit of cognitive dissonance aside, AD 15 voters are promised on Thursday the chance to hear Buffy and Gavin “share a progressive vision for the future of California.”

As their respective campaigns have already demonstrated, it’s a shared “vision” that doesn’t include getting big money out of California politics any time soon.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at