The 2020 Democratic presidential race has so far featured a common theme: candidates clamoring to demonstrate who will most fearlessly take on corporate America. Across the field, Democrats have staked out progressive — and at times startlingly new — positions on everything from instituting single-payer healthcare to reviving the Glass-Steagall Act, rejected corporate PAC money and refused to take lobbyist cash, all in a bid to prove their progressive bona fides.
“These numbers reveal a campaign powered by the people,” said a member of California Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign about her first 24-hour donation haul. “The system is being rigged by people with money and people with power,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker as he pledged not to “take a dime from corporate PACs.” “I think it’s important for people to know my values are never for sale,” said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
But even as these candidates vocally reject corporate America, their latest fundraising reports show corporate America hasn’t rejected them. In These Times examined the April 15 FEC filings of the leading Democratic candidates — Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and analyzed the donations they received from employees of the six largest U.S. banks (J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) and the world’s six largest private equity firms (The Carlyle Group, Blackstone, KKR, Apollo Global Management, CVC Capital Partners and Warburg Pincus).
While these firms don’t represent the totality of corporate America, their profits ride on the continued growth of corporations, and they remain deeply financially invested in maintaining the status quo in policy areas such as taxes, healthcare, pharmaceuticals and the environment.
Wall Street, a fundraising backbone for the Democratic Party, guides many decisions in Washington around these policies. The support a candidate receives from these financial behemoths is instructive in judging how far they would go as president in siding with progressives and bucking moneyed interests. Not to mention that failing to properly regulate and break up the nation’s largest banks — which are now bigger than they were before the 2008 crash and are again engaging in risky lending—could lead to another devastating crash, as Johns Hopkins University economics professor Lawrence Ball has warned.
The findings show that, despite candidates’ stated antipathy toward Wall Street, a number of them are benefitting greatly from executives and employees of these financial firms.
By far the candidate most favored by these 12 firms is New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who received a total of $88,492 from them over the first quarter.
Booker, who jumpstarted and then fuelled his political career with contributions from the finance world, has in recent years attempted to shed his Wall Street-friendly reputation. Booker drew particular scorn during the 2012 presidential campaign, when then-President Obama was leading a populist-tinged assault on opponent Mitt Romney’s time as head of private equity firm Bain Capital.
Booker called these criticisms “ridiculous” and “nauseating.” “Stop attacking private equity. Stop attacking Jeremiah Wright,” he said on Meet the Press, appearing to equate criticism of the industry to the racially tinged criticism of Obama’s relationship to Wright, his former pastor, throughout 2008. After getting a call from an Obama aide, Booker walked back his defense of private equity in a YouTube video in which he encouraged scrutiny of Romney’s business record. Then a few months later, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he described it as a “hostage video” and called filming it a “dumb decision.”
Since becoming a senator in 2013, however, Booker has voted consistently against weakening Wall Street regulations (though, unlike a number of other 2020 candidates, he has yet to join the calls for a reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act — the Depression-era legislation that separated commercial and investment banking, and whose partial repeal in 1999 is cited by some as a cause of the 2008 crisis). These latest donations, as well as those registered during the 2018 cycle, suggest Wall Street hasn’t let these votes sour it on Booker.
In total, Booker received a total of nearly $15,000 from eight J.P. Morgan Chase employees as well as $17,750 from nine employees of Morgan Stanley, including one financial advisor who manages the wealth of “a select group of ultra-high net worth” clients comprised of “entrepreneurs, senior executives, multigenerational families and foundations.” Ultra-high net worth individuals are the top tier of the wealthiest 1% — those with $30 million or more available to invest.
But it’s the private equity world that was most generous to Booker, who in the past quarter received a total of $49,500 from four of the world’s six largest firms. Booker received $10,200 from Blackstone, a firm awash in controversy for everything from its slumlord practices after snapping up much of the United States’ foreclosed housing stock to a plan hatched by one of its executives during the 2016 election to put Americans’ retirement savings into hedge funds. Booker received $2,800 from Blackstone’s executive vice chair, Hamilton “Tony” James, who in 2012 echoed Booker’s complaints about Obama’s criticisms of the private equity industry.
Apollo Global Management (AGM) has shown a particular affinity for Booker, with 28 of its employees showering him with a total of $32,100. Donors from AGM included not only investors and portfolio managers, but the firm’s chief legal and financial officers, four of its partners and the global head of its “human capital” division. Like many private equity firms, Apollo has been criticized for its use of leveraged buyouts to acquire businesses, often leading to job losses and even bankruptcy, as when cloud computing company Rackspace laid off 275 employees in 2017 mere months after being acquired by Apollo.
A distant second to Booker is New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who received a total of $46,600 from these 12 firms. Gillibrand took in $30,600 from the six largest U.S. banks, including $11,100 from four Morgan Stanley employees, and $5,600 from two Citigroup executives — chief operating officer (COO) Hamid Biglari and Managing Director Christina A. Mohr.
Like Booker, Gillibrand is also a prolific Wall Street fundraiser with a past checkered by siding with the industry in Congress who has, since Trump’s victory, worked to turn over a new leaf. The protégé of fellow New York Sen. Chuck Schumer — himself no slouch when it comes to soliciting hefty campaign contributions — Gillibrand has said in the past that “raising money is the very same effort as developing a grassroots advocacy.” Gillibrand had previously worked against instituting new rules around derivatives proposed by federal regulators, with the New York Times accusing her of “going against the cause of reform.”
Gillibrand has since moved sharply left in response to public opinion, establishing herself early as a consistent anti-Trump vote, joining calls to abolish ICE and even advocating to bring back Glass-Steagall. Yet she’s also been criticized for reaching out to Wall Street to fund her current bid for the White House, outreach that appears to have been reciprocated.
Gillibrand also received a total of $16,000 this quarter from private equity employees, including Apollo Senior Partner Laurence Berg, Warburg Pincus managing director Cary Davis and Carlyle Group managing director James Attwood. While Booker had the biggest total haul from Blackstone, the company’s president and COO, Jonathan Gray, donated to Gillibrand.
Then there’s California Sen. Kamala Harris, who received a total of $44,947 from these 12 firms. Harris, who was once branded a “bankster’s worst nightmare,” and has touted her prosecutorial record against banks as evidence of her progressive credibility, received donations from five executives of these firms. They include Blackstone managing director Tia Breakley, Morgan Stanley’s new head of international wealth management Colbert Narcisse, Bank of America senior vice president for diversity and inclusion Alex Rhodes, and Goldman Sachs vice president of financial crime compliance Margaret Cullum.
Harris’s most enthusiastic source of support among these firms, however, is Wells Fargo, from whose employees she received a total of $16,713 — the most funding from the bank out of any other candidate examined. The donors span multiple tiers of the bank’s hierarchy, from bankers and consultants, to a regional director and a manager, to executives like National Head of Cards and Retail Services Beverly Anderson, both of whom gave the maximum individual donation of $2,800 to Harris.
Wells Fargo’s generosity to Harris raises eyebrows for several reasons. For one, the bank was one of the key players in the 2008 financial crisis, paying billions of dollars worth of fines for its contributions to the crash, and it has continued to earn legal sanction for doing things like opening up accounts without customers’ consent and accidentally foreclosing on hundreds of customers between 2010 and 2015. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has called the bank “the poster child for greed, recklessness and illegal behavior,” and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made it a particular target of her campaign, calling for the firing of its CEO and for colleges to stop letting it market financial services to students.
The other cause for concern is Harris’s role in the 2012 foreclosure settlement with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Ally Bank, a key element of her current campaign pitch. While Harris played hardball to get more money from the firms, reporter David Dayen has called the settlement she helped negotiate “a blight on this country” for its grossly inadequate relief to foreclosed homeowners.
As a senator, Harris has opposed Trump’s rollback of Wall Street regulations and co-sponsored a bill giving state law enforcement the power to subpoena when investigating bank fraud, but has not as of yet called for the revival of Glass-Steagall. Harris has received criticism in the past for failing to prosecute OneWest Bank, run by now-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (who went on to donate to her Senate campaign), for fraudulent foreclosure practices, as well as her Mortgage Fraud Strike Force, which prosecuted a disproportionately small number of cases.
Other notable donations to Harris include $13,600 from investment managers at private equity firm TPG Capital, including Senior Partner Karl Peterson, a Goldman Sachs alum who financially backed Mitt Romney’s GOP campaign against Obama in 2012. Another is Michael Brownrigg, two-term mayor of Burlingame, Calif., current state senate candidate and private equity veteran. Brownrigg has praised “the China miracle in the 1990s,” which he calls a “successful anti-poverty program [that] was based on market incentives and entrepreneurship,” and which shows “private enterprise can be a powerful engine for social benefits” — statements that ignore the vast social and environmental costs of this “miracle.”
O’Rourke and Buttigieg
For their part, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have received comparatively little from the six biggest banks — $12,987 and $9,035, respectively — and none from the top six private equity firms.
Both have generally been vague on their policy proposals. But O’Rourke has been criticized for his past votes, joining with Republicans to chip away at Wall Street regulations, including weakening the Volcker Rule, which bars banks from making speculative investments with ordinary people’s money. Buttigieg, meanwhile, described his aims as mayor as “generat[ing] economic growth and maintain[ing] confidence in the business community.”
While a couple of executives made donations to these candidates, such as $500 to Buttigieg from J.P. Morgan Chase COO Michael Ashworth and $500 to O’Rourke from Citibank Director Eric McMichael, most of their donations from these firms appear to be from lower-level employees, and typically number in the hundreds of dollars each, rather than thousands.
That doesn’t mean finance has avoided the two young upstarts’ campaigns entirely, however. Rather, their primary base of support from the finance world appears to be rooted in more regional entities. O’Rourke, for instance, has received maxed-out donations from executives and partners of finance firms such as Sanders Partners and High Desert Capital — both based in his hometown of El Paso — as well as Minneapolis/St. Paul-based Madeira Partners, Chicago’s Wicklow Capital and Denver-based KSL Capital Partners. KSL partner John Ege, who donated $5,600 to O’Rourke, previously worked at Merrill Lynch and for the anti-regulation Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte.
O’Rourke also received $1,000 from Robert Wolf, the former CEO of investment bank UBS Americas, who developed a close advisory relationship with Obama as one of his most loyal and effective fundraisers during his presidential campaigns. Wolf, a high-profile Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal supporter, went on to become the Clinton campaign’s “effective business surrogate” (in the words of John Podesta) and defended her rejection of reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act. Now, Wolf has become an enthusiastic and vocal backer of O’Rourke.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, has received many thousands of dollars from two partners of the South Bend-based private equity firm Great Lakes Capital, as well as an executive and several employees of venture capital and financial services firms Wicklow Capital, Chicago-based Chilmark Partners founder David Schulte, San Francisco-based Tao Capital Partners executive Isaac Pritzker and Seattle-based Second Avenue Partners co-founder Nick Hanauer. Hanauer has actually called for more progressive economic policies, warning his “fellow zillionaires” to reduce inequality.
Buttigieg also received $500 from Staci Barber, whose husband John Barber has served as managing partner of both Citi Private Equity and Cohesive Capital Partners. Other notable donations in Buttigieg’s filing are from 12 employees and three partners of McKinsey and Company, the controversial management consulting firm that has drawn outrage for working for various autocratic governments and ICE. One former McKinsey and Company employee described the organization as “missionaries for capital” (Buttigieg himself previously worked for the company, which he has called his most “intellectually informing experience”). He also received $2,800 from Joe Sifer, the executive vice president of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, particularly notable at a time when the party base is calling for an end to record-high defense budgets.
Sanders and Warren
Unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have spent virtually their entire political careers railing against the excesses of Wall Street and pledging to challenge and rein in corporate power, received the least amount of money from the six largest banks.
Sanders and Warren received $7,034 and $2,800, respectively, and their support came exclusively from lower level employees, such as managers, attorneys and bank clerks.
Employees of the top six private equity firms snubbed Sanders and Warren completely, giving zero contributions.
Warren and Sanders are not only receiving the least financial backing from employees and executives of the biggest banks and private equity firms in the world — they have the least support from executives of any financial institutions, period.
In fact, only three donors in Sanders’ and Warrens’ filings appear to be executives or partners at banks or financial firms of any size. Joseph Alsop, partner at venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners, and Roger McNamee, managing director of private equity firm Elevation Partners, each gave $2,700 to Warren. For Sanders, it’s $500 from Paul Metzger, the chief technology officer of Dynasty Financial Partners, a firm that advises other investment firms how to grow their businesses.
Democratic presidential contenders have made much of the fact that they’re largely rejecting corporate PAC money. But as these early filings show, Wall Street higher-ups are still contributing to a number of 2020 candidates’ campaigns. And only a few months into the long race, as voters begin to survey the growing field, Wall Street already appears to have a clear hierarchy of preferences.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.